The Middle of the Night

On three separate occasions last night, I dreamed that I was screaming. Screaming, other people around, no one looks up. No one seems to notice even when I’m looking right at them.

I woke up after the second dream, which seemed to immediately follow the first, and placed a hand over my rapidly beating heart in order to let the rhythm lull me back to sleep. I awoke after the third dream surprised to find myself on the other side of the bed.

There’s a lot on my mind.

I am reminded of that when I wake up and all is quiet with the exception of whatever happens to be going on in my head. I live near a highway and you can faintly hear it above the white noise of the fan, but you could just as easily ignore it. Sometimes the dog who lives upstairs pads around, nails scratching on the floor. It only bothers me when something else is already bothering me.

I don’t have nightmares very often, but I’m a lucid dreamer (admittedly of the self-diagnosed variety) when I do. I am clearly making decisions, thinking about something else in the background, and I make the choice to wake up. In that sense, it’s a bit like knowing you’re going to fall when lead climbing – you move towards the next clip and as you’re reaching, you know you’ll miss. It gives you just enough time to call, “Falling!” to your partner. Lucid dreaming gives me just enough time to decide to wake.

What settled me back to sleep was not having woken from the dream itself but for admitting fear, uncertainty, a sense of moving without seeing into something resembling outer space. I say resembling because it’s not the kind of space you imagine when you’re young. It’s almost like moving under water into a blackness that folds, expands, contracts, shifts in colour and form.

It is not of this world.

And I think that’s the part that my senses do not like. There is a feeling of moving within something that I don’t understand and that my brain cannot easily classify.

Yes, this is right.

And I know it because as I write this, I find myself smiling.

There’s a world out there that may or may not be real, and it’s a world that I want to know and explore. But it’s the dubiety of this that leaves my mind playing with possibilities, and these possibilities do not fit easily into boxes.

There is also, however, a desire to have a single answer to a litany of questions.

This is impossible and it’s no wonder I’m screaming.

A storm gathering over Singapore – July 2020

Possibilities for a School Day

A number of years ago, a colleague and I wrote a blog post about what the ideal school day might look like. This piece was informed by our experiences in schools, our reading of education and well-being, and by the context in which we were in. At the time, I had a clear picture in my head of the type and amount of work it would take to strive for my ideals, and I was excited to share this grand vision with others.

However, I made a number of mistakes in the writing. While key details were clear in my mind, I did not explicitly articulate these, leading to a piece which I have since found to be imaginative rather than aspirational. Most importantly, I failed to mention the basic premise – that the ideas I developed stemmed from a highly specific time and place. In doing so, I assumed that readers shared my understandings about the environment and context within which I wrote, about the roles of schools, and about the roles of educators. 

I now recognise this omission and also acknowledge that this “basic premise” is far from constant. Time and context matter. Consequently, I can only now say that there is no such thing as an ideal school day. This post explores a few factors concerning why.

First, context matters. Schools around the globe are embedded in different contexts, different cultures, different environments. Their communities, furthermore, also vary greatly, from the highly homogenous to the highly disparate. As a result, there is no one size or one model that fits all. Consequently, at its core, the concept of an “ideal school day” begs the question: For whom? And it also raises a very different question: Who’s asking? 

We tend to take it for granted that schools serve a solitary function and that is to help students learn. Of course, they do this through state-mandated or other recognised curriculum, be it academic or social-emotional. But schools also carry certain stated values that are central to their work to the culture of the organisation, values that inform what is important and how we should act towards each other.

Schools also serve other functions, as a look at the history of schooling will tell us. They are a place for children to be safe, they provide time for adults to work while their children are looked after, they provide teachers with employment and income, and that income is then further used within the local community, providing for some security for others.

Consequently, the ideal school day for students, caregivers, governments, social organisations, and teachers might look very different. For example, it is not possible to concede that the ideal school day in a single-sex school in a developing country will be the same as that of a boarding school in a developed country. If we assume that the ideal school day can be a blueprint for all schools, then we find ourselves trapped in a model that merely perpetuates our experience of what a school is, or our culturally informed model of what a school should be.

With this in mind, we need to be aware that the factors in play across educational contexts are disparate, and that such disparity varies across a number of areas. In the case of a teacher’s experience, such factors may be who the students are and where they come from, the function that the school plays within the local and broader society and how teachers interact with such domains, and the physical environment in which the students are learning. Schools are not carbon copies of one another and neither are the communities to which they belong. Therefore, what works in one school cannot simply be dropped into another without careful reflection of the role of the school, without critical thought of opportunities that exist to improve or rebuild the school, and without purposeful action.

However, if we shift the focus from the school to education, we can find commonality. Educators speak of best practice and there are indeed best practices that are informed by what we know about the conditions under which learning can flourish. Such best practices include the strategies and teaching methods that overwhelmingly work – for most students, most of the time. They also include the ways in which we respond to students’ cultural backgrounds, a sensitivity to the differences that students bring with them once they enter the school gate. By all means, educators should cultivate, learn, and develop best practices that work and then adapt them so they are more effectively able to impact the learning of the young people under their care

But even best practice in the classroom, or in the relationships we build with students elsewhere, cannot eliminate problems that schools are not built to solve.

Education is fundamentally about people, and with this comes the awareness and acceptance that we are not all the same. There exists, for example, a myth that students in selective and self-selective schools will turn out just fine no matter what. However, this myth emphasises the environment – classroom, schedule, curriculum, operations – but neglects the individual students and their life experiences and the impact that these doubtless have on their learning. Even the most homogeneous student bodies, just like society, have vast diversity that is often unrecognized. So while it’s convenient and easy to classify people based on what we see, to stereotype, there is a significant danger in doing so because it limits us from looking for what we cannot see.

As such, this is a call for those of us who care for our students and each other to work together to make the learning environment the best it can possibly be as often as we can, to recognise that we are different and that this has implications that we must attend to.  At the same time, we must also acknowledge that schools are complex and that there are certain things that simply must be tolerated in order for the rest of the system to function. We cannot have starting times that differ for each student, we cannot fund individualized learning in the models that exist, we have to run buses and integrate with other sectors of society. Schools, after all, are part of social systems. They do not exist in a vacuum, though they are often upheld as the places where miracles should occur. This is the expectation of schools even though other formal and informal institutions within social systems change, crumble, grow, or disappear. As they are parts of such social, economic, and political networks, schools are impacted by that which surrounds them. They have to exist in specific times and places for society to function and this is one of many constraints placed on education.

That there cannot be a universal school idea does not obviate us from trying to do the right thing by young people. On the contrary, understanding that there are things that we can do, despite the time and place that schools find themselves in, compels us to act.

And so, I am going to extend a value judgement here (such is the freedom of blogging) and state that all educational environments should aim to do the following:

  1. Build a sense of community that emphasises relationships and interaction and do so in ways that do not incur any significant additional resources. For example, having shared mealtimes, intentional cross groupings of students for certain valued activities, or morning gatherings.
  2. Help students understand that the world is complex. All too often in schools we present scenarios that students explore but do so without the intent to help them understand the intricacy of such ideas. This requires careful planning and action to guide students through a gradual (perhaps years long) development of thought and understanding. It requires exposing students to ideas that they may otherwise not be aware of, or working with them to correct misunderstandings that they may have.
  3. Raise good people, people who value each other and what exists, through an emphasis on mutual respect and genuine care for one another and the world around us.

I can tell you how I try to do this but I am well aware that this is within my current context and the others I have encountered. This is my experience. I have been a different person, a different educator, for different groups of students with different needs; in fact, this is not simply a case of the school I might be working in, but also with the people I am working with in different courses and different sections of each course. Even such seemingly simple context matters and as a result, educating requires deep attention to purpose and to the ebb and flow of learning and growing.

This is a tall order, no doubt. But we cannot ignore that it is important if we are to help young people learn. We cannot ignore that the differences of time and place we find ourselves in must be taken into account, but also that there exist key principles which transcend such differences. And so, we need to work within what is important to the society in which we chose to live, while at the same time striving to live the principles I noted above. We cannot succeed if we try, working in isolation, to turn a learning environment into something that it is not. And perhaps we shouldn’t, for that would suggest that our thoughts are superior to those of the people around us.

Education is a craft that is continuously developed and honed in order to do the best we can in the circumstances that we have, which means that an “ideal school day” cannot be prescribed. However, this question, treated sensitively, can be a starting point for asking difficult questions. Nevertheless, there is a constant in education and this is that we work with people. And for that reason, first and foremost, we need to attend to our people.

Like Night and Day

I like to know how people live their everyday lives. I like to know the locations of schools, banks, post offices. When in new places, I visit grocery stores and take as many forms of public transportation as I can. In the places where I’ve lived, I’ve always really enjoyed visiting parts of time at the wrong of day – not night but day. When I lived in downtown Rochester, NY in my early twenties, it was not uncommon to visit the bar district on a Saturday morning run. Completely different place in every way – colours, lights, sounds, smells, people. Completely different place and often disarmingly so.

That’s what I really enjoyed about walking through Clarke Quay in Singapore on a recent weekday morning. Colours, lights, sounds, smells, people. Completely different place.

Because we usually see them in their glory, we sometimes forget that bars have to close up, too. Work continues after last call and begins far earlier than you or I would ever be there.

It’s eerie, in a way, ghostlike and still when it’s “supposed to” be loud and awake. Who was here last night? I wonder. Who went home laughing and who in tears? What stories were told in this spot mere hours earlier?

But at the same time, all is fresh and new. Waiting for new people, a new night, new stories.

We forget, sometimes, to look around. Out at night, immersed in all there is, we find our friends, enjoy food and drink, walk in the direction of the best music.

In the pulse of distraction, sometimes we forget to look around. But when we do, there’s vivid colour.

Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place