▲ Reconnect on a human level Photo courtesy Unsplash
We spend decades in vast educational machines that fail to teach us many of the most fundamental skills we need in order to succeed in life. Basic repair, cooking, cleaning, health, civics and finance - not to mention less tangible assets like emotional intelligence, interpersonal communication, self-reflection, and building healthy relationships.
We live in an age of information and yet no one seems to be learning anything important.
Public education is an institution of civilization - edification to protect and nurture the greater good. Our collective ability to respond to the challenges of life is directly proportional to the capacities of its individuals and vice versa.
In what way does meaningless busywork achieve this?
The system may pay lip service to human development, but in everything from the workload and the grading system, to the food, classrooms, and student-to-teacher ratios, schools reinforce the message that our most fundamental needs aren’t really a priority.
Schools teach far too many students (and instructors) that they are unimportant.
I was one such student. I dropped out in the tenth grade. Up to that point I had learned not because of school, but in spite of it. However, after years of fighting for my mind, I was exhausted and demoralized.
No one seemed to care. School was just a prison, so I escaped.
I was lucky however. In my flight from the system, I stumbled across an alternative community school. It was a small “experimental” public school where teachers were given the latitude and support necessary to provide their students with a humane education. It quite literally saved my life.
And while you may not be part of a school that supports you as a teacher, that doesn’t mean you can’t be a teacher that supports your students as human beings.
Your students need someone who can admit that school is tedious and useless; that sitting in classrooms for eight hours a day learning skills that may soon be automated out of existence is a tragic misuse of our time and energy.
Reassure your kids that they aren’t crazy. The system is, in fact, broken. Go ahead. Do it. You’ll feel better. Acknowledging the problem is enormously analgesic - for you and for your students.
▲ It's time to be honest about the ways in which the system doesn't work Photo courtesy Henry Nicholson
There’s a great deal that we’re not in control of. However, we can show our students that while many socially sanctioned coping mechanisms rely on distraction, denial, guilt, shame, and the surrender of personal responsibility, there are far more skillful ways to respond to the challenges of this life.
We need to see - and we need to be - the kind of people who can model tolerance, appreciate ambiguity, and navigate their emotions with honesty and resilience.
We especially need educators who can themselves fail with stunning alacrity. Failure, and breaking down in the face of failure, are part of the price we pay for true depth of character as well as intellectual fidelity.
Give your students and yourself a break from the unbearable pressure of trying to act strong all the time. It’s transformative when you practice holding space for fear and failure.
And no, this is not about being a therapist. It's about having a therapeutic effect.
We need to be seen, to be heard, to be known and accepted - especially in our weakest moments - and yet our educational systems are catastrophically failing to supply us with this kind of agency.
From Simple Acts
Building trust takes persistence and rectitude. As a teacher, you will have to throw yourself against the momentum of your student’s education so far.
A large proportion of my teaching in Korea dealt with confronting and working together with anxiety, self-doubt, cynicism, and general misanthropy. It’s spectacular, however, how much ground can be regained once you reawaken their hope.
Give them a few tools to help them relate to their feelings of helplessness and separation. To do this, you will need to create pathways for self-expression and interaction.
It can be as remedial as using social media like a Facebook group or Kakaotalk in order to construct a rudimentary sense of connection, or as in-depth as weekly office hours, where you set aside time for intensive one-on-one reciprocal exchanges.
Make a habit out of asking your students if they’ve had enough good quality food to eat. I routinely brought in food to share. I also encouraged my students to do the same, if they could. Eating together and sharing is Human 101.
I gave out points in class and on midterms and finals for students who tried to be well-rested, eat breakfast, and avoid constant hangovers. But I also gave points for some of the inevitable failures too, trying to promote a functional relationship between effort and achievement.
I gently but consistently enforced rules on phone use - they were for emergencies only (and you couldn't have an emergency every class). I followed this rule for my own phone use too. I tried to bring the focus back to being here and now, interacting with real people.
I channeled some of their phone energy into making short videos together. You can film and edit on most phones now (and if not, don’t forget that Window’s Movie Maker is easy to use and on most PCs).
I used Youtube to broaden my student’s exposure to different art and music. I also used it to fill study periods with bird song, ocean waves, and other sounds of nature. I brought in plants and hung posters. Do whatever you can to make the sterile cubicle of your classroom or office more personal and comfortable - give it a living quality.
I reserved brief periods at the start of some classes for the practice of silence, where I introduced rudimentary mindfulness and breathing exercises - not as some spiritual lesson, but just to reacquaint habitually frantic students with those all important breaks from incessant working, studying, and thinking.
Throughout all of this, I kept notes, observing my students and myself.
I used an “ID Sheet” which allowed me to record summative and formative assessments. It gave me a place to evaluate my own work too, identifying trends and maintaining a functional narrative for each and every student individually.
Record how your students are feeling, and how you respond. Some days they’re tired, just like you. Some days they’re in a bad mood, just like you. You don’t necessarily have to excuse them from participating based on these issues, but you can certainly adjust the intensity and workload - just as you should for yourself.
And finally, remember that everything doesn’t have to have a learning goal. Sometimes what students need most is not having anything asked or expected of them. Stop trying to teach all the time. Learning should be fun, so make time to play together too.
▲ Remember the foundation of why you wanted to teach Photo courtesy Unsplash
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