Chances are, if you’re reading this, you’ve been to school. Sure, you might be one of those people who taught themselves to read… but still, chances are: you went to school. Or maybe you’re currently a student in school, or getting your kid ready for school, or trying to choose a kindergarten for your wee one – or deciding on whether to homeschool. Whatever the case, I suspect you have some relationship to schooling – be it first-hand or by virtue of your relationship to a student.
I knew when I was a kid that I wanted to be a teacher. In hindsight, I don’t know what exactly drew me to the job. I was a know-it-all I guess (some would say I still am – sigh) but I suspect part of the appeal was that I enjoyed many aspects of school. My friend Emily and I would play school at her house and we both usually wanted to be the teacher. I have teacher-friends with similar stories. I loved my teachers and, given my insecurities and social awkwardness among my peers, often preferred the attention of adults. The structure of school worked for me, and I have the kind of brain that was able to work through the basics and ‘do well’, in terms of grades. I put that in quotation marks because honestly, I’m not convinced grades mean a hell of a lot (but I’ll save that for another post).
However, when the time came to consider a career, teaching felt impossible. At 22 or 23 years old, I didn’t have the confidence to lead a class, nor did I feel I had anything of value to offer kids. I didn’t know my arse from my elbow, so how the hell was I going to be a teacher? Ugh. So I followed my interests at the time, and worked in the non-profit visual arts sector. I loved it: I got to pursue my own creative projects, meet loads of interesting, dynamic, intelligent people, and live in a great part of town. Eventually I felt a renewed urge to teach, but in the meantime I enjoyed myself. I’m so glad I waited.
Flash forward: It’s ten years into teaching and I’m pretty burnt out. What’s crazy, though, is that I’m not short of ideas, not short of passion, and I find kids incredibly stimulating, inspiring and spirit-lifting. So it’s not the actual face-to-face with students part that has me feeling dispirited. It’s the system, the whole system.
As teacher, I’m the very bottom of the ladder of hierarchy when it comes to having agency in the school board. Sure, I have autonomy within my classroom and can work the curriculum as well as the next person to ensure that it connects with both the students’ and my interests, but there’s this bigger umbrella, this bigger dome… Oh, I’m making an analogy to the Hunger Games right now! Wow – yes – it’s like I’m working away trying to Make a Difference but really, at the end of the day, there are some puppeteers up there trying to make sure that I’m tossed the appropriate amount of relatively useless obstacles (mainly ridiculous buzzwords and acronyms that politically are supposed to make me sound more professional and improve my practice. Questionable!) to make sure I stay on top of my game, but that in reality take me further away from real progress. Unfortunately, much of what we are mandated to do does little to improve my teaching, and adds to the stress that committed, passionate teachers already feel. And feeling exhausted and burnt out does not leave one with a lot of time to do something about the bigger changes she sees need to be made.
I won’t turn this into a political rant about the state of teaching. Really, what comes first for me is the state of learning – the conditions of learning – that exists within the present-day school system. To put it succinctly: we use an industrial-era model for schooling, but live in a post-industrial age. It simply doesn’t make sense. Hence the name of this blog: it’s time to think about school from scratch.
I’m not a fortune-teller (yet!) but I do feel that we are headed for a systemic implosion of sorts. A good analogy that comes to mind is that of the cart & horse versus the car. Apparently, back in the day, when cars came on the scene, there were some investors who felt that cars were a flash-in-the-pan idea, and that the best bet was on the horse ‘n cart because that’s what had stood the test of time. Many of us today are supportive of the current schooling system because we are nostalgic: it’s familiar, we can relate to it, it’s what we know. Even if we didn’t much like it! The thing is, I’m not convinced that it’s worth supporting.
I believe in the potential for a massive re-envisioning of public education. In fact, I love the idea. In my heart I believe that school should be about creating a culture – and love – of learning. Catch the learning bug and you are set for life. As it stands, so many kids are bored in school. Kids were bored in my class this year, I’m sure of it – so I don’t say this as a reprimand or callous criticism. I say it humbly, but with excitement at the prospect of something different. The thing is, I learned to teach for the system in which I work, as did my colleagues. I keep asking myself: why are we surprised that statistically, there is so much job dissatisfaction and boredom among adults in our culture, when we all spend kindergarten to grade twelve somewhat bored? Aren’t we creating the potential for mediocre professional life enjoyment by simply having a system that rewards kids for functioning in general boredom? To those of you who feel uncomfortable with the idea of a seismic shift away from traditional learning, I ask you to step out of your comfort zone, and be open to exploring the possibility that something different from what we knew might be better for current and future generations of kids. What was right enough for us (some of us) may not be right for now.
We’ve all heard about this notion that we’re teaching kids who will, one day, have jobs that don’t exist yet. It’s cool to talk about, though hard to get our heads around. Despite this, we still stand in front of classes and tell them to open their math textbooks to page 82… Boring! I was bored out of my mind in math class – and terrified, too – and now find myself wanting to take a Stanford course about mathematical thinking because I’ve realized that math can be beautiful, creative, brain-flexing and totally cool. I did not figure this out in school. I figured it out… on the Internet.
Kids know more these days. If school was ever about ‘pouring in knowledge’, those days are long gone. Kids know better. They actually, totally know stuff better than we ever did (and do, in some cases), because all the information they want is at their fingertips. In school, they see through the shit-talk, they know their rights, and they feel smarter than the teacher half the time. They simply don’t respond to authoritarian rule, so don’t even bother. Oh, and they use technology like prostheses. They’re like cyborgs! They can talk about their feelings, they know what anger management is, and they want to be treated as equals. Teachers can’t handle feeling less intelligent, teachers struggle with ‘classroom management’, teachers feel out of touch with youth culture. We’re screwed (I say that with a smile on my face, but I do mean it. Happily, though, I’m an optimist despite how it may sound).
Five years ago, I read about a new graduate program that spoke of learning to create ‘systemic change’. It’s called a Master of Design in Strategic Foresight and Innovation. I didn’t really ‘get’ it, exactly, but something resonated. Since that time, the program has hung out in the back of my mind as a recurring dream. Last year I took myself down to hear more about the program in person, and pretty much fell in love with it.
Strategic Foresight is sometimes jokingly referred to as ‘fortune telling’. The idea is that you develop skills in understanding complex social systems in order to make informed judgments about what lies ahead for an organization, business, school board, etc. It’s about being able to anticipate long-term outcomes, which is especially appealing to me as I feel our culture tends to get short-term satisfaction from short-term foresight – with long-term consequences. The ‘Innovation’ piece is about applying that foresight ability to making informed decisions that affect a long-term outcome. I’ve always thought of my key strength as being an ‘ideas person’, but have never really figured out the most effective way to apply it. I became optimistic that this program might help me formalize ways to apply that strength, while simultaneously overcoming my idealism (by allowing me to use those ideas in practical, concrete and meaningful ways).
In just over a week’s time, I’ll be headed there to start learning about the intricacies of systems – how to look at the systems within which we live and operate, understand how they intersect, how they function symbiotically – and ultimately how to be part of making systemic change. I firmly believe that everyone who has a relationship to schooling – to whatever degree – has expertise in this area. I don’t feel like I’m more expert than the people with whom I work, I simply feel this incredible pull toward wanting to steer the boat in a different direction. Or maybe trade the boat in and get a different model… Maybe not even a boat…. Hmm…
I’ll be writing here periodically over the next while, and hope you’ll stay connected. Immediate topics of interest to me include: what do we mean by ‘intelligent and smart’ and how does it impact learning environments; who do we hire to work in schools and why; what brought us to our present-day rationale for isolating children from their community while in school; and how do we make physical schools important and relevant (hello fostering face-to-face, real-time relationships and developing genuine empathy and compassion) when so much learning is done online. My emphasis is less on classroom pedagogy, and more on systemic issues relating to human resources, physical sites, and technology. I would really appreciate your ideas, thoughts, questions, suggestions and arguments. Thanks for reading!
If you’d like to be connected to more education-related topics (specifically related to drastic transformation of K-12 education culture), you can follow me on twitter via @deathofateacher