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Emerson on Teaching

"To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded."

Ralph Waldo Emerson was talking about success, not education, when he wrote this, but for me, it has always and very eloquently summarized the best parts about being a teacher.

I love that he begins the list with laughter.  In my class, we laugh almost all the time.  In fact, I can assure that a student would say that RWE's mom did love him very much if she gave him "Waldo" as part of his name.  Teachers must be good at using humor to help students remember and connect with content.  We also enjoy the ability to laugh (in private) about the funny errors students make.  Recently, a student told his discussion group that "Russians fought in the American Revolution."  He meant "Hessians."  It was funny.

If teachers are fortunate and wise, they will connect with other educators.  This enables us to "win the respect of intelligent people," "earn the appreciation of honest critics" and "endure the betrayal of false friends."  It helps us take a stand for what we believe in and become articulate advocates for best practices.

If educators are careful, they can help a "life to breathe easier."  This happens in small, but palpable ways in classrooms all over the world.  While as a society we need to improve the systems which will "redeem the social condition" of poverty and disparate educational funding, teachers work on a small scale to accomplish this every day.

Emerson leaves out entirely the issue of problem solving, however.  Instead, he focuses on the goal, not the process.  But I would be remiss if I didn't say that the process of problem solving is yet another one of my favorite things about being a teacher.  Are all of the students understanding this?  How can I present this information in an engaging way?  Did we cover that concept deeply enough?  What questions are the students not asking?  How can I communicate this information best to their parents?  Would my grade partner have an idea that would help?  What does the research say about this issue?  Am I encouraging students to think for themselves?  Asking these types of questions poses intellectual and moral challenges, which add meaning to our life's work.  If classrooms had easy answers, they wouldn't be much fun.

Emerson reminds us to "find the best in others."  Grouchy students, irate parents, and frustrating colleagues all have their positive qualities and it is essential that I remember to look for them.

The real reason I love this quote is the "to appreciate beauty" part.  In the midst of planning, assessing, evaluating and communicating it is import to keep this in mind.  As a teacher, I behold beauty all the time -  when a student masters a skill that was difficult to attain, when they show kindness to each other, when they ask a wonderful question, or when their interest is ignited and they seek to learn on their own.  This kind of beauty is so pure, so human and, yet, so mysterious.  It is this beauty that is my favorite aspect of being a teacher.    


  1. Love the theme of 'finding the best' in others. Sometimes so hard to do but makes such a huge difference.


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