A few weeks back, I asked readers what positive things about their schooling stand out in memory. I’ve also been asking friends and acquaintances. It’s interesting how often a particular teacher is mentioned, even a particular moment with a particular teacher.
I just read a study on dropping out, in which the researchers interviewed mostly Latino ninth graders in five California high schools. http://www.lmri.ucsb.edu/dropouts/pubs_reports.htm
The interviews selected both students who were at risk for dropping out and those who were not and asked them what they saw as “the factors … motivating them toward or alienating them from finishing high school.” Most of the students in both categories reported being engaged with school – which, in itself, counters one stereotype about Latino adolescents. They listed a desire for relevant coursework, for interventions when they’re in trouble, for school resources, for school safety, for networks of friends. And one factor that loomed large was caring relationships with adults, with teachers, counselors, coaches.
A lot of educators have written eloquently about the importance of care in schooling; Debbie Meier and Nel Noddings are two who come quickly to mind. I’d like to underscore an aspect of care, of meaningful relationships with adults, that, I think, warrants attention: The intimate relation between these relationships and learning, good ol’ hard-nosed cognitive outcomes.
I have a personal take on this issue, for it was one teacher, my senior high-school English teacher, Jack McFarland, who turned my life around. He had a no-nonsense demeanor, and he had the most demanding curriculum I faced in four years of high school. But we students knew he gave a damn, that he worked us because he believed in use, and he demanded more of himself – in terms of hours spent closely reading our papers – than he did of us. After awhile, hungry for adult connection, I wanted to connect with him.
In Lives on the Boundary, I reflect on this interweaving of human relation and learning. Six or seven years after Mr. McFarland’s class, I found myself working with children, trying to make my own sense of teaching:
Teaching, I was coming to understand, was a kind of romance. You didn’t just work with words or a chronicle of dates or facts about the suspension of protein in milk. You wooed kids with these things, invited a relationship of sorts, the terms of connection being the narrative, the historical event, the balance of casein and water. Maybe nothing was “intrinsically interesting.” Knowledge gained its meaning, at least initially, through a touch on the shoulder, through a conversation of the kind Jack McFarland … used to have with his students. My first enthusiasm about writing came because I wanted a teacher to like me.
Years later, I read John Dewey and came across this passage in Democracy and Education:
The more the educator knows of music, [he writes, using one area of study as an example] the more he can perceive the possibilities of the inchoate musical impulses of a child … [T]he various studies represent working resources, available capital … [yet] the teacher should be occupied not with subject matter in itself but in its interaction with the pupils’ present needs and capacities. (pp. 182-183)
I bring all this up because we have a tendency in our culture to separate head from heart, particularly where education policy is concerned. Our reigning discourse – as many have noted on this blog – is a language of economic competitiveness and test scores. No hint of care lingo there. Unfortunately, the oppositional language to this mainstream discourse sometimes lapses into a wariness about intellectual discipline and a romanticizing of young people’s experience.
I think of the extraordinary teachers I observed when traveling around the country for Possible Lives. I think of the care and concern they had for their students – a kind of love, really – and the way that care had such a powerful intellectual dimension to it, from Stephanie Terry’s sophisticated science lessons in her first-grade Baltimore classroom to Steve Gilbert’s analytic push of his Chicago twelfth graders into As I Lay Dying.
It’s this inextricable blend of heart and head that defines the best teaching, the touch on the shoulder that encourages another human being to take on intellectual risk.