"All we do is talk"

I once had a conversation with a fellow teacher who was profoundly discouraged with teaching. He had been on a series of short-term projects with the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) assisting with relief efforts in sub-Saharan Africa. After spending a summer on one of these trips he told me how meaningless teaching high school had become to him. He said–and I will never forget these words–“We aren’t accomplishing anything meaningful in our classrooms. What do high school teachers do all day? We talk. That’s it. All we do is talk.”What did he mean by this, and is it true?

On the surface, he is correct. For the most part, teachers talk. We don’t perform surgery on dying patients, we don’t carry bags of rice to hungry children, we don’t pilot helicopters to rescue stranded hikers. As a generalization there is a lot of truth to his assertion that we talk all day.

What I would question, however, is his belief that there is no value in this.

Recently I found myself reading about the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther’s 95 Theses–his collection of words–changed the Christian religion forever, and, by extension, significantly altered the course of western history. I then thought of another Luther–Martin Luther King, Jr.–and his famous “I have a dream” speech. I then realized the obvious: words have power. To say “All we do is talk, nothing more” suggests that talking is impotent, weak. But in fact the reverse is true. History proves that words change the world.

I started to think about some of history’s great teachers. The first person who came to my mind is Socrates, that great, noble man of Athens who, when put on trial for his life, said simply, “I have neglected the things that concern most people–making money, managing an estate, gaining military or civic honours, or other positions of power, or joining political clubs and parties which have formed in our city.”So what *was* the point of Socrates’ life, then? Having no interest in money, fame, or power (the big three motivators throughout all of human history), to what *did* he dedicate his life? Simply this: “I tried to persuade each of you not to think more of practical advantages than of his mental and moral well-being.”

Persuade how? With words.

This is what all great teachers have done throughout human history. They have used words to change how their students think about the world. And history has already proven that few things can be so powerful as words.

So my colleague was right. All we do all day is talk. But he was also wrong. It is not meaningless. It may, in fact, be the most meaningful thing of all.

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