The book from college that I remember reading is Neil Postman’s The End of Education. He was the founder and chair of my program, the Department of Culture and Communication at New York University. While at the time I had no intention of becoming a teacher, now that I am I think about this book all the time. To summarize, he asked school leaders, educators, and students, “Why are we all here?” Why indeed.
Once I knew I wanted to be an educator I attended Bank Street College of Education, a place where I could grow my practice without compromise. The gods served by progressive education were in alignment with Postman’s perspective that schooling should be about “how to make a life, not a living”. After 12 years in the field, I still wonder how we might focus the methods of education (the standards, the learning goals, the essential questions, the projects) on “meaningful” ends – the definition of which educators disagree. Ultimately, what do I wish my students? A sense of personal identity, cooperative interdependence with others, respect for our earth, a commitment to community, to peace, and to justice. Such “soft skills” are not often in vogue and yet who can deny that the human experience is complete without them?
I have three mantras that center my teaching around achieving what I see as the end goal of creating capable and confident lifelong learners who are empathic and engaged citizens. People who might know how to go out and make a life. When faced with a dilemma I can count on these words to bring truth to light.
Teach the whole child
This was my first teaching philosophy, captured in a Master’s thesis that still rings true today. At that time, I wrote:
My priority is preparing students to become lovers of learning for life. I want them to value their intellects and capabilities and have faith in their desires and their dreams. I want to provide opportunities for them to bring their outside learning in, as well as opportunities for them to share what we learn together with their families, friends, and communities…I want to be a teacher who sees all of my students as whole people with whole lives. I want to fearlessly jump into those lives and care. I want to bring those whole children into the classroom and leave their emotional, social, intellectual, and moral selves better than when I found them.
My yesterday self would be proud to know that these are still my priorities. I still seek to provide authentic learning experiences for the unique students I come in contact with each year. I still try to listen and solicit their ideas and feedback. I still try to offer choices and leave room for their inspired creativity. The invisible curriculum where students are building identities and friendships, where they are testing the boundaries of integrity and authority, where they are developing a growth mindset understanding of risk, failure, and success, is just as important as what we read and write and calculate. I try and remember that those are simply means to a much bigger end.
Teach what matters
Our sixth-grade curriculum feels important. Quaker philosophy asks that we “Let Our Lives Speak”. To let one’s life speak, one has to discover what it might say. By making careful curriculum choices, I try to give my students room to uncover areas of interest and to develop talents that might be of use as they go about the business of living. We are motivated by the testimonies – weighty concepts like peace, integrity, equality, and stewardship. Over several years, our team has infused these ideas directly into the curriculum through the lens of social studies.
Thematically, we study global issues and sustainable solutions. Sixth graders want to know what is going on in the world. We watch the news, we read articles, we research hot topics. We build our media literacy and think critically about information that is presented. We debate potential perspectives. Current events can be frightening, even to adults, but we establish our classroom as a safe place to feel authentic emotions and to ask questions. We learn about the United Nation Sustainable Development Goals and the movement to make major headway on key problems by 2030. We leave room for our interests. Last year we studied ethical sourcing of raw materials for chocolate and cell phones. The year before it was endangered manatees. The exact issue is less important than going through the process of asking ever deeper questions, using multiple sources to answer them, listening to a variety of perspectives, and putting our research into action. It is a process they can use their whole life. I am especially proud of how our food justice curriculum is taking shape. It contradicts the notions that service-learning work is not “rigorous” and that its integration dilutes the academic program. What is more rigorous that studying world hunger? It is a problem that has not yet been solved.
We culminate the year with a design-thinking project. Students are charged with building scale model sustainable homes for well-researched client families from around the world. This highly collaborative, interdisciplinary experience allows them to apply a wide variety of gained skills in a novel way. They have to depend on one another and to be dependable, as it is too much work for any one member to shoulder. They can visualize what it will take to provide sustainable lifestyles around the globe. What others need. What we must give up. Most of all, students walk away knowing there is a role for them in creating this better life. They are involved and they are invested.
Curriculum design is one of my favorite aspects of teaching. I love wrestling with content, resources, and activities to craft dynamic learning experiences based on the interests of that year’s cohort. I see first-hand how social studies allows students to grapple with the problems of those who lived long ago or far away. It is an empathic exercise. Quaker philosophy also asks that we look for “that of god in everyone”, something that I think social studies helps us to do. Through our studies what I really hope is that students build the cultural competence and vulnerability required to be in community with others. Only together in true partnership can we work on problems that really matter and create solutions that restore justice and create a sustainable future for all.
Teach without ego
I sincerely believe that ego is the nemesis of the teacher. I define it as a projection of a self that is separate and different and special from the other selves in the world. Left unchecked it can be divisive and a barrier to compassion. It breeds insecurity, jealousy, and competition. Ego can be a detriment to the practice of teaching. I came across this dilemma while exploring the concept of the teacher-leader. As I seek to be an integral part of progress and evolution in my schools, I have to be really honest with myself about my intentions. Am I propping up my self-esteem, trying to get ahead, or seeking to control a situation according to my own desires? Am I operating on fear or resentment? With a fixed resolution or an open mind? Am I acting in the interests of my students? Do I honor best practice? Do I uphold agreed up ethics? Am I present to talk or to listen?
When I first joined my current school, I entered into a team teaching situation that I greatly underestimated for its difficulty. I came to realize that most of the angst I felt at work could be traced back to my ego. Desires to be recognized, respected, and right can be strong. Self-preservation seems sensible and competition seems healthy. A twinge of resentment over a close relationship or individually achieved success seems normal. Suspicion of new colleagues and initiatives seems expected. Giving priority to the activities and topics I prefer seems logical. But when these emotional responses interfere with my ability to focus on what is best for my students and their learning, my ego is the one that needs to back down. In those moments, I am learning not to fight, not to defend, not to protect, not to promote. I am learning to let go. When “I” am at the center of my practice, the world my students and I are creating together feels fragile and destabilized, tilted in the direction of a self-concerned perspective. When my students are at the center of my practice, our world seems infinitely more solid.
These mantras are evidence of my growth and continuing evolution as a teacher. I acquired each of them during a particular time though for me they remain timeless. With further reflection, my practice continues to deepen, proof that I am what I wish for my students, on a joyful journey of lifelong learning.