The Most Important Lesson A Teacher Teaches

By Ira Rabois

One of the most important lessons a good teacher teaches, beyond the subject matter, is how to live a moment or a year of moments. On the first day of classes, you teach how to meet new people, how to start an endeavor, how to be open to whatever comes. On the last day of classes, you model how to end something, how to say goodbye.

You model how to face freaky spring weather in winter and winter weather in the spring. How to face a test, sickness or other challenge. To share insights, listen to the insights of others, think deeply about questions raised, and fears and joys expressed. How to face evil with insight, and violence with calm and clarity. And how to celebrate what you value and value what you celebrate.

In this way you model the most important lessons one person can give to another. You create a community. You state with your very life that a loving, caring community is possible and, thusly, create the seeds for a more loving and sustainable future.

You think of teaching not as a job, not even an avocation, but just what you are doing now with your life. You think of each moment as an opportunity to learn, to expand your sense of self, to see others in you and you in others. All of us in this world that we share need this sort of gift. This is what I hope to celebrate daily, and wish for all of us.

My first teaching assignment was in the Peace Corps, in a small village in Sierra Leone. One day, my classroom was invaded by a swarm of bees. They settled in my book cabinet. I imagine as I think back on it that they were “killer bees”, but I don’t know if that was true or not.

To get rid of the bees, I first took a trip to the capital, Freetown, to get some sort of bee spray. This took a few days. It was only about one hundred thirty miles or so away, but I didn’t have a car and Sierra Leone didn’t have either good roads or a public transportation system. To travel meant waiting for a lorry to pass through that was going in the direction I wanted to go.

Once I returned to the village, I gathered together my students in a line outside the classroom door. Each was armed with buckets of water to throw on the bees in case they chased me from the room. I put on a raincoat, hat, pants and boots. I entered the classroom, sprayed the cabinet—and the bees flew out in a swarm and left the classroom. A seeming miracle. The students and I celebrated.

The next day, my neighbor, the Paramount Chief (one of five powerful traditional tribal chiefs in the country) came to see me. The whole village was of the Mende tribe. His chief wife, one of five, was a tall, majestic woman. She seemed to like making a fool of me. She only spoke deep Mende, the language of the bush, not the more modern version I spoke, and not Krio, a hybrid language of English, Portuguese, and Sierra Leonean languages, certainly not English. Whenever I tried to speak with her in new Mende, she always corrected me in old Mende.

Anyway, this wife was in trouble. She had heard about how I had chased the bees from my classroom. Another swarm had invaded the small mud building where the Chief’s beer and food was stored. The maintenance of food and beer was her responsibility, so she tried to duplicate my miracle and somehow chase out the bees without using the spray or protective clothing. It didn’t work. She had twenty to thirty stings and was possibly in shock. The Chief said I had to give him whatever medicines I had to cure her. The Peace Corps provided all its volunteers with a large first aid and medicine kit. I gave him skin cream for bites, aspirin—I did what I could and hoped for the best, fearing that neither my knowledge nor medicine would be of much help.

Three or four days later, while I was resting on my porch in my hammock, I heard the voices of several people speaking loudly. I lived in the Paramount Chief’s rest house which was set back maybe a hundred feet from the road. The group stopped at the path leading to the house and became quiet. One person, a woman, left the group on her own and walked toward me. I got up to meet her. It was the chief’s first wife. Obviously, she had recovered quickly. I didn’t know if what I had given the Chief had cured her, or whether it was her belief in the power of the medications, or what.

She walked right up to me. Now remember, no one had heard her speak any language but deep Mende in years, maybe forever. Yet when she stopped and looked in my eyes, she thanked me, in English.

I started crying. And laughing. Then came a celebration. After that, she no longer made fun of me. In fact, when I got very sick a few months later and almost died, she helped me get to a doctor.

The world is a miraculous place, if only we can make it so.

I Rabois spring image


Ira began practicing Zen meditation in 1968. He taught English, philosophy, drama, history, karate and psychology for 27 years at the Lehman Alternative Community School in Ithaca, NY. His book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching, was published in October 2016, by Rowman & Littlefield. He is semi-retired. When not leading classes in Karate he is writing blogs on education and mindfulness, or sitting with his cats in the maple forest near his home. His website is:

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