An Open Field of Questions
It’s summertime, time for dreaming and imagining. In doing this, I am passing along to you some open questions I often work or play with.
I never imagined where my career would take me, and I had no plan. I also never imagined, starting out all those decades ago, that my profession would steadily cast teachers as bureaucrats, but that has happened.
I never imagined, starting out, I would have patrons to enable me to search the globe for diverse school settings that have opened my eyes—and I have attempted to use this patronage, which has normally come to me unsolicited and by surprise, in an effort to ennoble and reclaim our great and ancient profession, it’s challenges, ruin, blessings, depth, and soul. Our great field has become greatly conflicted, and it is not articulating that conflict clearly at all, so we can hardly expect solutions.
A few years ago I met Tom, a teacher from Surrey, England, who described our field’s basic conflict this way:
“Teachers start feeling like their own stories don’t matter and that their primary role is in reacting or responding to the inspectors’ standards. But when people are given a little time and space to do something creative on their own, you can’t believe how excited and productive they become.”
To this, Socrates may have replied:
“If you think teachers could use more creative time and space, what about teenagers?”
Time and time again, I have found that, for me, key stories like Tom’s end in questions. Tom’s story captures a conflict that can play out in contradictory ways. Worldwide, teachers are feeling marginalized or trapped, and of course this means that their students are, too. Teachers I meet around the world are learning that our stories do not matter, and many among us either resign or remain passive, waiting for the pension.
Where can we find places of activism and passion? Where can we find pockets of democracy—even if behind the closed door of a single classroom?
Like Tom, many teachers feel a calling that actually makes them feel apart from their chosen profession. In the best of them, this is a calling to give generously of themselves. It is a calling to transcend curriculum and requirements that satisfy mainly bureaucracies, not students, and to find freedom for the expression of human spirit.
This conflict, is stated like this:
“Am I teaching curriculum standards or am I teaching kids?”
or like this:
“Am I having a controlling or liberating impact on my students?”
The conflict is universal inasmuch as it transcends boundaries of all kinds, be they political, social or economic. Rich school or poor school, in any hemisphere, wherever I have travelled, I have found stories where people live in and navigate this bind. I am trying almost weekly to pass along a handful of the best stories I have seen and heard around the world, real stories, stories that transcend data. These are the ones I hope to tell again and again. These stories are intended to give all teachers, parents, and scholars historical and cultural perspectives on our great, shared field.
Education is a weird field where even the most mainstream scholars and leaders routinely refer to themselves as “reformers.” They often remove story and replace it with a data obsession. The true reformers, like free schoolers, independent schoolers, forest schoolers, critics and the like cry: “Who wants standardized kids!” They cite a pervasive focus on student “standards” and data collection eating the practice of teaching alive. They clamor for stories they need in seeing the world through clearer lenses, and in asking bigger, more humble, and more open questions. Questions that take us deeper:
What constitutes great teaching, a relationship or an outcome, a process or a product? Is teaching downloadable?
Can we restore the ancient, esteemed roots of the noble profession of teaching?
One big goal I have is to challenge everyone’s deepest assumptions about what we do as educators (and students and parents) every day as we face the largest questions our field has to offer.
As my age has ripened, my travels have broadened, and my experience in leadership has deepened, I have continually found that the most essential lessons are those that have taught me to listen better. In kind, I have learned to find bigger, more clarifying questions to ask—the single-most essential act of a teacher.
Years of searching for stories illustrating the essence of teaching have yielded bigger and bigger questions for me. Here are some of the biggest ones I have found, still far from the graduate school bookshelves, and they will take a whole lot longer to answer than summer break:
- What if we evaluate our students and our schools by measuring happiness? Or kindness? Or freedom?
- Are we willing to risk it all in the pursuit of real and deepening connection with our students?
- Can open-heartedness prevail over the exhaustion and self-interest we often find around us?
- How do we manage to stay in this work?
We all have tough choices, and I do not believe hiding from reality is any more defensible than pursuing impracticality. The opening line of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes: “Limiting global warming to 1.5° C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” The Grauer School’s ways of addressing all this are neither “rapid,” nor always “far-reaching,” but they offer a way of thinking and a way of seeing our children and our classrooms, a way of honestly attempting to embrace whatever aspects exist in our own community that are connecting, life-affirming, sustainable (relatively) – even if the current human way of life turns out not to be.
And I sometimes wonder: has teaching, must it, become an expression of control? But here is a much better question, a bigger one:
What greater expression of human freedom could there possibly be than teaching?
So far, I have been wildly lucky to spend several decades helping to carve out what a parent described as an “oasis of heartfelt education” called The Grauer School, and I have attempted in my small way to share my findings wherever I travel. But let’s get something straight: The Grauer School is not an anecdote for the ills of large urban schooling—it is not going to save the forests of the world. It is not going to stop the urbanization, displacement of homes world over, environmental degradation, toxifying and dwindling water supply, and accelerating species extinction caused by human populations which will continue to increase beyond the earth’s carrying capacity. But it is a beautiful, man-made pocket of democracy and many people could create communities like it. I'm willing to help.
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