Category Archives: Education

Reflections on Learning

During our last class before the holidays, my grade 12 students and I talked about getting old. Well, older. I mentioned something that had happened six years ago and we were all taken aback for a moment. Six years ago I was still living in Rochester, New York where I grew up; six years ago, my students were in grade 6. Six years is six years but somehow, it seems like a much bigger change for them. Six years ago, my students were kids. Now, they’re young people who are preparing to go into the world and do something. But not just yet. Let’s not rush things.

I’m reflecting on this right now because I have a birthday coming up and it required me to change the tagline that appears just below the title of this blog. Until about 10 minutes ago, the tagline read, “Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by a twenty-something teacher trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place.” Now it reads, “Photos, travels, musings, and ideas on education by someone trying to make the world a better and more peaceful place.”

Don’t panic: I’m still a teacher.

But yes, I’m turning 30 next month and any birthday is a cause for reflection. Last year I wrote a list of what I’d learned in my twenties and it definitely reflects how I was thinking at the time I wrote it. A few months later, I wrote a letter to my brother with some life advice and I like that one much better. It takes some elements of the first list and frames the ideas in actionable ways – I like that. The difference between these two lists, five months apart, also reflects what I would like to highlight here: the importance of perpetual learning.


I can point to much that has changed for me over time, but an essential constant has been the desire to learn and to grow. There has always been a genuine excitement over recognising something new or forming new connections. I’ve never been afraid of what I don’t know and I’ve never been deluded into thinking there’s nothing left to find out. This is also why I’m more than happy to reread books. There’s plenty out there, sure, but you really never step into the same river twice. (My credit to Disney’s Pocahontas here, but further research indicated that Heraclitus said it first.)

Last week, my Theory of Knowledge students gave oral presentations on the topic of ignorance. One student concluded by saying that ignorance leads to growth. When my co-teacher asked what she meant by “growth” she replied, “I don’t know, maybe learning.” Yes, exactly. Ignorance opens doors to learning. I have always known this but I have not always had the language to express it.

Growing up, my parents had a pretty clear policy on things we children didn’t know: Go find out. We had dictionaries and encyclopedias and after some time, we also had the Internet. If you didn’t know it, you looked it up. If you didn’t understand your findings, you asked. I only remember being turned down once for an answer. I was thirteen and my poor dad, looking distinctly uncomfortable, told me, “Go ask your mother.” I did and it was a good thing.

I have never been a stranger to learning. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve taken the important step of being able to appreciate when I am wrong. In many ways, being an educator has taught me this. As a student, I could see right through my teachers, especially new ones, and I knew exactly when they didn’t know what they were desperately trying to demonstrate that they knew. As a teacher myself, I understand the necessity of being both genuine and vulnerable with my students. I expect the same of them, after all, and at the end of the day we are partners in this thing called education. (Schooling is a different matter and, in keeping with the above, I am very open about this, too.)


Learning is deeply personal and I understand that. When I think back to what I wanted out of life six years ago, to return to the conversation with my grade 12 students, I’m stunned by how much has changed. I am in awe of what I have learned.

I am doing almost none of what I expected to be doing, but much of what I dreamed of doing. I have so much more than I thought I would, but very little of what I had wanted. I now see myself in ways I never imagined were possible because I didn’t know they existed, but I am not who I thought I would be. And I know there is more to become.

This is not to say one is all good and the other is all bad, certainly not. Rather, this is to say that I have lived in varying shades of black, white, and gray – at times, more gray or more black or more white. Shifting. Sometimes fluidly, sometimes with stark lines. In short, I have lived. I have learned.

I’m not particularly sentimental but I do grow nostalgic every now and then. For instance, the other day I looked up a friend from a former life. Just looked. But the same day, I picked up a book by an author I would have once passed over. Because you never know. Really.

In the words that Immanuel Kant took as the motto of Enlightenment, “Sapere aude. Dare to know.”

And millennia earlier from Socrates, “I know nothing except the fact of my own ignorance.”

Indeed. And now I’ll return to my reading.

How Not to Teach About Homelessness

I recently learned about The World’s Big Sleep Out, which tags itself as “A Global Sleep Out to Call for an End to Global Homelessness”. I’ve linked it here not because I support this but so that you can read about it yourself. The post that follows is my reaction when I learned that my school on the equator would be promoting the outdoor sleepover as a service opportunity for students. (That this event will take place directly upon the conclusion of our equatorial school’s winter fair could be a blog post all on its own.)


Let’s imagine: Here on the equator it’s about 27° Celsius at all times. When the sun goes down and there’s a light wind, which is common at night, it’s quite pleasant. Our students will be sleeping on the tennis courts on the roof of our school. Snacks, games, and breakfast have been advertised as part of the event and I know that there are plans for a film to be shown in the theatre before bedtime.

For a student bonding experience, it sounds lovely.

As an event that is supposed to raise awareness about homelessness, it is shockingly irresponsible.

For context: We live in a country where homelessness is actively hidden. When I’ve taken informal polls in class, and I have done this as recently as last week, no one has seen a homeless person where we live. Considering the typical income level of expatriate students at an international school, this is not surprising. They are literally in parts of the city where, in all honesty, there probably are not any homeless people. Or at least, not at times when these students would be out and about. Homelessness, to these students, is invisible.

Pretending to care about an invisible problem does not make it visible.

When I asked the organiser of the event how she planned to address homelessness, because I didn’t see how a tropical sleepover on the tennis courts would do it, she seemed to think that sleeping outside was enough. I can almost understand this response if you’re somewhere uncomfortable, like on a narrow park bench or outside in the rain or snow. But that would still break down when you consider that anyone playing at being homeless, as our students would be, probably has appropriate outdoor gear, a belly full of food, and the knowledge that they’ll be heading to back to their comfortable home in a mere few hours.

Another area to consider is that many people who are homeless do not sleep on the street. Many stay in shelters for days at a time or stay itinerantly with friends or relatives. An additional area our students will not see is that people who are homeless own only what they can carry; our students will not understand this when they bring a change of clothes to the roof and leave everything else sitting at home. Likewise, people who are homeless often do not have access to clean toilets or showers; our students will not have this concern.

Furthermore, malnutrition contributes to poor health, which certainly will not come across during this sleep over. All of our students, unlike people who are homeless, have an address. However, lack of address often restricts or eliminates access to government programs and services, as well as the ability to apply for a job since it is required on applications. This obviously contributes to a lack of stability, which leads to unstable education, and stigmatisation continues the cycle.

Our students will not understand this from a tropical night on the school’s roof.

Yes, it is important to raise awareness about homelessness. One of my students recently wrote an article about Willing Hearts, a local organisation that provides meals for those who need them. As I suggested to the organiser of the sleepover, why not ask students to volunteer for the 5am breakfast shift so they can interact with people who they would never otherwise even see? (This suggestion was met with an excuse about wanting to enjoy her weekend. I dropped the subject.)

Teach about homelessness? Assuming you’re doing so in a responsible and truly caring way, yes.

But not like this. Please not like this.

A Momentary Lull

This is the first moment since the school year began in August that I feel like I might be on top of things. For once I don’t feel as though I’m being pulled in more directions than I can handle at once. Multiple directions, yes, but perhaps I’m naturally flowing into them at appropriate times rather than being pulled and prodded and dragged to places I don’t want to go.

It’s been a while since I’ve had this feeling!

After nine years of teaching, you’d think this would have happened much earlier in the year and to be honest, it should have. About a month ago, sitting down to our first meal in Yunnan, China, I described this year as “the most stressful year since I first started teaching and was voluntold the job of yearbook advisor and was also a graduate student”.

I’m grateful for my friendships and support system; I’ve been leaning heavily.

Also significant is that I have a strong sense of purpose. I’m increasingly interested in how this sense of purpose guides what I do and makes it possible to keep doing what I see as the right thing, or the best thing under given conditions, despite challenges and resistance. On the other hand, I’ve also come to recognise that a sense of purpose is not something that can be taken away: This is important. And that’s where it ends.

Knowing that this is important to me, and letting it guide my attitude (this has been admittedly very tricky) and behaviours, has allowed me to cycle out the gate at the end of each day knowing that I have done the best I can because this is important. This matters.

Knowing that there are others like me doing the same has helped immensely, too. It has given me models to follow when my brain, tired of running and circling, desperately wants to let it all go.

I’ve lived in the world long enough to know that the sense of calm I’m experiencing now is a momentary lull. Something will come up and it will be followed by something else and then something else.

But I’m grateful for this moment of peace.

And sometimes, that’s enough.