Here’s the crux of education: On one hand, teachers and schools want kids who think independently and formulate their own opinions. On the other hand, teachers and schools want students who are docile and pliable and follow orders without questions.
I’ve always strived to guide my students towards autonomous thinking, from the questions I ask them to the writing assignments we tackle to the organic discussions that take place.
Because these kids are going to grow up to be our leaders. And they need to be secure in their convictions and make decisions for themselves, not someone else.
Education is not merely about facts or what’s in the book; it’s about social development and becoming acclimated to the demands of the world that exists beyond the insular confines of the school.
Because no matter how much handholding, backpack carrying, or ass wiping that occurs up until the end of high school, there’s a semi-real world that awaits in college and a real-real world that calls shortly after that. And that place does not care who you are or what your excuse is, only that you pay your bills.
Better to get that realization out of the way early and dissolve the entitlement that leaves young people believing that their mere existence alone guarantees them a significantly better than livable wage earned in the easiest, most enjoyable possible way in the least amount of time.
So, this pursuit of enabling kids to achieve independence raises an important question: While their voices are important inside and outside of the classroom, where does the line that separates teachers from students begin? Or, in other words, how much of an opinion should a child have in his/her education? Some might say none because the teacher is the smartest one in the room, right? Yes and no. There are plenty of intelligent people who can’t simplify complex concepts and build their students up to understand the material on a higher level. A couple years in college will certainly show this.
Then, there’s the issue of respect. Archaic, teacher-centered instruction that focuses on obedience, memorization, and regurgitation typifies the disconnect between older, willful educators and the students who less and less are responding to this type of strategy.
The myth here is that kids need to be beaten and bullied into submission, into obeying. In reality kids comply when they’re given REAL, substantive tasks that challenge them and they receive the necessary scaffolding and support to ensure their success. At the beginning of your next unit, try explaining to a student the goals of a unit and break down for them the WHY they’re learning what they’re learning and the HOW you intend to make that happen. just want to see why they learn what they do and how it benefits them. Does that mean every kid will buy in? No. Neither do workers on a job. That’s human nature. But respect is a two-way street. The days of being a teacher and being respected because of that and your status as an adult have come and gone. Those days are over. Actions command respect. Period.
To debunk another falsehood, I see kids as similar to adults who have jobs but do not possess natural initiative to excel; as a result, their work is mediocre at best. Does that mean they do not have the capacity? No, likely it’s that they do not have the direction. Kids – people, in general – need structure to thrive. I’ve worked with too many – and continue to work with some – over the years who, while probably capable, can’t walk and breathe at the same time without being told to do it.
This, though, does not mean teachers and students are equals. They’re not, just as bosses and workers are not equal. And the kids shouldn’t forget that because if you’re on the same level as a kid, they’ll view you as a peer and that is a much different relationship than a mentor or instructor. What you really want them to view you as is a human.
To achieve this aim, I believe teachers need to stop being so damn afraid not to know the answer. That was a lesson I learned early on before I even made it into the classroom in Bridgeport from mentor Dr. Emily Smith at Fairfield U. You cannot possibly know EVERYTHING. You might think that your students will lose respect for you if you cannot answer a particular question immediately, but this humbling moment actually endears you to them. It humanizes you. Part of being a good teacher is realizing that you do not know EVERYTHING. And you do not have to know EVERYTHING.
However, does a student’s opinion really matter? And if so when? The easy answer to this question is no. This whole idea of a student participating in his/her own education is a clever trick employed by savvy educators to dupe kids into buying into what they’re learning. In reality – and this is a dirty little secret – they don’t have any choice.
Still, student perspectives inform a teacher if his/her instruction yields the desired results; furthermore, it builds knowledge through their own words and perspectives, putting them on the path to understanding.
So, what’s the takeaway? Well, you can’t have the inmates running the asylum – you got that, Bob McNair? In the case of some private, progressive schools, progressivism run amuck with little structure and even less guidance. No, instead understand that while teachers are still the purveyors of information, the ones charged with stewarding their students towards understanding, teachers are not the be all, end all – the only voice. And when they are treated as such, it robs them of an opportunity to improve their techniques – if they’re not willing to evolve, they should find a new job.
And, as always, the kids are the ones who pay the price.
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