Why We Care

She slouches on the vinyl chair next to mine, chewing her lip, twirling her hair. Wrinkles creasing her brow. And as she sits, I wonder.  Is she thinking of what to expect, even as she knows the reason for why we are here? Or is there more to the wonder than mere childlike speculation?

The reason for why we have left the house at such a crazy-early hour to drive for two hours was not, of course, to only sit and wait. We are here for other more pressing concerns. And yet, there is always the fear of the great unknown- especially for a child.

Not to mention of course the apprehension it brings the mother.

The doctor arrives with a bluster of energy and vigour. She immediately puts at ease what was formerly a worry. What was moments ago a source of stress, a source of concern, is now an afterthought in light of this physician’s delightful presence. She just seems to do this work so naturally- without a thought to the magic she has achieved. Weaving a tapestry of compassion through her laid-back banter, silly jokes and thoughtful concern. But then again: doesn’t care always have that gentle way of easing, of lessening the burden? And as the moments tick toward the hour we will spend in this tiny little room, I find my daughter relaxing. Find her unwinding, creased brow giving way to a smile. And all this because a doctor has chosen to spend this hour in this room with us, taking the time needed to care for the person, rather than merely just diagnosing the patient.

If a busy doctor, bound by the relentless expectations and constraints that often define this demanding profession, can make the time to show caring, compassionate concern, so might we do much of the same in the field of education.

It is not a matter of should- it is a matter of how.

How can we invest in the lives of our students in caring, compassionate ways even as the demands around us increase exponentially?

We can and we must, and one way I propose this can be done is through investing in care. That is, making it a priority to value the person that is the student- along with the tandem idea of valuing the people as a whole which comprise our classroom community. Through valuing and giving worth to the human beings that represent the education system in which they are found, we give credence to the humanity of the students. We recognize the person-hood of each boy and girl, man or woman who sit in front of us day after day. And this- all achieved by seeing though the test scores, records and data to the very real hearts and souls of the children and teenagers that we are called to teach. Taking the time to know the story of their lives instead of reducing them to a number and figure on paper. Taking the time to understand the context in which the students we learn alongside- live, work and play. For when this happens, we can fully care for our students in their learning, development and growth even while the system might appear to breath heavy down our necks. After all, if we sacrifice care on the altar of academic standards of excellence, haven’t we lost everything?

Standards mean little if the people that represent them are dehumanized.

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Where We Are Headed… Thoughts on Teaching in the 21st Century

“To educate as the practice of freedom is a way of teaching that anyone can learn. That learning process comes easiest to those of us who teach who also believe that there is an aspect of our vocation that is sacred; who believe that our work is not merely to share information but to share in the intellectual and spiritual growth of our students. To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.” (bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress, p.13)

 

I am swabbing spots all over his chest with a Polysporin-covered Q-tip. Just moments before, he had come to me complaining of itchiness. His chest- sweltered with raw, open infected sores instigated by mosquito bites. A day prior, I had sent him home. The itchiness had been getting to him by mid-afternoon, and without anything to treat the infected spots, the two of us were at an impasse. So, his mother had come to retrieve her boy and mend his angst. As they were leaving, I looked at her and said, “Send along some ointment tomorrow, and I will do this for you.” I realized that this was a minor inconvenience for a busy mother- to pick up an otherwise well-child and take him home simply to apply medication. So, I offered to do it for her, so long as I had her permission and the medicated cream.

Later that evening, the mother wrote me a short message, and in a few simple lines, she conveyed to me her appreciation for my offer to act as nurse for her son. It was apparent that this was not something she would have expected from me, his teacher.

I thought to myself, as I read her short note: “I wouldn’t do anything less than care for this boy’s needs in the ways that he requires caring for: I love this child. I am his teacher. That’s what I do.”

But I wonder: even as my heart is calling me to care for my students in the very ways I care for my own four dear ones at home, is this what I can do realistically? As more and more of my time is being eaten up by demands that are outside my control?

A day later, I sat beside a dear friend in the front seat of her SUV, and I looked her in the eye when I lamented, “Perhaps I would renew my joy in teaching if I was able to simply care for my students, and worry less about all the other junk.”

The junk. That’s what is getting to me. Which is to say, the stuff that is weighing me down.

Junk/ Stuff. The stress over meeting outcomes and curricular goals. The stress over covering the curriculum. The stress over benchmarks. Stress in keeping records, both formal and otherwise. The stress in dealing with other stressed colleagues and students. The stress in planning and readying my classroom after hours, late into the night. The stress by way of new systems of monitoring and assessment brought on by our school boards. The stress in dealing with behaviours. The stress in dealing with unknowns: unknown diagnoses, unknown future job placements, unknown situations, unknown variables. The stress in participating in meetings and in realizing deadlines and living up to expectations. The stress of being all things to all people. The stress. All combined, these stressors have the effect of making us as teachers feel smothered and disabled in doing what we really want to do: care for the little and big people who face us day in and day out inside the four walls of our schools.

Because teaching is primarily about caring for people. Or it should be.

My work feels less and less sacred all the time. More and more rote and routine. More constrictive and prescriptive. More stressful and demanding than ever before. More top-down controlled. Which is not to say that it was ever easy- it’s just getting harder.

Teaching is a challenging career- and it’s not because of the kids.

It’s challenging because of all the other stuff we teachers have to deal with. And it’s challenging because we have neither the time nor the expertise to be dealing with some of the situations we are dealing with. What we really want to do is get back to basics. Teaching for life-long learning and then cushioning all that educating inside a generous portion of simple, genuine caring. Caring deeply for our students’ minds and the learning that takes place there, even as we care for their tender, fragile hearts and souls. Where the real living takes place.

The other day, I was finishing up my lunch when a colleague offered to take my class for a few minutes so as to allow me a couple extra minutes to eat my lunch. I took him up on his suggestion. As I was going back to my own classroom, I had stopped in the office to collect my mail when I noticed a line of children waiting for the secretary to take them into the staff room and heat up their lunch. Added to this group were others: waiting to use the phone and waiting to see the principal. I could see the anxiety building on the secretary’s face. It is a busy enough job to look after the administration of the day-to-day runnings of an office and school to add to that the role of nurse, cafeteria worker and counselor. I offered to take the students and teach them how to buddy up with a Grade 6 student who knew how to operate the microwave, thus alleviating the secretary of the taxing job of heating up lunches. That I was able to take the time to do this was thanks to my dear colleague who offered to take my own students for a few precious minutes during his own prep time. So that I could then be free to help the secretary.

As I again made my way back to my own classroom, the custodian abruptly stopped me while I was walking by the downstairs girls’ washroom: “Would you look at this!” she exclaimed rather brusquely. I peered into the stall where she was positioned over the toilet. There, floating inside the bowl, was a wrapped sandwich, a granola bar and a juice box. Fully intact.

“This has been happening almost daily,” she grimaced.

“I’ll report it to the principal,” I countered. “We’ll get to the bottom if it all.”

As I again started out, this time to find the principal, I started thinking that this was a problem, with a little time, that could be nipped in the bud. Just by way of a good old-fashioned detective eye.

I started into a classroom, asking if anyone was missing a lunch. Everyone was happily eating away. But the next room I happened upon, the teacher met me at the door and immediately communicated to me that she had a hunch it might be someone in her room. A certain person who had been missing their lunch for the last couple of days.

Sure enough, it was that certain person.

And this discovery made all because I had the time to pursue a problem and find a solution for it.

Time is really of essence. But so is love. When teachers have both time and love, powerful things happen.

Students are cared for in ways that they would otherwise not be cared for.

Students learn things they would otherwise not learn.

Problems are solved which would otherwise not be solved.

Answers are found which would otherwise go unresolved.

Children are happier.

Teachers are less stressed.

It’s a win-win for everyone. An absolute no-brainer.

Unless we allow teachers to get back to the business of doing their sacred work of caring for children and students, in ways that their teacher fore-bearers did back in the day, we will be set on a collision course to derailment.

Derailment of our teachers’ sanity.

Derailment of our students’ achievement, in more ways than just standardized performance testing.

Derailment of our classrooms, which will look less and less like learning environments and more and more like sterile testing laboratories.

Derailment of our very educational system.

We are on a collision course and what is set to collide are the expectations that the Powers to Be have for our schools with the health and well being of our teachers and educators. Something’s got to give.

It always does.

And if I were to surmise what that might be, what’s going to give: from personal experience, I’d have to say it’s going to be our teachers.

Heaven help us. That’s about the only hope we have left.

A challenge and response: Must we choose between Love and Academics?

I really appreciate my friend for challenging my thinking, as you will come to read below.  I am providing her challenge to my thinking and perspective along with my response to her.  This welcome challenge was issued to my last blog post regarding What is Worthwhile Knowing: A Teacher’s Perspective.  I would readily open any feedback you might have to offer by way of challenge or rebuttal.  Thanks to everyone who reads my writing.  I welcome all your views.  Iron sharpens iron.

To me:

I get where you are coming from- and I agree- students learn more effectively when they know that their teachers care about them. But as a parent I don’t send my child to school to primarily feel loved, he has that from me, from everyone in his life etc- what I send him to school for is to learn and to reach his full potential. That to me is the priority. Sometimes I feel that we are moving too far away from that since there are so many children who aren’t getting the love that they need from their families. But I really feel that we have moved too far. Our academic standards have greatly decreased…students reaching university in 2013 are not as prepared as they were in 2005. We need more focus on the academics….not less. I see it at the university level- our students are not as prepared for higher learning as they were 10 years ago. This is what we should be talking about- because the education system is failing their future learning potential. Sure they feel loved….but they can’t perform simple math or spell….by grade 12….this is a major problem! This is the reality that we need to correct. You may be on a different end of the spectrum being in kindergarten where feeling secure and loved is extremely important….but I don’t think that it is the universal focus of sending kids to school…at some point we have to shift more towards the academic side. I am sad for students who I meet in my class who are very intelligent, but have not been academically prepared to fully access all that they could from university. The education system is failing those kids. My favourite teachers from school are not the ones who made me feel loved….but who stretched my mind and expanded my knowledge beyond what I thought I could know- they pushed me to be who I am today and to them I am grateful.

 

To my friend: I appreciate that you wrote me with your perspective. And I appreciate that we both have different perspectives- unique to our own understandings, backgrounds and situations. It is good for me to be challenged in my thinking- to push myself to understand the ‘why’ behind my writing, of late, about love and care. About curriculum of the heart. It is something I feel so deeply about that at times I need to step away from it- step outside of my own thinking- and examine it with new eyes. New perspectacles, if you will (to use our favorite blogger’s analogy).

You mentioned that you “get” where I am coming from, but I wonder if we can truly ever get something like this. I think we have to believe it. You state that “as a parent I don’t send my child to school to primarily feel loved, he has that from me, from everyone in his life etc.” I am glad that your son has that. Many do not. In fact, it is not the norm to have what your children and my children have for experience. Two parents in the home who are university educated, double incomes, every opportunity. A comfortable lifestyle. Values that support life-long learning and ambitious achievement. These things are not the norm, as you well know.

That being said, I agree that even for those parents sending their children to school who are not in your or my position, those parents still might echo your sentiments: that they aren’t sending their children to school primarily for love. They might even agree that they are sending their children to school for the very same reasons that you state: to further their academics. Widen their possibilities. Further their potential. Whether or not parents are sending their children to school for reasons that reflect your stance or reflect mine, the fact of the matter is this: children and students learn best when their learning is cushioned in an atmosphere of love, care and compassion.

What is love? Am I talking about warm, fuzzy, sweet-talking love that always pleases? Am I talking about feel-good, low-pressure therapeutic love that focuses solely on self at the expense of all else? What is love, anyway- it means so many different things to so many different people. What I am talking when I refer to love in my writing is that which is the deepest emotion known to humankind: something so over-arching, all-encompassing and profound that it permeates our very being. When I speak of love, I am talking about everything that is good in this world which could be then funnelled into our being. So as to inspire, motivate, compel, arouse, encourage, stimulate, provoke and stir up whatever might lie dormant within us. Whatever might lie fallow. Whatever is ready for awakening.

Love as an emotion is often highly undervalued in education. Sure, we embrace it in its place: but it is always put into its box and asked to sit there until it might be of use. It is not always on top of everyone’s list of priorities when it comes to academics.   In fact, love might very well be at the bottom of the list for some, as you have expressed. It is so often undervalued through statements that contend that it is a poor reason for a teacher’s purpose in offering an education to their child. After all, and you are right here: our job as teachers is to deliver curriculum. Teach the standards. Expound the outcomes. We are expected to deliver on the core fundamentals of a solid education: the arts and the sciences. And in doing so, prepare our students for the workforce.

But what if love was the standard by which everything else was measured? What if love made me a better teacher? What if love made my students better students? What if love made people better, just through experiencing it?

What if the love I showed in my care and concern for students then allowed me to, in love, inspire them to have a passion for language, for prose? For nuances in language? For poetry, literature and classical writing?

What if love opened a door to enable me to share with my students a passion for mathematics? For precision and exactness? For reasoning and rationalizing? What if love paved that way?

What if love gave me the inch that could buy a mile? What if love was what every foundation I built upon? What if love was everything? In everything, through everything about everything?

What if love was everything?

Can we ever really know for sure if it was what really made the difference- or not-when we who have always known love are the ones calling for less of it? We who have always had love at our fingertips saying it is unnecessary? When we who are deeply loved, who have always had love at our disposal, are saying it is the drain on academics and learning? Keeping us from excelling? And by what standards, I might ask? Are we really in any position of saying that love isn’t necessary, in such sweeping statements, when we’ve always had enough ourselves? What if your call for less love was the unravelling of that one student who could have been destined for great things. But because love was removed, then became a hardened, bitter being?

Who are we to say?

You are right- love isn’t everything. There is also pain and sorrow. There is hatred. There is always an equal opposing force to everything we know. And I could say that we can teach without love, but then the door is wide open for anything else to move in. Anything else but love. And while you claim you didn’t need love, and I am assuming that you are implying here that some teachers might have adopted stances that were quite the opposite to love: for some students, this would close the door to learning. And quite possibly forever. I am glad this was not the case for you. This wouldn’t apply across the board, however. What works for one scenario might not work for another. But we all need love. We certainly don’t need hatred or ill-will. Nor do we need hardness and rigidity. While learning might still transpire, it does in spite of these qualities. Not because of them. Unlike with love which paves the way.

As for taking that chance- of doing away with love in favour of dry, rigid adherence to the standards: I am not willing to take that chance. So I continue to offer love. And offer learning and opportunity to my students in as passionate a way as I know how.

So, what about academics. We are in the business of learning. How can I the teacher find balance between my call to love and my job to teach? When I offer love, I find that my passion for learning is that much easier to transmit. When I show care, I have won my students’ confidences so that I can then offer instruction. When I value their opinions and thoughts, I find they are stimulated to think above and beyond what I ever dreamed possible. When I open the door, and I know they trust me, I also know they will follow. And sometimes they even lead the way.

Why are students not ready for university, as you have so aptly pointed out? One cannot argue with statistics. But maybe they can offer some plausible reasons for such. My belief is this: I feel that quite possibly we have not offered enough in the way of love. Perhaps students haven’t known the freedom to explore, to climb to lofty heights and ambitions. Perhaps love never paved the way. Maybe students do not know the grace that is compassion-perhaps if they did we would see more students moved towards social justice and outward thinking. Perhaps students have not been shown the generosity that is passion and joy for learning. There might not have been allowances made for outside the box thinking. There are a multitude of reasons for why the stats are what they are.

Perhaps schools have failed our students in not preparing them for university. And perhaps we have also failed in not offering them a curriculum for life in stressing the importance for love to underlie their very existence.

Perhaps if we focused more on love, we might see changes that surpass even our own expectations: for learning, life and love itself.

What’s Love Got To Do With It?

What’s love got to do with it, anyway? Got to do with education? Got to do with teaching?
What’s love got to do with it?

Everything. It’s got everything to do with it.

I am delivering a dynamic lesson on adding detail to writing. It has spanned two days of teaching, and I have covered the gamut. I have used mentored text. I have used my own illustrations. I have allowed more than enough time for the students to think through, talk through and share ideas. I have all the bells and whistles- anchor charts; word walls; alphabet and number charts; soft music. Nice sharp pencils, which I just barely finished sharpening this morning. In spite of the rush. The classroom has even been designed so as to be conducive to writing. We have a writing centre and various writing stations, but there are of course other spots in the room that a writer could settle down for a productive writing session. I can’t imagine what stone I have left unturned.

“Okay, everyone!” I urge. “Let’s get writing!”

And with that send-off, I see the students scatter into all four corners of the room, ready to write. And I think to myself…”what a wonderful—”

…wait a minute.

All but one has settled down for that intended writing session. There is always one.

In a matter of minutes, I can see that the best laid plans are still only plans. For this little writer has not been inspired to write today much more than a scribble. And when I approach and ask why, I am met with a bit of defiance. A little bit of defensiveness.

And some little feet propped up on the table.

This was not what I envisioned the writing session to be.

No not at all.  Rather, I had pictures in my mind of children, heads bent low over papers, hands moving furiously. But never did I conjure up images of students sitting back, smug looks on their faces. Telling me “I’m done” after three minutes have barely passed since the send-off.
This is not what my ideal vision would be under any circumstance.

I approach the student quickly and ask how the story is unfolding, as we have spent considerable time developing the idea for this book that he is making. He points to a circle on the page. I ask what it represents. “A circle,” he says smugly.  I am not ready to admit defeat, so I probe further.

“What is it suppose to be?” I ask.

He looks at me and shrugs.

“A circle,” he repeats.

I know and he knows- that the story he had told me he would working on today was about a movie he had seen over March Break. He had left our gathering place on the blue rug with ‘next steps’ already in place. But here we are- with circles that look more like scribbles than they do circles. And these ‘circles’ are covering his page.

It’s easy to forget that teaching, like all of life, is not about us. It’s not always a rejection of what we hold near and dear to our hearts when plans fail to follow through. Sometimes, it’s just that people are different. Some of us enjoy writing. And some of us do not.

I later talk to this student’s mom about our writing session, and in the process I realize a few things.

I really like this boy. A lot. And the more I try to understand him, the more I realize I can accept him: just as he is.
• I need to work harder at helping this student see the value in writing. If what we are doing is not connecting, there needs to be another way. Another approach taken.
• This student is more than just a would-be writer. He is a comedian, a reader, a brother, a son. He is a strong personality with the ability to stand his ground. He isn’t easily persuaded. He has resolve. This child is going to be fine- so what if he decided this week to just draw circles? Next week might be a whole different ball game.

Which brings me back to my first question: what’s love got to do with it all?

There are many aspects of my job that I am required to do. I am required to deliver curriculum. I am required to teach certain skills and knowledges. I am required to prepare my students to enter the next grade- the next level. The next unit. I am required to look after my students in their parents’ absence. Overall, I am required to begin preparing them for life. Real life.

But in all the descriptors that I have been given, no one has ever required of me to love them. Interesting, really. Their parents have much the same job as mine, but love is always underlying the relationship. Why is this so? And why is it not something we think that we as educators should be compelled to feel as well?

In spite of this fact, I find that love happens anyway. We come to love our students, in spite of ourselves. In spite of the odds. They wrap themselves around our hearts and we are not easily able to let them go. We think about them after the buses pull out of the parking lot. We consider their needs as we prepare lessons for the next day. We care about their lives as we make after-hours phone calls. We enjoy when we run into them at Wal-mart on the weekend.

We end up loving them. We really do.

Because in the midst of teaching and facilitating and preparing and instructing, I find myself caring about the students I teach. In the midst of guiding and disciplining and leading my students in key areas of fundamental learning areas, I find myself empathizing with them. In offering to assist them during writing workshops, I find myself coming to understand them better. In watching them discover key math principles, I find myself delighting in their learning- appreciating the young wonder that is a five-year old mind. In listening to their stories- as told by them and by their families, by their parents: I find myself coming to love these children. As if they were my very own.

I can’t get them out of my heart. It’s about love, really.

And even though I am passionate about writing and reading and math and science- and passionate about learning in general: I am more passionate about people. And I have come to believe that my calling is relationship, not teaching. The teaching is secondary to my calling to connect and relate and commune with those little people who show up in my room every day. It’s about reaching my students through relationship so that I might later on influence them to use their learning to develop their own relationships with people they trust. So that they might come to see that getting an education is about finding ways to connect with people in the world around them. So that they can thrive and flourish in this wild and beautiful life we have been blessed to live.

It’s about using the learning of writing so that they can then encourage, persuade, inspire, motivate and compel.
It’s about using the learning of math so that they can then reason, problem solve, analyze and explain.
It’s about using science to wonder, imagine, discover, uncover, explore and investigate.
It’s about using social studies to remember, consider, understand, appreciate and recollect.
It’s about making school a place that we learn the art of relating to people so that we can use the knowledge and skills we learn there in that place we call school- so that we can then go out into the big, wide world we live in with other people, and use those skills to better the world around us.

So that we can transform the world through love.

Through LOVE.

So you see, love has everything to do with it. Without love as the basis for learning, how are students to then know that love underlies everything we do? Everything we learn? Everything in life?  Love is everything.

And love has everything to do with it. For without love, writing is just a subject. It’s just writing.  So is reading and math.  They are just a skeleton.  Love makes them whole.  Breathes life into them and makes them come alive.

We will have more writing sessions much like the one I have described above. I realize this. I am no naïve fool.
But what else I understand- what I know for sure about our future sessions is this: I teach people, not subjects.  I teach boys and girls, not writing.  I teach human beings full of potential and wonder and possibility.

So when we have those kinds of days, we’re going to get through them. Together.  And always through the power of love.