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Teaching Courage and Teaching for Courage

how I came to teaching

By Catherine DorianPublished 3 months ago Updated 3 months ago 8 min read
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Teaching Courage and Teaching for Courage
Photo by David Pennington on Unsplash

Not too long ago, I unearthed a personal essay I’d written in high school, in which I claimed that I felt little connection to the Boston area and that I’d decided to move to Montana, live on the plains, and possibly never come back. Now that I’ve had my cake and returned to central Massachusetts, I understand that my upbringing taught me that courage is the greatest conviction I can bring to the classroom, as a student or a teacher.

My parents grew up with an ability to entertain a healthy suspicion of any institution—even, on occasion, the public school to which they sent us—and saw education as the tool that would facilitate my and my brother’s ability to question ideas, conventions, and, when appropriate, authority. This, along with my using education as a means to search for a sense of home, would inform the methods by which I learned in high school and the methods to which I gravitate when teaching.

I’m a loner. My home in Massachusetts sits on four acres of property and in front of a two-acre pond, around which my dad, who helped build the house so that he’d know its intestines and quirks, cleared a little trail for my brother and I to explore the woods. We built forts out of whatever sticks we stole from the brush pile, got in fights, scraped our knees. My dad bought us miniature dirt bikes and expanded the trail; over time, we came to know where we had to brace ourselves for a tree root or accelerate so as not to stall on the hill. This property, coupled with our summers in the Adirondacks, gave me the courage to find activities that would entertain me as a solitary person.

I picked up a guitar and taught myself to play enough basic chords to accompany my voice, for singing was a way that I could share myself without saying what I really thought. I’m not as quiet as I used to be, but I still gravitate to hobbies that intersect self and community. I prefer doing vinyasa yoga in a studio, and my seven-mile runs are far better when enriched by conversation. On a monthly basis, I meet with two of my fellow writers from my graduate program to discuss our projects; our time together is an antidote to the practice that demands that we shut ourselves away for hours at a time.

My parents were not explicit, or perhaps even conscious, in how they fostered my individualism, but woven throughout our ancestry is an understanding for the value in self-reliance. My mother’s father, who we called Opa, hailed from a village called Szentpéterfa in northwest Hungary, a town settled by a group of ethnic Slavs who had been kicked out of their homeland in the Balkans in the 1500’s. By the 1950’s, Széntpeterfa had become another martyr for the Russians’ mission to turn the world red. The Party had granted Opa the privilege of going to school; he had a knack for learning languages and the mind of an intellectual. But the Russians’ constant surveillance and authoritarianism were enough to drive a curious teen to madness—he became a freedom fighter at a rally in nearby Szombathely and, shortly after, in the middle of the night, he and his oldest brother shimmied between the barbed wire fencing that surrounded their home, resolving that they couldn’t love their country more than they loved freedom. In New York, he met my grandmother, who had lost her home in what is now Croatia during the ethnic cleansings of the 1940’s. Together, they raised my mother to be wary of ideologies that can seduce people to evil acts. I think that’s why she married my father. Disturbed by his own parents’ blind allegiance to their church, my father favored his grandmother, Rose, whose much older husband had brought her to the United States from Armenia at the age of fourteen, and, according to my dad, did not speak much of the old country. She, along with many others who survived the genocide, seemed eager to leave it all behind.

Ethnicity is not all that makes a culture, of course. But my family’s convictions were so guided by our generational wanderings and traumas that we developed a compulsion to live by our own principles and to share our beliefs without fear. Facing scrutiny for an unpopular opinion is scary, but silence is a tortuous alternative. My favorite classes in high school taught using the Harkness model, in which our instructors sat us in a circle, gave us a problem, a text, or an idea to discuss, and left most of the moderating to us, only interjecting to keep us on task or when the tensions rose to a level of disrespect. These conversations mirrored my family’s dinners, where my dad taught us the principles of Austrian economics and prompted us to question what was written in our history textbooks. These environments which fostered dialogic learning taught me how to reconcile my quietness with my courage. Writing had long been my preferred medium, and I found that while hiding in my notebook still felt natural, articulating myself was just as satisfying and necessary. Sharing with others who were not afraid to counter my arguments and countering their arguments with my own were the essential means by which I could discover and refine what I thought.

I fell in love with Montana when I was sixteen and spent a summer on the Blackfeet reservation through a program called Visions, which I’d found after some light googling and paid for mostly out of my own pocket. I chose to go to Montana State University because I was terrified of being trapped in Massachusetts, which, to a teenager who didn’t know better, felt suffocating. I spent the first two years of college lonely and jealous of the farm girls that were my classmates; they seemed to know exactly who they were and why they were there, while I wondered if I had made a mistake. Once, during my freshman year, while camping at some hot springs outside Butte, a guy from the Kalispell area asked what I was doing there, given that I was from Massachusetts. “I’m, like, sixth generation Montanan,” he explained. According to him, people like me were taking over the state that had once been home to the self-made settlers who survived the mountains’ brutality. People like me were part of the reason why the state was becoming too expensive, too crowded, too liberally-minded. People like me were part of the problem. I felt at that moment that all of the work I’d done to become brave in conversation was diminished by my complete and utter lack of belonging in a place that certainly didn’t want me. I allowed myself to become meek.

I must have realized that my reticence wasn’t benefiting me when I declared my major in English Teaching. I started tutoring at the MSU Writing Center and became involved with the Yellowstone Writing Project, a community of teachers who gathered to write and talk about authors that inspired them and exercises that kept their classrooms alive. I hoped that teaching would make me as brave as the teachers I knew. I longed for the certainty with which they spoke, the energy that they brought to every room, their bursts of idealism, which they balanced with fairness and eloquence. I felt that I was still learning how to be all of these things, and I figured that becoming a teacher would help. Over the years, it has.

In my third year teaching in the rural community of Fort Benton, MT, a parent emailed me with a concern. According to her, there were some “very disturbing things happening in my AP Language class.” Her daughter felt that another student was personally attacking her with his constant questioning and disputing of her ideas, particularly during our Harkness discussions, which, the mother claimed, had nothing to do with teaching my students to be better writers. When the three of us met in person, I tried to clarify what the matter was. Her daughter’s classmate could be a bit condescending, but he was not rude; he was well-read and generally demanded that everyone support their ideas with rigorous logical reasoning and evidence. I reminded her daughter that for every time her opponent questioned her, she had the room to question him right back—to push him to take his critiques and refine them even further. Discussions were not for winning; they were for disputing the ideas that are separate from us so that we can find the truth, so that we can become better thinkers and therefore, writers. Throughout the next few discussions, she successfully humbled perhaps the most intelligent student in the Fort Benton Class of 2019. When I checked in with her about the matter a week later, she said that all was fine; she was not afraid of him anymore.

I end with this anecdote not to boast of my abilities as a teacher. God knows, for every time I felt like I’ve succeeded, I’ve failed a hundred more. I end on this anecdote because it encapsulates so much of what I believe I’m trying to do as an English teacher. For me, teaching is about taking risks. It’s about asking my students to explore questions that scare them, like whether Mary Shelley understood the dangers of unchecked ambition disguised as innovation and how Ray Bradbury knew the unintended consequences of banning words which are offensive. I want my students to see how literature forces us to confront discomfort, to sit with it, to negotiate with it as we figure out what we think. I want them to see that the writing process, which has no clear map but only the occasional street sign, can facilitate the messiness that is learning. Teaching demands that I take risks, too. I must constantly learn new strategies, dispute my ideas, and read and introduce new texts, for no two classes, years, or students are alike, for I can’t ask my students to be courageous if I don’t model courage myself. In the classroom, my students and I learn to be brave in conversation so that we can be brave in writing, and vice versa. Teaching keeps me learning, and therefore, it keeps me alive.

I wrote this essay for a course I am taking. The professor asked us to explore how our culture informed our journey to teaching and our educational philosophy. It was only a 10-point assignment and was supposed to be three pages. Of course, I took it a little too seriously.

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About the Creator

Catherine Dorian

Writer and teacher. Sometimes, I write about teaching.

For me, writing is compulsive, but it never feels self-destructive; it’s the safest medium by which I can confront what scares me.

I've been told my Instagram needs a makeover.

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Comments (2)

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  • L.C. Schäfer3 months ago

    Looks like you have a bit missing in your last paragraph 😁 We all have memories of teachers who supported and inspired us, who cared, whose classes were engaging. You are that teacher to many people!

  • John Cox3 months ago

    I wish I could have experienced a teacher like you when I was in school. I did not even receive that kind of quality education even at the bachelor and masters level. I’m no chump in the arena of reasoning from a text and argumentation, but reading your essays has convinced me that I have much more to learn. Thank you so much for sharing your goals and struggles and courage!

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