I’m sitting in one of these chairs, in “god’s country”, lakes and rocks and trees, trees, lakes, rocks, rocks, rocks, lakes, trees, trees, no people. Divine. My last few days before beginning a return to the classroom.
I’ve spent the evening, refreshed by the lapping of the lake and solitude of nature, reading “Getting Schooled” by Garret Keizer, in this month’s Harper’s Magazine. If you have the time, you can read nothing better about education and what it is to be a teacher. He hits on so many points, things that got my own brain sparking in light of the fact I’ve been out of the physical classroom for a year and my own head is filled with preparations for my first days back with new teachers in waiting.
I’ve now been a teacher exactly 20 years. No breaks. Year in and year out – often summers too. The last year I’ve been without much of a regular paycheck but it wasn’t a break – I remained committed and engaged each and every day online and through my own efforts to help teachers use technology. In light of this anniversary and catalyzed byKeizer’s own article – let me sum up the things I’ve learned. Most mentioned in his fine article that I couldn’t hold a candle to. This list will have to do.
1. Teaching is about human beings and relationships.
Despite technology. Despite all the “wires” connecting people, schools, classrooms – this will always be the case. We begin there. We end there. The past year I’ve been so connected to teachers and students around the world. Hundreds. Yet a vital bloodline is missing and that is the face to face. The small things that happen in a classroom, amongst the classroom community. That’s why I’m returning.
If there is any one thing wrong with our educational system, it is that it doesn’t cultivate and focus on building more towards creating relationships between students, between students and teachers and between teachers. Students are batted around like shuttlecocks. Teachers never have time to truly get to know their students (but are told this is what a good teacher must do???). Everyone in the educational system lives fractured, fragmented days that sweep by. Let’s think more about making it different. And this isn’t something technology will cure.
2. Teaching is “deep” and qualitative.
The reality is like the saying, “Education is what remains when all else has been forgotten”. It is as wise a saying encapsulating the core of teaching, as any I know. Teaching is ephemeral. It is an enculturating process and we would do well to respect that, nurture that. It is as I infer in point 1 – about relationships and character building and creating great citizens, decent people. Not about remembering facts or writing a dazzling essay or dunking a basketball. These are all just means towards this one end. Let’s keep teaching about nurturing this “deep” wellspring of life and we’ll respect more its limitations. Let’s get this higher purpose back into our schools and classes.
3. Teaching is a tough, thankless profession.
Yes, those are the hard facts. As Keizer points out, too often society just expects teachers to be underpaid, overworked. Not realizing this indeed translates into poorer schools. You can’t have the captain of your ship making little and unrewarded. No matter how you applaud his efforts and shake his hand – he’ll end up not caring and the rest of the crew will go maurauding.
Teacher’s days are deadening. They kill the best of teachers. Marking, wiping noses, smiling when you want to scream, finding lost items, running here and there, all to the sound and weight of a heavy key chain. Need I go on?
What we need is earnest action to remedy this fact. Teachers staying with the same class longer. Teachers teaching content less (less stuffing of straw) and being more “with” students. Teachers need more time for the preparation and rehearsal of the drama that is a classroom.
4. There is a thread that weaves through all.
Despite appearances, the students remain the same. We talk so often about “digital natives” and how students are so different, in so many ways. We are looking at appearances, the fancy new hat and not the arms, legs, body that is always there.
I’ve learned that the simple things remain. Literacy, numeracy, nurturing thinkig skills, equity and equal opportunity, watering happiness, engendering a love of learning and curiousity, priming the soul of a student so they will learn of their own accord. All the rest is not dross but we shouldn’t get carried away by all the new programs, acronyms and the next educational “reform”.
I look at my students today and they remain the same as 20 years ago. What I do will change but not fundamentally. Sure, I realize as does Keizer that because communication is so ever present, because our students never experience being alone, they in some ways are different. They eschew reading, they want more visuality and social learning. This I will give but I also know that for the most part, despite these fancy new hats, they remain the same skin and blood and bone.
5. Teaching must end up empowering students.
Poverty, violence, nihilism, despair are the lot of so many students in our schools. They live in broken homes and are raised by broken spirits. How to break the cycle? A better world calls. We have a duty to empower students and inject into them the necessity of being agents of change. Teachers need this too, for that matter. We have to break the cycle and students have to be ready, like Keizer ends his essay, “ to learn everything you can about Carthage.”
We need to create citizens that are prepared to take their own destiny into their own hands and not to act robotically and to the beat of the drum that doles out pay checks. Life is too short for us not to make it better. Teachers can make it better through “cultivating their own classroom garden” and growing students that find out the power of their selves.
I say this with reluctance, I hate moralizing. But sometimes as a teacher we must raise our voice and clear the air. Teaching is, no matter how we hold our hands over our mouths and deny it – a very moral act and profession. We are models from which lives are sculpted.
I’m shutting off this machine and going to enjoy this beautiful day, with my whole family here with me. Again, as Keizer so well describes, even more beautifully for never directly saying it – the days, the years pass by so fast. We need to celebrate our lives as teachers by being happy therein. Wherever, whenever.
Now on to the next 20 years!