With all your might

I have been a teacher at Newbold College, in England, for 20 years. Before that, I taught in secondary schools for five years. Teaching is my life. Although I love my job and would never consider doing anything else, there is one confession I have to make. I really don’t relish grading. If I’m faced with a pile of papers, I’ll find anything else to do before I submit to the inevitability of marking. And once I start, I don’t have a lot of sticking power. In fact, I can only manage the task for a pretty short space of time before my concentration starts to wander and I have to have a break.

Marking is my Achilles heel, the bane of my professional life. And I suspect or at least I hope I’m not the only teacher who finds the grind of grading a pile of 20 or 30 papers the least pleasant aspect of a generally stimulating and enjoyable job. Yet there’s no getting around it. Grading has to be done, and despite its elements of tedium, it is a vital part of the job, essential to the development of our students, to their personal progress, to the fulfilment of their potential.

This kind of experience is not unique to teaching. Every job, every role in which we find ourselves, contains these less-than-exciting elements, the things we will put off if we can. It will differ from person to person, but I seem to remember that writing papers while a student was a task I would defer as long as possible. Or again, it might be the more tedious administrative responsibilities such as the writing of extensive reports that we may struggle to confront.

So when I am faced with my particular challenge, it always helps me to remember a very special painting. I teach a visual arts class at the college as well as literature classes that are my main specialty, and paintings are a great personal resource for me. The one I have in mind is a quietly beautiful painting by the elusive Dutch artist, Jan Vermeer (1632-1675). He is renowned for a small number of exquisitely delicate paintings in which light and color are pre-eminent. He paints with a sureness of touch that makes him one of the great masters. This particular painting is called The Kitchenmaid, and it hangs in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It’s one example of his characteristic depiction of Dutch interiors.

The Kitchenmaid celebrates for me the sacredness of the mundane, the holiness of the ordinary. In the delicate blues and muted yellows of the scene, we see a plain working woman, sleeves rolled up for her task, attentively pouring milk from a jug into a bowl. Her face is framed by her cap, and her eyes focus carefully on the job in hand. On the table lie the everyday objects of a kitchen: crusty, fresh-baked bread, woven basket, pottery jug, a blue apron. Perhaps breakfast is being prepared. The woman’s action is thoughtful, quiet, and unobtrusive. She concentrates totally on what she is doing. She gives it her complete and undivided attention despite its ordinariness, its apparent lack of importance, its pure simplicity. And Vermeer has managed to make this simple act almost holy by the significance, beauty, and calm he has invested in the scene.

As I gaze at this painting, one verse comes to my mind: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10, NIV). And the message seems to apply to this painting perfectly. Like this woman, we are faced with tedious, mundane, apparently insignificant jobs every day. Grading is not glamorous: it’s not like performing in front of a large class of students eager for our wisdom, it’s not about being powerful when we’re on important committees and boards, it isn’t exciting like a trip to a seminar in some exotic location. But it is essential to our profession.

So when I am faced in my daily work with the dull things, the ordinary things, with the apparently trivial and with the less-than-exciting, I remember Vermeer’s kitchenmaid and the rapt attention she gives to the simple act of pouring milk. And I realize that the quality of energy, concentration, and excellence we invest in our every action is a key to our personal integrity. Whether we have other eyes upon us or not, we should do it wholeheartedly, with commitment, with all our might, since that is the biblical mandate. For these acts are the ones by which our true character is measured.

Penny Mahon (Ph.D., University of Reading) chairs the Department of Humanities and is dean of students at Newbold College in England. Her email address: pmahon@newbold.ac.uk.