By the worktables in the art room at my school is a window, and above that window is a message from the art teacher to her students:
You are my why!
The words draw your eyes as soon as you walk into the room. They convey more than a greeting; they impart a sense of importance, of being wanted, of being cared about. They are a word-hug of welcome, of belonging, of mattering.
I think about how little is in teachers’ control these days, how the art of teaching is increasingly straightjacketed, hijacked. Expectations on top of expectations, a precariously unwieldy, wobbling mountain, stones heaped one by one, Greek thlipsis until a person’s spirit is crushed rather than one’s actual body. I see, hear, and feel this incremental adding of weight in every day interactions with colleagues. Opening lines from the old Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life come to mind, when the angels, appearing as stars in the cosmos, are talking:
FRANKLIN: A man down on Earth needs our help.
CLARENCE: Splendid! Is he sick?
FRANKLIN: No, worse. He’s discouraged.
A gallery of teacher faces appears in my mind.
Then I see these words on the wall and I think, that’s the breathing room.
The beginning of atmosphere.
Before learning, before discovering, before creating, before engagement, empowerment, objectives or standards, before all the materials and tools are ever distributed, there’s atmosphere.
It’s both bigger and smaller than the what of climate and the how of culture. Atmosphere in a classroom still lies wholly within the power of the teacher. It starts as small as the heartbeat of the teacher that keeps showing up to say You are my why.
The heartbeat, the breath, that keeps the entire organism alive.