Our Teachers may Die, but Their Lessons Live Forever (An ode to all teachers present and past) By Rea L. Ginsberg, LCSW-C, ACSW, BCD

Monday, 19 Aug 2013 03:11

About Dr. Monica Williams-Murphy (120 Posts)

Dr. Monica Williams-Murphy is a Board Certified Emergency Medicine Physician, who practices in one of the largest emergency departments in the United States at Huntsville Hospital. Through her writing and speaking, she is devoted to transforming the end of life into a time of peace, closure and healing. Media Page

A Letter to My Teacher:
A Personal Reflection

 Tell me, and I forget.

Teach me, and I remember.

Involve me, and I learn.

                                    —  Benjamin Franklin

Let knowledge grow from more to more,

And so be human life enriched.

                                                 —  Motto, The University of Chicago

So nice to have your company again, if only a wish.  Students remember what you teach.  More than that, they remember who you are.  I chose a front row seat to both.  It changed my mind.  I didn’t know that till much later.

I miss you.  Sometimes I miss you with a smile.  I think of something amazing and insightful that you told us.  Sometimes it just hurts to remember that you stopped living.  It takes my breath away.  It leaves me with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes.  I talk to you in my mind, and then I know you are still teaching lessons.  I wonder if you knew the depth of my gratitude.  How much I learned that is still valid and alive and growing!  I have lived my grief for a long time now.  So I have to talk about it.  Maybe the telling will help the hurt and make it easier to carry.

I was quieter in those first years, you know.  Yes, you knew that.  You insisted that I speak more in class, to “make a noise.”  I learned that lesson finally, not only for the classroom but for my life.  It was not that I felt like being quiet.  I guess I just needed another confidence-nudge in the right direction.  That lesson was the mark of excellence in teaching.  Teach the student, not only the subject.  You did that.  You knew how.  You did it well.  Many teachers aim for this standard.  Few arrive there.  Self-development is a basic purpose of education.  The best teachers know how to teach, stimulate, and guide it.

“Make a noise,” you told me.  That was not just for me in class.  It was for the clinician I would become.  Clinician, administrator, and teacher.  Maybe even a better human being.  Make a noise in the office, in the classroom, in the treatment room, in the board room.  Do not allow silence to wither the patient’s self-esteem and dignity.  Silence has its distinctive value, certainly, but it must be carefully controlled and modulated to fit each unique situation.

I definitely became one of your special student projects in those school years.  I was homesick.  Maybe you guessed it.  Maybe it just made sense from my school application.  In very subtle and diplomatic ways, you found many occasions to mentor my first years in the profession and the new city.  We students used to call it “being washed in the baths of the profession.”  Getting deeply involved.  Identifying our professional boundaries.  Differentiating ourselves respectfully from allied professions.  Learning to appreciate the professionals we would become.  Difficult not to drown in those bath waters, sometimes.  You made it so much easier to scrub down and perform with dignity the tasks required.

We cannot easily or immediately distinguish gratitude from love.  I loved being in your class.  I considered myself especially fortunate to have your presence and thoughtfulness for two full years of class work.  It was my good luck and I was always grateful.  I also loved to learn.  That is done with far more energy and enthusiasm when the teacher is also enthusiastic and supportive.  Learning how to learn, and how to love it, is a profoundly worthwhile lesson for a lifetime.  Part of this basic lesson is learning to ask questions and make remarks without the embarrassment of appearing foolish.  In your classes, you were my safety net, as you were for all your students.

Then came the middle years, the ones between then and end.  There were many.  Support.  Encouragement.  Sincerest concern.  Compassion.  Teaching turned to a truly memorable form of friendship.  Still teacher and student by choice, no longer by necessity.  How full and refreshing and compelling.  As usual in my life, I experienced the joy of learning for its own sake.  Too often these days, we think of education as a means to an end, not as an end in itself.  That takes away at least half the pleasure of learning.  The philosopher and educational reformer Dr. John Dewey once noted, “Education is not preparation for life.  It is life itself.”  Education, he said, is a process of living.

And then you died.  It happened right in the middle of your life!  It was a mistake.  A huge, crazy, incomprehensible error.  My mind blanked.  It froze.  I thought of absolutely nothing at all.  Suddenly it exploded.  Then I wondered if the heart attack hurt.  Did you suffer before you died?  I don’t want to believe you did.  And then followed, “Why did you do that?  What happened to you?  Why didn’t you tell me first?”  Immediately came the guilt.  I promised to call and I didn’t.  I just postponed the call for no good reason.  I’m horribly sorry about that.  But now I can no longer tell you.  I can’t take back the “sorry.”  Were you angry or disappointed?  Did I hurt you?  Did you forgive me?  Did I say thank you?  Did you know how much thank-you was in me?  We never had a chance to say goodbye.  I never gave you permission to go.  Life can’t be over yet, I thought.  “Never” is too big a word for understanding.

I felt a huge wave of nausea.  I heard the news but my mind refused to grasp the death fact.  Gone?  She did what??  But that’s impossible!  What about that 5th book you were writing?  What about the slides of Riga waiting for discussion?  How could you leave it all unfinished?  Please come back and finish what you started.  It is not like you to leave work undone.  It is not like you to leave at all.  I guess I expected you to be immortal, to live at least as long as my forever.

It was a simple, standard case of sudden-onset grief.  The disbelief, numbness, denial, anger, guilt, fear, bargaining, longing.  Just plain sad.  It didn’t feel good or standard or simple.  I didn’t like it.  I didn’t want it.  I couldn’t talk about it.  That would have made the dying too real.

I will never accept death.  I think acceptance is impossible.  The word is all wrong.  Acceptance is impossible for the dying and it is impossible for the surviving.  It is a Monster lurking in all of our lives.  But we have to adapt to it, to make reasonable peace with its inevitability.  We have to adapt and adjust.  Those are better words.  They imply what can really happen.  We have to tame the Monster so it doesn’t overwhelm us and those closest to us.  Dr. Murphy says that meticulous planning helps.*   I believe she is right.  She says death can be beautiful, and I believe that, too.  I am more than glad to have her company, her commitment, and her persistence in my thoughts.  Death is a teacher, and every one of us, with no exceptions, takes lessons.  Maybe we don’t want to, but it is not a choice.  Death is the one sure thing in every human life.  A fundamental fact of life, she says, is that it ends.  And grief is not optional.

I hate loss and I hate to say goodbye.  It is my least favorite thing to do in life.  I don’t want more personal lessons in loss, but I will take them because I must.  I won’t turn away.  I want my teachers to be alive, on their customary pedestals, basking in the admiration and inspiration and carrying on.  That whole generation of my teachers is dying, leaving my generation to be the next admired elders.  It’s OK, but sometimes it doesn’t feel right – not the way it “should” be.  What is the right way?

This way.  In the beginning, teachers are usually surrogates – substitute parents.  They serve extended parenting functions.  Mahatma Gandhi observed, “Every home is a university and the parents are the teachers.”  To some degree, this feeling endures throughout our formal education and beyond.  Subject matter is important in the classroom, but it is not necessarily primary.  Socialization is primary.  Encouragement is primary.  Respect and careful listening are primary.  Appreciation of person and intellect are primary.  The worth and dignity of the individual are primary.  These are ideals that children need in actuality.  Don’t we all?  The answer is “yes,” of course, and we look for them always in education.  Hence the teacher’s lasting “parent” halo.

I am a teacher-elder now.  Maybe that is not the way it “should” be, but that is the way it is.  All my parent-teachers have died.  If I had just one thing to say, I would say this: in relationships, take nothing for granted.  We do not know what tomorrow brings.  Never ever forget to say I’m sorry and thank you and I love you.  I wonder why it is so hard for us to say I love you – and sometimes so shocking when we do.  Between the thought and the act falls the shadow.  Say thank you every day.  Say I love you.  Don’t ask yourself nonsense questions.  Don’t forget.  Don’t wait.  Don’t put it off.  Just do it.

Death holds lessons in living well.  There lies the real beauty and the joy.  Of all our varied forms of grief, this one, the death of a teacher, may be the easiest to manage and immortalize.  Ideas do not die.  They live on, to be held or shaped or further developed.  The bearer of the original thought becomes immortalized in his ideas – and in his attitude.  His ideas are cloaked in his expressed feeling tone.  That means the teacher taught a lesson in his subject.  He did it well.  He did it with genuine sensitivity also to his students.  If this is true, he will be remembered not only for the lesson but also for his sensitivity.  Better still, if he really liked the students, they certainly sensed it and carried it away into their worlds.  It feels good to be liked by someone we admire.  We often learn better under such encouraging influence.  We become involved and inspired and learn with more zest and enthusiasm.  Good students always find ways to tell others about important ideas.  That is one way in which teachers live forever.  The mind is elegant and hungry.  It seeks both ideas and positive human connection.

I love to teach and to involve my students in observing life.  In participating meaningfully.  I will always be a teacher.  I will find my students everywhere.  Teaching makes me a better student.  A more diligent and conscientious learner.  As I learn, so I can teach.  Then, I have something to give back, my own personal “Kindness Project.”  In order to teach, we must know.  Students ask questions.  At least sometimes, we must have solid, sensible answers.  Answers require the teacher’s prior knowledge base, lots of study, and even some anticipatory thought.  Good teaching also starts with the student.  We teach subject material to the student.  Both parts matter: the subject and the student.  Love of learning and love of learners.  We learn from our students as well.  It is a joyful, endless loop.

The backdrop for teaching is always a role model somewhere in the teacher’s own life of learning.  From a good teacher is born another good teacher.  Sometimes we become a composite of our past several important role models in teaching.  In this way also, our teachers live forever.  In a sense, we become those who have most deeply, positively influenced our thinking and our character.  We defy death in this way.  Death is never the end of a good teacher.  He is carried forward into the future work of his students.  The parent-teacher prevails regardless of physical absence.  He has been transformed in the minds and manners of his students.

Great teaching happens outside the classroom, too, of course.  It would be wrong to focus exclusively on formal classroom education.  The author-poet Maya Angelou reminds us of this in her classic and gentle remark: “My mother said I must always be intolerant of ignorance but understanding of illiteracy.  That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and more intelligent than college professors.”  She reminds us that mothers are our teachers, too.  They are the first and most far-reaching models; therefore the parent-teacher.  Life lessons.

Teachers’ life lessons do not die.  They cannot be stolen.  They will not be broken.  They become who we are.  They shape our fundamental personality.  They are central to our identity.  They form our moral core.  They become the key principles of our ethical conduct.  They mold our system of values.  They show us the difference between Just and Justice.  They teach us how to teach and how to reach others.  They show us how to love ourselves so that we have enough to give away.  They enhance social functioning.  They boost morale: confidence, cheerfulness, discipline, team spirit.  So many people teach us and help to create who we become.  We cheat death often this way.  If we are lucky and smart about it, we never stop learning and becoming.  That is handed down the generations, even as it was handed down to us.  Death has no chance to intervene in this cycle because the cycle has no end.

Here’s to you, my teacher-elders, and to the grace and dignity of the human mind:  a celebration of life.  You live in my lessons.  I will visit you again soon.  I will always revisit you.  Thank you.  I love you.


You changed my world.

You changed my words.

You showed me how an ending is also a beginning

And why death does not win.




* Monica Williams-Murphy, MD, and Kristin Murphy, It’s OK to Die, USA: The Authors and MKN, LLC, 2011.

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3 thoughts on “Our Teachers may Die, but Their Lessons Live Forever (An ode to all teachers present and past) By Rea L. Ginsberg, LCSW-C, ACSW, BCD

  1. Rea

    Much learned from the writing of this article! Far greater appreciation of our teachers achieved in the process. Excellent outcome…

  2. Colleen

    I can’t thank you enough for the gift of your article, Rea! In the midst of my teaching career as I and many of my friends and colleagues are, this is sure to warm the hearts of all in the teaching profession as well as give us a much needed boost of motivation and value. Thank you!


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