Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Why I Teach!, or My Desire to See the End of High School Education

My "Job"
I am a High School teacher.  I teach History and Bible at a small Christian school in southern California.  I absolutely love it.  As far as I know, there is no better job in the world.  I am able to be an integral part in so many minds, at such a formative age.  To see these minds grow and learn to glorify the Creator is a true joy in life.

The job is not without its issues however.  Many students do not care as I care.  They do not find interest in Thoreau or Chaucer, revolution after revolution: French, Glorious or Industrial, mitochondria or rough ER, physics: theoretical or applied.  Many do not see the joy of debating the ideas of existentialism versus nihilism, and they thus do not see the connection between the two.  Even when it comes to knowing the God of the universe, they do not share my enthusiasm for delving deep into the great mystery, to know Him better, and thus to understand ourselves in deeper and truer ways, to find true beauty before all other beauty, and to learn to love the good and the true.

The Problem
Sometimes the students only sleep through class, if not literally, then at least mindlessly.  These students hurt my heart, because they are missing out.
Those students, however, do not nearly make me as sad as the student who finds their only motivation to learn is to "get an 'A.'"  This student does well in class, maybe too well.  When they have graduated, they will have earned all the awards, but not learned who they are.  They might be looking toward getting that "good job," but they have no love of learning.  They might find a way to make a lot of money, but the pursuit will not make them satisfied.

I hate grades!  I hate to give them, I hate to get them.  But I'm told I have to give them.  They do not make sense to me.  Isn't the education I give supposed to help a student discover themselves, and find true joy (or at least the classical idea of happiness)?  How do these grades motivate the student to delve into their own psyche, or even soul, and investigate what makes them tick?  How do grades help them communicate with God?

Grades give an artificial barometer of a student's progress. They give us something to reach, something which will not satisfy.   When you get the 'A' there is always someone smarter than you.  Or even if not someone smarter than you, another school has someone else smarter than you.  Or even if you are the smartest, there will always be another 'A' to reach.  When will this satisfy?

A Broken System
Our whole system of education seems broken.  From the very beginning, we tell students they need to go to school to get into a "good" college.  They may ask, "Why?"  To which we respond, to get a "good" job. "Why?"  To support your family.  "Why?"  So, they can get a "good" education.  Uh, oh, the cycle begins again.

I think our students are asking the wrong questions.  Instead of asking "why," they should be asking "what."  What do the teachers mean when they say "'good' education?" Or job?  Does making money seem all that good?  Is making money enough to satisfy?  I know too many people with money or "good" jobs to know these are not sufficient roads to happiness, as well-traveled as they may be.

When did a liberal arts education become about making money?  I seem to remember Universities developing to try to make sense of the world.  They were looking to find the Unity in the Diversity.  This means a liberal arts education was not a means to an end, but instead an end in itself.  It was about finding one's place in the world, and living a full, well-rounded human life.  This full life would lead to happiness, because we would be living in harmony with our purpose.

Why I Seek to End High School Education
High school education today is involuntary, and, it seems to me, it gives promises it cannot keep.  Now, realize, I do not actually want all HSE to end.  I just would love to see us stop lying to ourselves about it.  HSE makes promises it cannot keep, we tell you an "A" will make you happy, or the right college will make your life right, but they will not.

Instead, I would love to foster a love for learning, in all its glory.  This would mean a student who does not enjoy history, would not have to take my class.  I am now walking on thin ice, because most students do not enjoy history.  This could mean my job would no longer be needed, because no students signed up for my class.  I feel it would be worth the risk.  Let me give you one example why:

I had a student who typifies my struggle with our educational system.  He was extremely bright, exceedingly polite, exorbitantly astute, and enormously motivated.  However, if I engaged him in a conversation of any real depth, he was candid about his motives and perceptions.  "I just need the 'A'" or "Why does this matter to me?" are typical of the statements and questions he made.  He was pressured by the system (and his parents) to learn things in which he saw no value.  Unfortunately, this means he memorized trivia, and never learned any lessons and therefore never grew.  (Coincidently, his parents seemed to act this same way, and although fairly wealthy, they were no closer to living happy or satisfied lives. Interestingly, they were the ones always pushing for extra credit.)

This is akin to the student who asks the calculus teacher, "I'm not gonna be a rocket scientist, when will this show up in my life?"  This is a student working for a paycheck, before a paycheck is even reachable.

What makes us think the student will suddenly find satisfaction when they reach the workplace?  Many are the drones who work to find a paycheck, but never find happiness.  These drones do not work for honey, but instead the weekend.

My Solution (A Work in Progress)
I propose we seek to help students find out who they are, not memorize trivia.  This requires several things:
1. It requires teachers who love what they do.  They are not in the career for the paycheck, but instead to mold minds into harmony with their purpose.
2. It requires less emphasis on grades, especially from parents.  Grades are wonderful for measuring your memorization, yet horrible for measuring a life well-lived.
3. It requires a knowledge of the one true God.  All knowledge finds its home in the Creator, thus any system of education which does not find its center in God will not fill any heart.
4. It requires us to let students have more responsibility at an earlier age.  Students whose lives are forced upon them by parents and teachers do not have time to think deeply about who they are.  To truly learn one's desires and inner workings requires the ability to make mistakes and learn from them.  I know of way too many students who are allowed to stay a Toys 'R' Us kid well into their 20s and sometimes even 30s.  How do we expect them to grow up if we don't baby them?
5. It requires lots and lots of time.  The education I propose is based around relationships.  Unfortunately, this is much more time consuming than trivia and thus most people would rather be lazy.
6. It requires lots and lots of prayer.

P.S.-- A Side Benefit, Avoiding Alex Trebek Syndrome
My dad loves Jeopardy.  I have to admit, I enjoy the show as well.  However, I have real problems with Alex Trebek and others like him.  I call these people 'smug memorizers.'  Alex is always so condescending to people who get wrong answers, because Jeopardy is a results driven show.  In a Jeopardy world, there is no room for growth, because we are only as good as our last correct answer. Thus, those who do not have the answers are looked down upon.

But a world in which we spend our time in relationship, and thus we find our worth in our growth and treatment of others as an act of worship to our Father, avoids the 'smug memorizers' which keep people trapped into boxes in which they do not fit.

Here is a link to a person who thinks somewhat similarly to me:


bren said...

I love to learn and am constantly reading...I so desire my kids to have that same love of learning, it's my number one reason for homeschooling. I am loving it because I get to learn right along with them! There is no need for a single grade to know if they are learning. It's so exciting for me to see them respond.

I wouldn't limit it to HSE - elementary kids also (maybe even more so) need to be out experiencing & learning in a real way rather than preparing for a test, and trying doing hours of home(busy)work each night.

I dropped out of college, and while that limits my career choices, I read more than most all my college grad friends who got burnt out on it just getting through hoops. In a perfect world, all teachers would feel as you do - and the system would support it. And most kids would sign up for your History class b/c they would grown up in an environment that made them want to know what you are teaching.

bstoermer said...

You have posed some serious comments that have plagued teachers since that first class room lesson next to the fire just outside the cave... Years from now you can only hope that what you taught, shared, gave was of value. Just finished reading a newspaper article about the real Leonard Skinner - a high school teacher who influenced the lives of the rock group Lynyrd Skynyrd which was named in mockery of him... he just passed away at age 77, a respected teacher, father and community leader. The real Leonard Skinner outlived almost every member of the band. It is too bad that they did not listen, did not learn, did not grow from his contributions in their lives. "But we shall not cease from well doing, we shall not grow weary, we press on toward the mark. The high calling of Christ." (Paraphrased)

Chris Seals is... said...

Insightful and thoughtful Gabriel. Not sure if you've heard of John Taylor Gatto, but if not, I think you might like some of his speeches or writings. After winning Teacher of the Year in New York, he resigned stating that he doesn't want to "hurt kids" any longer. Good stuff.

I must say though, I love jumping through hoops. Doesn't make me a better person though, or make me any happier...

Brad Blakeley said...

Great stuff Gabriel. I have many similar frustrations. Jeff Ward recommended "Do Hard Things"it was a great book for our students this year. While I agree the system is deeply flawed, it still produced someone like yourself who seeks to learn for "wisdom's sake." Perhaps if you reflect on what it was on your journey that caused you to transition from chasing the A to pursuing wisdom, then you could suggest this as part of your solution. I'd say at some point in the journey for me, I just started wanting wisdom and not just the A. It was an internal switch, perhaps it was God's drawing within my heart.