The first day is always exciting, year, after year, after year. Imagine a career full of fresh starts annually. That’s teaching.
Spending a few prep days with adult colleagues feels comforting.
Yet nothing compares to the arrival of children in all shapes and sizes. Big sisters, little brothers, eager dads and well informed moms – all these people pouring into the building, filling it with life, giving the school a purpose.
We teachers and staff members hold our collective breath in anticipation and then celebrate an enormous exhale as the first hour breezes by, then lunchtime, then recess and already the first day is history and we can hardly believe our luck at the incredible people we will get to spend the year with.
So many smiles and excited conversations, so much catching up to do, so many friendships to renew. The hallways are loud with laughter and questions.
New students have a special look of awe about them. Taking it all in, finding the familiar faces they met the day before – such a relief to be recognized and waved to, encouraged that yes, this school might actually be OK after all.
While I think about routines and first impressions, setting the right tone and helping students feel at home, all it takes is one encounter – unanticipated, spontaneous- I’m helping a misdirected middle schooler find his health class or stop to chat with a new parent who is waiting around (in case of emergency) or meet a former student who stops to give me the most generous hug ever en route to her brand new classroom in 4th grade, not 3rd – one encounter and suddenly I am back. I am immersed in the flow of what we will call a new school year.
There is no agenda for these moments that make up the heartbeat of a school and I am grateful. For all the structures that schools embody and uphold, part of what keeps calling me back is the way young humans consistently resist, refashion and reclaim school structures to create space for their unique ways of being.
Every year I am witness to this 180 day ritual and I cannot imagine a better, more rewarding use of my time.
One of the greatest insights I have ever received on the topic of school answers the question of why kids continue to go to school day after day, school year after school year without more protest. Put simply: because school is where all the other kids are. (I am inclined to credit psychologist and author, Michael Thompson, PhD, with this insight, but I have not yet been able to retrieve the specific passage.)
And if we think about it honestly, as parents, teachers, or just as grown-ups, doesn’t that make perfect sense? Of course kids want to be where other kids are. That’s where the action is. It’s where they can really learn the stuff that interests them. With other kids is where kids learn how (and how not) to be themselves. They develop their own idiosyncratic metrics to determine who’s up and who’s down, who’s in and who’s out, what’s cool and what’s not. What’s going on at school for kids has everything to do with these factors first and foremost and all else (i.e., academic achievement) has to be viewed within this critical context.
For this reason I love reading Michael Thompson on the topic of child development and school. In The Pressured Child (2004) he describes why he feels that the psychological aspects of school are missing in most talk about education.
We always talk about what we’re trying to teach children in school, and whether they are learning what they need. However, this is only the first of three different levels at which children experience school: The Lesson, The Strategy and Self-Knowledge.
The Lesson is the adult agenda for children. The Strategy is what children develop in order to cope with both the reality of The Lesson and the many other things they are interested in learning from school…Self-Knowledge is what children actually achieve in school.” (p. 14-15)
As adults we typically have a very hard time seeing things from the child’s perspective. We have forgotten what it was like being a child. We can no longer fathom the way they think and how on earth they reach the conclusions that they do. And we have responsibilities: to make sure they are safe, warm and fed, that they are educated, and that they are loved. We’re working so hard to make sure they get what they need and often a fair amount of what they want. Why can’t they see that?
Getting back to my own thoughts on school, I realized that my own positioning is decidedly ambiguous. Having my six year old start first grade in September has thrown this ambiguity into stark relief. While I want my son to have a great school experience, I am clearly braced for the possibility that this may not materialize. In fact, I am sure that my grown-up reservations about school being the perfect place for children are as plain to my son as the nose on my face. This led me to wonder about adjusting my message. What if I told my son, “School is going to be awesome!” and actually meant it?
What if I consciously added this perspective to the mix of messages he is receiving? He is six years old. The song, “Everything is Awesome” makes sense to him. So much of his world is still occupied by magic, miracles and super-hero powers. In his mind, school could become like the secret lair of a bunch of mini masterminds or the enchanted forests of a distant planet. All of that is still so possible – in his mind.
Yet my maternal, adult, educator mind is still saying: “You’ve got to be ready” and “You’re starting school in September” which are both ways of saying, “There are expectations you’ll need to meet, there are challenges you’re going to face” and actually meaning “I hope you’ll be OK,” and “I sure hope it goes well.” And deep down, “Yeah, I’m pretty scared, too.”
Maybe there’s the crux. And I think Michael Thompson would agree: My fears are my own and they surface as I watch my own child venture into new territory. Having that awareness and acknowledging it puts me in a real position to grant my son license to create his own adventure, both with school and without. It’s possible for kids to absolutely love school. And for so many reasons I need to do all I can to support that possibility, to keep it alive in my son’s mind as well as in my own.
I highly recommend just about anything written by Michael Thompson, PhD. Especially, however,
The Pressured Child (2004) NY, NY: Ballantine Books (w/Teresa Barker) or
Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children, Michael Thompson, PhD and Catherine O’Neill Grace with Lawrence J. Cohen, PhD. (2001) also Ballantine Books.
A few things have happened recently to motivate me to try to connect the dots in my fuzzy picture publicly. Not sure where the public part comes from but it’s there and I acknowledge it.
In the course of my reading this week I came across a variety of links which spoke to me on a deeper level. Beyond simply agreeing with the author, I felt gratitude, relief, connection, and concern among other things. The common thread has a lot to do with us as learners, educators, adults, parents, etc. being honest with ourselves about what education is and does; what it could and should be for our kids.
which reminded me of what I know so well already: learning comes to those who seek it and those who get into it do so with the intent to get something out of it: answers to their questions, a link to take the interest further, a connection that puts something in perspective…
This one just hit the spot and in my comment I wrote:
In this moment I can only express my sincere gratitude for the caring voices I have found here. Our children and our students deserve better than what we are generally offering them right now. They are so much more than aggregated data points and while we as individual teachers may be in a position to mitigate the harshness of many of the prevailing messages, our systems, policies and structures can make it very difficult to succeed on that account. The conversation above gives me hope that progress is possible and that momentum for positive change is gathering.
And if that weren’t enough I went to see a movie by an Austrian filmmaker entitled: Alphabet. It is a documentary that works from Sir Ken Robinson’s premise that schooling in its traditional form is robbing children of their capacities for divergent and critical thinking, creativity and a host of other positive qualities we tend to espouse as 21st century skills.
So much to remind me that school seems to be a thoroughly insufficient response to just about everything that matters to kids…
And yet, I work in a school. I see children day after day. I shush them in the hallways. I insist that they follow directions, rules, me… And I also listen when they tell me about the tooth they lost at lunch, and I coach them on how to make that overhand throw go even further, and I tell them how proud I am of them in the way that they learned a new game so quickly. I get to participate in their learning. I’m more than a spectator. I create spaces for learning to happen. I offer opportunities for kids to discover what works and what doesn’t. I do love teaching and I cherish my students.
It’s easy to get carried away with the sense that all of it is wrong and going further in that direction. We’re doomed. But we’re not. If we’re raising questions, we’re not doomed. If we’re providing the individual care that each student deserves every day, then we’re not doomed. If we look at the system and see that it is wrong, we can correct it by taking a stand of whatever dimension and showing our kids: “We are not doomed.”
My own learning from the posts mentioned above and the comments that follow has been significantly enriched. My connect-the-dots projects are steadily gaining in complexity as a result.
There’s hope. I’d do well to hold onto mine. And share it.
My 19 year old son shared this spoken word video by Suli Breaks with me today. It is powerful, poignant and painfully real.
Over the years James has introduced me to all sorts of internet lore from gaming circles to college humor to deep house drum and bass. While my immediate response (often in the middle of preparing dinner) might not have always been enthusiastic, the impact of so much internet exposure on his learning and self-development has never been lost on me. So when he sent me a related link through Skype (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D-eVF_G_p-Y), I knew it was a thoughtful choice on his part.
My oldest son’s educational trajectory has been so fundamentally shaped by the range, reach and audacity of the internet and the fact that we were able to have a heartfelt and deep conversation about the direction education needs to go in the future after watching this video together tells a much deeper tale of connection and the path to mutual understanding than any conversation we ever held related to his actual school performance.
When you watch this, ask yourself:
What am I doing to redefine education?