Tag Archives: Students

Becoming

There’s a poster in the bathroom at the climbing gym that says: Ask yourself if what you are doing today is getting you closer to where you want to be tomorrow.

I really like this. I am moved by it every time I see it, and I have seen it many times. It has pushed me to be a better climber: Do the pull-ups, go through the routine on the hangboard, take the lead fall. It has pushed me to stop running, climb more frequently, and dedicate an afternoon a week to core training. When I started climbing a few years ago, I knew I’d found something special, something that I really loved the way I hadn’t loved anything since I moved away from snow and left my skis behind. I want to be good at it and I have been working to make that happen.

The climbing gym has other inspirational posters (Sometimes stillness is harder than movement and Climbing is like dancing on the wall) that never fail to catch my attention but this is the one that speaks to me the most.

Ask yourself if what you are doing today is getting you closer to where you want to be tomorrow. Just last week I wrote this on the board for my grade 12 students. They are currently sitting their mock exams in preparation for their real AP and IBDP exams in May. Most students’ university acceptances depend on these exams and they are learning right now how prepared they are. So, this is a pivotal time. This is an opportunity for students to gain confidence in what they know and make adjustments to habits and patterns in response to what they don’t know. Are you, right now, doing what is required to get you where you want to be? There is force and agency behind this question, as well as the explicit onus of responsibility.

But there is a significance far beyond grades and university acceptances. There is the cold, hard fact that all of our actions have consequences. The choices we make, and we are constantly making choices, set us on certain paths and allow for different possibilities. This not only affirms who we are, whether or not that is who we want to be, but also lays the foundation for who we will become.

I’ve been thinking back lately to the understanding I had of myself and those around me when I was younger. Over time, I have met people who I look up to, admire, and still aspire to be like, years later. But I have also met people who have had quite the opposite affect. The memories of the words and actions of these people still send anger coursing through my body. Years and years later.

Part of our understanding of where we want to be, therefore, should come with an awareness of who we want to be around. We want to be around people who will lift us up rather than tear us down, people who will answer the phone far too late just because we called when it was far too late. We want to be around people who challenge us in constructive rather than destructive ways, people who give us room to grow. If we are lucky, we will also surround ourselves with people whose trust goes unquestioned, people who have already forgiven our trespasses. And when we find people like this, we should hope that we will know better than to let them go.

Where we are thus encompasses who we are, and who we are helps us make choices about where we want to be. I could not be planning yet another move alone to yet another country had I not made the choice to be the person who makes the most sense to me. And this choice has not come easily, which is also how I know it is right. The life I am living is a life I never could have imagined and I would have laughed at anyone who told me three, six, or ten years ago that this would be my world. Thinking back to what I thought I wanted, and thinking ahead to what I dream about, is sometimes a masochistic exercise fuelled by hard liquor and late nights. But this is the driver of change. Ask yourself if what you are doing today is getting you closer to where you want to be tomorrow.

And according to an artist whose work I bought many years ago when it brought me to tears: If you want something you have never had, you must do something you have never done.

East Coast Park, Singapore – March 2021

Talking with Young People

Educating is about building relationships and this is what makes it emotionally demanding. Our students need us to be present, to be with them, to recognise and name what they either cannot or will not name. When I say that I work with young people, I mean that we work together, side by side. We go through concepts, ideas, information, and assessments together. We are often not doing the same thing, but we do it together.

One of the textbooks assigned in my education methods courses as an undergrad was Discipline with Dignity by Curwin, Mendler, and Mendler. It spoke of respect, responsibility, of treating young people first and foremost as people. This sounds funny to say, but think about it. Educators have a lot of power and that power can build a child up or totally, utterly cut them down.

In the words of Haim Ginott, words that still give me chills:

“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanised or dehumanised.”

And this means that teachers must recognise the human role they play in the classroom. We are all beings with dignity and honouring this is critical in the way we treat others – who they are, what matters to them, and the demands we place on their time and energy. Throughout my career, students have come to me just to talk. I’ve heard, “You’re the only one I trust” more times than I can count. I’ve been thanked for saving lives years after the fact. How hard is it, really, to treat a young person the way all people should be treated?

But it is hard. All meaningful relationships are hard. Doing this requires vulnerability and courage. It requires understanding that we are in this together and this can be a difficult position for teachers who do not understand that educating is about relationships. Students know when we are authentic and they know when we are disingenuous. Like all of us, they respond to what is genuine and protect themselves from what is false. I want my students to be good people and this requires me to walk beside them.

At the beginning of this school year, I finally had the chance to get to know a group of young men who had made cafeteria duty a miserable experience the two years before. I smiled while greeting them and said to the class, “To those of you who I have encountered, this is a great opportunity to prove that you’ve grown up.” And they have. Each interaction that we have with young people is a new interaction. Each day really is a new day. If we are going to work together for a year or two, we need to set ourselves up for doing so. I’ve learned to take a deep breath each time I address a question or comment from a student who just grates on me. He deserves the same chances, the same positive attention, as anyone else, time after time. This is how we learn, and I want my students to leave my class knowing more about themselves and the world around them than they did before.

When we feel valued for who we are, we respond. We know this as adults and it is ever more true of young people. A smile, making eye contact, tone of voice, and gestures are all part of communication. Just like how we might know how someone feels about us without them saying so, students know this, too. We like to know someone is looking out for us. This is why teachers should pay attention when a student gets new shoes, a haircut, or looks like they’re having a tough day. It’s a powerful thing to close the laptop and look young people in the eye when having a conversation, or to sit on the same side of the desk that might otherwise act as a barrier. When we sit side-by-side, we are working together. Each member of the classroom community matters, so take the time to do the small things that set a tone.

These are emotional investments that make what we do real rather than abstract. Educating is about building relationships. It is work. It is time intensive, meaningful, deeply fulfilling, and it has the power to change lives. Young people are worth it.

Coney Island, Singapore – April 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.