Essay

The worthiness of the work

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It’s Teacher Appreciation Week, so I’ve been thinking not only of the many extraordinary teachers I’ve had in my own life but about the very work of teaching itself. I’ve been a classroom teacher now for almost thirty years—and despite pedagogical innovations and technological advances, some things never change. In fact, it feels like much of what runs the classroom is “housekeeping”: prepping and grading and writing/recording various things. Over and over and over. And like chores like laundry or vacuuming or cleaning bathrooms, just as one round is done, another round seems to need to begin.

Now, I don’t actually mind chores, but sometimes they feel more chore-y, more wearisome than at others.

But then, I go to events like our faculty tribute dinner, and I witness again all the work my colleagues are doing across campus. I hear the success stories of their scholarship, their amazing community engagement, their immense time invested in students in and out of the classroom. I see a retiring colleague—one who spent countless hours on thankless college-wide projects in addition to teaching and research and all the rest. And I feel again the worthiness of the work, the holiness of the quotidian, the necessity of the daily drudge.

To see the end is inspiring, but it does obscure how much it all takes. How much less would we be without all the hidden work? How much kinder would we be if we could remember all that goes on behind the scenes?

All of this reminded me of two poems by Jane Kenyon that help me remember just how essential it all is and how preferable to complaint. As importantly, the heritage of all our labor: the “chores” of our profession tie us to all those who labored in the past. They did not grow “weary in well doing;” may we in our season hold onto the promise that we “reap, if we faint not.”

The Clothes Pin
How much better it is
to carry wood to the fire
than to moan about your life.
How much better
to throw the garbage
onto the compost, or to pin the clean
sheet on the line
with a gray-brown wooden clothes pin!

Finding a Long Gray Hair
I scrub the long floorboards
in the kitchen, repeating
the motions of other women
who have lived in this house.
And when I find a long gray hair
floating in the pail,
I feel my life added to theirs.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids, a city I've come to love. I count myself rich in friends and family. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” I don't have the car anymore, but the sentiment is still true.

2 Comments

  • Fred Wind says:

    Lovely writing and great choice of poems! Thanks…

  • JoAnne Zoller Wagner says:

    Yes, teaching requires a lot of dull background work in order to enjoy the higher rewards of the profession. The photo at the top of this reflection caused me to remember once again that the working class also engages in drudgery, with the difference that the drudge work is manual labor, leading over time to broken down bodies. The sad fact is that these are the very workers who need good medical care and health insurance the most, but are least likely to be able to afford it. God would not be happy with their suffering without help, and neither should we be satisfied to allow this disparity between the professional class and the working class.

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