Two moments from last week reminded me of the importance of powerful teaching, especially as the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program testing begins this week in Hamilton County elementary schools.
First, I reread a passage from Parker Palmer's "Courage to Teach."
Second, I spent time with Jane Henegar.
Let's begin with Palmer. A Quaker, author and teacher, he has written books of utmost beauty and precision about the spiritual life of teachers. In "The Courage to Teach," he recalls the Jewish parable that says, in order to understand life, we need a coat with two pockets.
In one pocket, there is gold.
In the other pocket, there is dust.
Both pockets remind us who we are.
Both pockets shape and define good classrooms.
"Knowing, teaching and learning under the grace of great things will come from teachers who own such a coat and who wear it to class everyday," Palmer wrote.
So what is gold?
Gold is the act of teaching someone she or he is worth far more than they may realize. This knowledge is always precious, but most so to teenagers. (Don't you remember how hard it was to be 16?)
Gold is deep respect. Gold is human and civil rights. Gold is recognizing that we should not be solely defined by our bank account, or worst act, or emotional state.
Gold is transformation found within thousands of Hamilton County classrooms. Gold is coach Jon Johnson and the Howard School baseball team. Gold is Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy and the soon-to-open Chattanooga Prep.
Gold is remembering that arbitrary test scores do not fully define us — either as students or teachers.
There is such a thing as too much gold; we can become elitist, arrogant and walled-off.
That's why we need dust.
Dust is humility. Dust is generosity and grounded- ness. Dust is nursing and non-profit work and first responders.
Dust is the knowledge that we are quite helpless, powerless and vulnerable. Dust is the hug that follows this knowledge.
Dust is knowing that questions are more powerful than answers.
This gold-dust metaphor can inform the way we see our homes, our governments, our relationships, our classrooms. Think of the healthiest places you know; are they not full of gold dust?
Some of the very best Chattanoogans I know carry this gold-dust influence.
Like Jane Henegar.
For 30 years at Girls Preparatory School, she brought gold and dust to thousands of girls and young women.
The British theologian C.S. Lewis said he never met a mere, ordinary mortal. Jane, who taught Bible and history courses until she retired in 2012, never met a mere GPS student.
Jane taught that bodies, minds and spirits are pearls of great price. In a world of pop-culture cruelty and conformity, which often tries to sexualize and insult the female experience, such gold is a counter-cultural protest; it is confidence. It is self-worth.
For Jane, gold was knowing that a classroom is a sacred space where certain questions may be asked in such ways so that lives are forever changed.
"What matters most?" she always asked her students. "What matters most?"
She called these essential questions.
"Jane helped me find a door into myself by giving me the language for asking questions about who I am, who God is, and what those two things mean for my future," said former student Jami Haskins. "Jane was an amazing model for a confident woman who spoke the truth in love."
In every city, there are groups of women who serve as spiritual elders and giants; often existing unbeknownst to one another, these women hold many things together — anchoring, uplifting — through their spiritual work. Jane is one of these women in Chattanooga, and many of you know her this way.
Others know her through the weekly "Fare Exchange" column she writes, which is a collection of recipes, and recipes are a symbol for life: bringing scattered ingredients together.
Making unity out of separate things.
In a ceremony Saturday, alongside Isabel McCall and Glen Vey, Jane was named faculty emeritus at GPS. (Having taught with her for years, I was able to say some of these words here at that ceremony.)
Of all educational pedagogy and doctrine and new ideas, the oldest and wisest and most transformative remains: love.
Jane taught love.
This is always what matters most.
David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.