Sunday, May 13, 2018

A Life of Service

How the heck have you been, NIP?!

I cannot believe that it has been nearly two years since we last corresponded. A lot has happened in my life over that time, and I would assume the same for you and yours as well. It would seem, however, that the universe conspired mightily to bring about a particular set of events that have led me to this moment and the need to write to you again after so much time, which is why I am writing to you today.

For those of you who have read these many letters of encouragement to nobody in particular over the years, you probably know that I am a high school teacher. As I've grown older, I've also steadily become more of a vocal advocate for public education here in the state of Florida, which led me to start a new blog and podcast project about a year ago called Teacher Voice.

Last week, as part of a growing interest in this project, I had the distinct honor to be interviewed by Ernest Hooper, a columnist from the Tampa Bay Times who writes a feature each week called "Sunday Conversation." (click here if you'd like to read it). We had an engaging dialogue about so much more than education, and I walked away from the two and a half hour conversation feeling incredibly grateful for the opportunity to discuss important issues with someone who has a vested interest in public education both as a parent and caring community member.

But I also felt that my answers weren't good enough, especially to one question in particular: "What do you love about teaching?"

What I told him is true. Being around high school kids keeps me young, full of fresh ideas, and in touch with popular culture. I also clearly became a teacher because I am a lifelong learner. After all, I never intended to become a teacher while working toward my degree in Religious Studies at the University of South Florida, but what I discovered back then and there was that I have an insatiable hunger for learning. My guess is that it was a seed planted in me by my own mother, who spent 33 years of her own life in the classroom giving back to the next generation.

So all through this past week, then, as we celebrated National Teacher Appreciation Week and led up to today, Mother's Day, I kept reflecting on my mother, her example, and why I followed in her footsteps.

The better answer to Ernest's question is that I love teaching because it allows me to live a life of service. Ultimately being a teacher--and this is true of any public service career--is a profession dedicated to others, to giving back to the surrounding community and, in the case of education, the next generation of our growing human family. This ethic was undoubtedly shaped and shared by my own mother, a woman who sacrificed so much for her sons and students alike. Following in her footsteps, it's no surprise that putting others before myself as much as possible became the norm for me in all that I do, especially in the classroom.

Equally important to this central belief of being of service to others--and undoubtedly directly related to it--is something else we talked about after he stopped recording our conversation. I was sharing part of what I said at the "tree ceremony" for our graduating seniors at the IB program, and the last piece of advice I gave them when they asked me to address the entire class was about the importance of love.

As a Religious Studies major, I spent a great deal of time learning about all of the world's great faith traditions. If there is one aspect, to me, that binds them all regardless of language or cultural context, it is love as the centerpiece of the religious experience. Whether that love is focused on an ultimate power or otherwise, they all encourage us to love each other. And as a teacher my first priority is to ensure that my students feel loved.

I've said this numerous times to my students throughout the years, and I would hope that those from many years ago to the ones I have now would all agree: I love my students as if they were my own children. This is probably for several reasons beyond the philosophical one mentioned above (that love is the highest ideal to which we should all aspire), including my mother's own example, the relationship I have with my "beautiful best friend" and loving wife, Erin, as well as the fact that we don't have our own children and so I see my students as an ever-expanding family.

Beyond the conversation with Ernest Hooper, another major event that transpired and got me reflecting on why I love teaching arrived unexpectedly a few days after our chat. Every so often (perhaps a few times per year), I get an amazing email from a former student. I've received a few this year, but the most recent one came from a student I had in class for the first time eight years ago in 2010. He begins with the exciting news about his acceptance of his first job teaching high school economics and then goes on to say many nice things, but here are a few lines that made me feel tremendous satisfaction for living out my beliefs as a teacher:

 I cannot help but believe you are the main reason I am embarking on this journey...When I was 14 years old, I knew I wanted to be like you. I wanted to spread love and knowledge...You were a person to talk to when I had no one else...It was because of a teacher like you that I wanted to keep pressing forward and "keep chipping away." I strive to be one-tenth of the teacher you were to me. I hope you never stop doing what you do because you have no idea how many lives you are saving. If you ever need any support in your endeavors to make the world a more equitable and loving place, I am only a phone call away.

We never know how the love we put into the universe will ripple outward and touch lives. For me I try to do that each and every day when I am in the classroom. This is primarily why I love teaching. Because when it comes right down to my foundational bedrock beliefs, I love to love for its own sake. As I told the graduating seniors only two days after receiving that email, to lead with love takes courage, it takes honesty, it takes strength. Leading with love doesn't make you soft, because--as all parents know--love can come in a "tough" form that is still beneficial to the recipient. I know my students have certainly had their fair share of that love from me too. 

But more than anything else the reason I extol the virtue of love and leading a life of service to others is the simply joy that it brings. When we mutually recognize that each of our lives is an incredible, sacred gift, we begin to cultivate love in our lives. But love itself is bigger than any of us and cannot be contained, which is why when you have an abundance of love you cannot help but give it away. Love is the very antithesis of greed, which is why the vast majority of teachers working with students each and every day do what they do: they have love in their hearts and want to share it with their students. Sure, not all teachers share it in the same way or to the same degree, but it's still there and motivates them to give their best to those kids.

A life of service can be for anyone, not simply those who work for the public sector. We can all be of service in so many ways, especially when our hearts are filled with love. I am fortunate and blessed to be married to such an incredible woman whose love fills me so completely that "my cup runneth over" and I cannot help but share it with others in my life, primarily my students and colleagues. Sure I may get some weird looks in the process, especially in the beginning when my students don't know me yet, but if emails from former students and thank you letters and notes from recent graduates prove, my heart is in the right place and the love I have for others is making a contribution to our shared world.

Keep loving others freely and living a life of service, NIP.

- Ryan

P.S. - To any and all former students who may happen to read this letter--and especially the current graduating 2018 class for whom this letter is meant to be an Easter egg of sorts in conjunction with the letter each of you received--I truly hope you felt loved and respected for the individuals you are. I may not be able to tell each of you on a daily basis, but I think of all of my students every day. Life is ultimately a sojourn, a brief time we are given to stay in this place, here on Earth. While we all must walk different paths in life, I am so grateful our paths crossed and we enjoyed the sojourn together for a spell. As I undoubtedly said in class numerous times, I will repeat it again for all of you to read: if you ever need me for anything--to look over a college paper, provide a job reference, or simply talk about some important issues or challenges in your life--I am only an email or phone call away. Thank you so much for being a part of my life. All of you have brought so much meaning to it, not only as a teacher but as a fellow sojourner and human being who has been granted the same gift of life as you. Much love... - H.


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