Teacher with her Students. Flickr

Why It's Worth Beginning Again

As students, teachers, and parents all plunge into the education system, ready to return wearily to the old routine. But is there a chance that educating and being educated will become an adventure that makes it worth getting up happily in the morning?
Alberto Savorana

In spite of all the analyses, criticisms, difficulties, problems, and troubles that beset our schools, is there something that makes us want to go back and start over again at the beginning of the year?

In a situation that we have described as an “educational emergency,” why should a teacher want to return to the schoolroom? Why is it worth all the trouble?

Are there some “great things” we are certain about, which can launch us into a new beginning, stronger than all the demoralization and disappointment? Is there something that spurs enthusiasm and a desire to take initiative, for an adult engaged in an occupation like seeking to educate by teaching? Starting school again obviously means returning to teaching science, history, literature…

In August of 1977, Fr. Giussani met with a group of CL teachers in Viterbo, Italy. He always set particular store by the words he spoke that day for the renewal of an educational movement in our schools. He said, among other things: “The true starting point needs to be renewed every day. This is our genius, our strength. The beginning is a Presence that affirms itself. The beginning is a spur, but not to the ‘brain’…. The true beginning is a spur to life. Whatever is not a spur to life is a waste of time….”

Exactly thirty years later, at the end of August, Traces brought together a group of teachers–some with years of experience and some who are novices, teachers in state schools and others with different histories, but all with a common sense of belonging–all who have responded to that “spur.” Here are their stories.

Franco Nembrini

I left teaching in 1999, and I’ve always described it as the only real sacrifice in my life. I taught for twenty-three years. For me, these years were the discovery of teaching as the possibility of an extraordinary encounter with the mystery of the other. It was life beginning over again every morning, because you can make all the calculations you like, prepare all the lessons you like, work up all the schemes you like, but the other always surprises you. Every morning, going to school was the pleasure of this surprise, this amazement, this new thing happening, whose outlines, content, and consequences I could never predict beforehand. For this reason, I was reluctant to leave teaching. Why am I returning? For the same reason: I missed it, I want to throw myself into this relationship again, into this adventure that begins again every day. When you teach, you have to throw everything to the wind every morning.

This is made even more interesting by the fact that in the work I’ve being doing in these years–as Director of the FOE [Federazione Opere Educative, an association for educational development]–I’ve been dealing with schools and reform, and this has made me more perceptive and aware of the educational emergency that we first spoke of through the Education Appeal, which grew out of Fr. Giussani’s book, The Risk of Education. Now I know, even better than I did seven years ago, what it means to live in a country where education is the Cinderella of government policy. Everyone complains, they may even tear their garments over the results (we’ve all seen the years of devastation), but who has the courage to say, “I want to be able to start over again”? A lot of people invent prescriptions–call in the police, drug dogs, armies of psychologists–but who has the courage to say, “I’m here; in my small way, I have something to say to the kids, something good to offer”? So, I’m beginning again, a thousand times more aware of the urgency of the task, of the responsibility we bear, and also of one other thing I have learned in these years: education is a task that we have to carry out together, because we cannot educate on our own. We educate only if we have a place, a house, friends to whom we belong.

On returning to the schoolroom, I have to teach what I am experiencing myself. I “met” literature and I loved it–because of what I learned from Fr. Giussani–as the encounter, day by day, with the authors, with the masters on whom I risk my personal judgment. I have always asked my students to accompany me in this experience. In this sense, I found the event of “Centocanti” [Centocanti is a cultural association born from the passion for Dante Alighieri, for his work as a poet and a man–particularly his masterpiece, the Divine Comedy. The association is mainly composed of university students that share the desire to know more about (and let more be known about) the work of Dante.] symbolic. It was all born without anyone planning it. One day, I said to a kid, “I relate to Dante like this, I listen to him because he has a lot to say and to teach me in my life. Let’s read it together.” I have always taught all authors like that. That’s what young people need; they are searching desperately for an adult who will tell them: “I want to be your companion on the journey, because my heart and yours are the same. I’ve found something in life that you’ve not yet had a chance to discover. I invite you to walk a stretch of the journey with me.”

Matteo Severgnini

The first year I taught, I had a pupil who rejected all advice. He was closed in on himself–I discovered later that his attitude was partly due to family problems–yet I got close to him. His presence in class was an unanswered question.

By two months before the end of school, his academic shortcomings were becoming very obvious. When I met his father, I realized he knew nothing about it, until he saw an unfavorable report card looming. Then he got angry and said, “He’s a failure!” I replied, “Look, I’ll go on feeling your son is mine until the last minute of the last hour of school and I won’t abandon him.” At that instant, the boy burst into tears. Then, after school, on the stairs he said, “I’d like to apologize for today. They weren’t tears of sorrow but happiness, because no one’s ever told me I was someone. I don’t know if I will flunk or not. But what matters is that in school there’s someone who’s looking out for me. And he’s a teacher!” At the year’s end, he flunked in three subjects, including mathematics. He spent the summer studying with a teacher, and he learned to apply certain rules he never understood before. What did I learn from this experience? That we can discover the truth in a relationship. I’m beginning the year with this great hope, which is for myself first of all.

Fabrizio Foschi

I’m starting teaching again, after years away from the classroom but not away from school. In fact, I’ve been studying teaching method. I’m returning for two reasons. Someone looked at me honestly, was loyal to me. So I want to convey through teaching the exciting effort of taking reality in hand and looking at it in the light of what I have received. Secondly, as the director of an association of teachers (Diesse), I could not avoid returning to teaching. Without wishful thinking, I feel challenged by a question that comes from students and teachers. And the challenge seems to be this: in a PhD thesis, a Brazilian teacher demonstrated that everything that is presented in teaching is fragmented, because it has to correspond to a fragmented “I.” Now, this fragmentation of the “I” is the drama of schooling, and the system responds to it by shattering the content of education and teaching still further. And in so doing, instead of saving someone who’s on the edge of the abyss, it gives them a push. The challenge is to find a unity in the things we do, to relate them to a meaning. It’s so urgent that even some recent ministerial documents speak of the need to recover a synthesis. After smashing and dividing, the dominant culture now feels the need for a synthesis, but this approach calls for people who are ready to confront the reality of the school in a unified way. And this will mean enabling young people to relate to my experience and that of the authors they will be reading, and not just through the analysis of the text. Since I’m picking up after a two-year break from teaching, this fascinates me.

Francesco Fadigati

When I began teaching, Franco Nembrini gave me a challenge: “In this job, you have a chance to stay young.” From the first instant, facing thirty young people in the second year of middle school, I couldn’t cheat because they were there to listen to me. Every morning when I entered the classroom, I had before me kids who would ask me explicitly, “Why should I listen to you?” I remember one girl–while I was trying to get to the end of the history syllabus, trying to do things properly–who kept asking me searching questions. For example: “What’s so interesting about the Normandy landings?” She compelled me to look at what I teach, to ask myself what’s so interesting about it for me.

The other reason it fascinates me to begin is that the adventure of teaching, shared with my friends, is always taking over more and more of my “I.”

I was talking on the phone to a parent one afternoon when he burst into tears: “Please help me with my daughter. I don’t know what to do any more.”

“I don’t know what to do either,” I told him. “I haven’t got a recipe, but you and I share the same concern. We want your daughter to grow up. If you like, we can work together.” I went over to their place for dinner. After an hour of complaints, he told his daughter, “You see, your teacher could have given up on you and instead he’s come to dinner.” They didn’t want me to leave.

I understood then that it’s a job you can’t do by halves. Teaching means being able to change. You might come out of class completely changed. I go into the first lesson half asleep, but when I see the faces of the kids, who are there whether I’m sleepy or not, whether they really want to begin again or not, and I hear certain questions they ask that force me to go and look at the geography map; they force me to make some discoveries. School is making me learn; I go to school to learn. That’s how I feel I can stay young.

Cristina Rossi

School raises the question of the meaning of reality. Either it has no meaning, and then nothing means anything, except for occasional digressions and distractions, or else it has a meaning. So, where does it come from? Do I give a meaning to things? The meaning comes to me from the past, from a tradition. I teach a two-year course in a professional institute. There’s an immense gulf between culture and life; when you’re in class, you really feel this deeply. Either something comes from the past and gives young people an awareness of things that are larger than them, or there’s no sense in making them come to school morning after morning. So as not to be alone and at the mercy of fashion and power, my students, who are training to be electricians, need to be able to glimpse something that goes beyond the present moment.

The malaise of the boys and the frustration of the teachers creates a problematic situation: violent, explosive, a continuous emergency. Until some years ago, at the end of summer, I always used to fear the moment I returned to school. Then it happened that as soon as I sat down in class, though two minutes earlier I had been thinking of a way to escape (by changing schools or getting a different job), just one of those faces would succeed in piercing my indifference and arousing me. I wanted to study and get up to date because even though I work in a professional school, I never once entered the classroom in the morning without having carefully prepared my lessons, and I did this for those faces, for that human “material,” the young people who asked me for good reasons. It was an exciting adventure, sustained by the expectation that it might happen one day that a pupil is awakened, is surprised to be there, and begins to develop a new trait of his or her personality. And since you never know when it will happen, it takes patience and unflagging energy, almost beyond my capacities.

I find myself having to teach reading and writing. The majority of my pupils are immigrants; one-third are Muslims. I have the satisfaction of seeing young people developing a passion for writing as an opportunity to say “I.” They seem to be absolutely indifferent and alien to everything but, as soon as they find the least fissure that allows them to emerge as people, they open up. They were so excited to discover they could say “I” and reality was theirs, that we even won a poetry competition!

Fr. Giorgio Pontiggia

Listening to you talk, I feel we can sum up what these testimonies have in common with a question. How can we teach unless we’re concerned with what we’re doing and how can we teach if we lack “compassion” (in the Latin sense of the term) for those around us? There springs to mind a proverb that says, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” This is terrible, because the problem with school is not school; the problem only emerges at school. If you don’t like what you’re doing, you can never have an abundance to communicate and you can never have the sensitivity to grasp the needs of others.

The reason we go to school is the experience we have. We could have a passion for school. When I taught in a state school there were leftist teachers who stayed there up to ten, twelve, fifteen hours a day, but with a veil of sadness, and the school went to rack and ruin. If people aren’t happy to overflowing, they end up transmitting an ideology that tends to cover a void in the “I.” If, on the contrary, we are rich in experience, school becomes a great opportunity for freedom in action. This is the only reason why, having just left the school where I was headmaster, I am going back to teaching.

Education is the overflowing of a fullness. It is embodied in the instruments of our profession. It also points to the ideal of our journey: the development of the originality of the other, and not the aggregation of the other to whatever you yourself think. It is a “genuine ideal concern,” to use an expression of Fr. Giussani’s, and not an emotion we experience, a “fleeting moment.” This is what makes us go to school. And it makes us take up the whole challenge to relate to young people and our colleagues in the ordinary work of teaching, which cannot be simply reduced to something we leave to education specialists.