A sense that there is something larger than a human being, accompanied by capacities for awe, respect, and shame; often expressed in, and reinforced by, ceremony.
That definition of reverence, from Paul Woodruff, guided me and my longtime friend and collaborator Jim Garrison of Virginia Tech as we edited Teaching with Reverence: Reviving an Ancient Virtue for Today’s Schools. The collection of essays, published in January, explores what has been called the “forgotten virtue” that’s vital to education.
As an educational philosopher, I’ve long been intrigued by reverence. It was the subject of my last book, Albert Schweitzer’s Legacy for Education: Reverence for Life. The word often connotes religion, even a prim solemnity. While religious and spiritual connotations are important, Jim and I took a different perspective.
The essays we chose confirm that reverence, though it may be hidden in our everyday practices, characterizes much good teaching. While much public, political and professional discussion about education focuses on skills and abilities, we believe that there is something else that attracts us to the profession.
Jim and I believe, as we write at the start of the book, that “good teaching involves forming character, molding destinies, creating an enduring passion for learning, appreciating beauty, respecting silence, caring for others, and much more. In some sense, teaching is a spiritual, although not necessarily a religious, activity. When done well, it paves the way for human sociability and allows teachers to find creative self-expression in the classroom community.”
Editing Teaching with Reverence provided a great opportunity to gather smart people and invite them to think along with us.
Several essayists recalled reading and teaching Annie Dillard’s book from the 1970s, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, in which Dillard emphasizes the value of silence and mindfulness. As author Michael Dale points out, “In Dillard’s hands such silence not only quiets and opens up inner space but also renders us receptive to the world around us.” Michael explains how school administrators at first questioned the relevance of a book about a woman living alone in southern Appalachia, and how his students discovered, through Dillard’s writing, the connections between nature and learning.
Bob Boostrom discusses in his chapter how he practices reverent teaching by keeping in mind that a teacher needs to listen, think, laugh, love, and correct. It is in laughing while thinking that he sees the humility of reverence. Bob recalls how, early in his teaching career, he helped a second-grader with addition. The student was stymied by a word problem that asked how many houses Godzilla smashes if he crushes eight with one foot and seven with the other. Bob asks if the student is familiar with Godzilla. When the student says no, Bob describes the large lizard in funny and almost nerdy detail. The student looks at him, and says, “OK, I get it.” He solves the problem.
Bob can laugh at what may have been unnecessary detail about Godzilla, but realizes that he may have helped that student solve the problem by showing he cared about the student’s understanding. He is not sure what made the lesson “click” for the student, and this mystery inspires in him a sense of wonder about learning. We teachers know that it is not easy to reach all students. But our willingness to try, sometimes with a chuckle or a wink, is a sure sign of reverence.