Who’s in School?

It’s early morning.  You step outside to a hazy, cloud-filled sky and humid air. The grass feels dewy between your toes, and the lake on the horizon shines mercury with barely a ripple. It’s time for a walk on the beach.

The scene is quiet, the smell of freshwater enveloping you as you pause to stretch your arms.  The water midly laps the shore, making only the smallest of repeated splashing sounds. The ground is layered limestone, huge slabs that overlap, smoothed by the water.  Round pebbles gather where the largest waves have retreated, leaving treasures hidden among earth-toned rocks.

In rubber sandals, you begin your walk along the shore. The small stones have captivated you, for lying amid them are tiny pieces of glass. Sea glass.  You begin to scrutinize the long swath of little earth-toned rocks that line the furthest edge of the beach, searching out the unusual colours. Reaching down, you gather these manufactured remnants like coins, collecting them in your pocket. You take comfort in reaching in and casually rustling them from time to time.

Your search continues, your focus and determination increasing.  You walk for as long as you can, stopping only to bend down and pick up. There is almost a sense of urgency in your collection.

Eventually you have to stop: you’ve reached a break in the beach, where a natural river flows from the escarpment above, blocking your ability to continue. It’s time to turn around.

You look up, out toward the water, and are startled. The scene is breathtaking: the water liquid glass, murmuring in slow motion. The sky is blanketed in low-slung clouds, and inverted version of what is seen from above by plane. The sun is working to break through hazy patches, managing only to accentuate the ceiling in bright bursts.  Somehow, there is purple, blue, and pink reflecting on the water. The horizon is a line, but just barely. The white of the sky reflecting off the water makes the distance a mirage.

How did you not notice this? Your scrutiny for treasure all-consuming, at the expense of the tremendous beauty walking right beside you the entire time.

What a metaphor, people.

This happened to me, a few weeks ago. My cargo pants pocket was literally bulging with the spoils of my search (and yes, I was happy to see you). The lake scene really did take my breath away. And the whole thing got me thinking  in a different way.

I thought I’d been so focused, keyed in to something that mattered: collecting precious treasures. In reality, though, my extreme focus was a way to block out other sights. Human peripheral vision sucks, you know? It’s very vague. And given that our eyes are at the front of our heads (as opposed to on the sides, say, like a fish) we really do have limited scope. What are we missing when we fixate? What opportunities, sights, ideas, feelings do we miss when we think we are being diligent in our focus?

For the last decade I’ve been fairly consumed by the practice of teaching (I’ve come to dislike that word, ‘teaching’, but I’ll save the ‘why’ for another time). I’ve scrutinized it in many ways, thought of myself as fairly savvy… but really, I think I’ve been focused on the sea glass. Looking for the ‘pearls’, as a former (amazing) colleague once called it.

I want to think bigger picture when it comes to education, and to do so I’m going to kick off the next series of posts on the theme of the 5Ws + H with this: Who’s in School?

This seems like an obvious question. The answer? Teachers, students, staff. Okay, great. Now think about this:

The way we structure who’s in schools has a subconscious impact on students’ sense of what we value not only in school, but in society. How we inadvertently hierarchize professionals within the building has a lasting impact on students’ ideas about hierarchies in life. What am I talking about? I’m talking about caretakers (also known as the janitorial staff). Also known as the bottom of the ladder. I’m not saying I believe this, but when you consider the optics of it all – office in the basement, uniforms, cleaning toilets – I don’t think I’m way off in stating that caretakers are perceived as low in the pecking order. No one talks about it, but kids get it.

Last year, I had a roster of visitors come to my classroom to share their life experiences – be they in work, adventure, self-growth. In hindsight, I think this “Speaker Series” program was the highlight of my teaching year. I feel good about it, mostly. The thing is, in my search for impactful visitors, I failed to notice who was right beside me: the caretakers. I regret not inviting them in to visit.

In school, kids are face-to-face with professionals all the time: teachers. I felt strongly that it would be worthwhile to have the students meet and chat with people from a variety of careers and experiences, specifically to find out what kinds of obstacles they’d overcome to reach that particular point in their lives. We met: a film/tv writer; an animal rights activist, photographer and star of the amazing film “The Ghosts in Our Machine”; a family doctor who has worked in remote, high-needs communities; a university professor; a forensic anthropologist (seriously!); and a former teacher, principal and current human rights activist, among others. In my search for meaningful guests, I failed to consider the adults in the building with whom the students almost never connect, but with whom they would no doubt benefit meeting.

At our school, as in many, the caretaking staff have one of the most thankless jobs (and I thought teaching was thankless. Think again.). The building runs thanks to their work, for in addition to maintaining the cleanliness of the facility, they liaise with all the tradespeople who visit the building, they perform small repairs, they tend to any issue relating the physical plant (and there are often many, especially in our downtown school which are close to a hundred years old), and they keep us warm (and cool, if the school has A/C). The thing is, we rarely value their work.

Kids leave trash everywhere. There is little awareness or appreciation for the efforts the professional maintenance staff make every day. But why should the kids care? By keeping the caretaking staff as relatively anonymous ‘others’, we enable the students to see them as such. It’s dehumanizing. And it’s a symptom of a bigger problem in our culture: the dehumanization of work that is seen as ‘less’.  I say this as someone who only now realized the potential value in connecting my students with the caretaking staff:

– It humanizes all people working in the building
– It forms relationships between everyone in the building, thereby increasing a sense of personal responsibility
– It honours all forms of work, not just the forms of work valued by the community in which the school is located (which, in my case, was a largely – but not exclusively – middle/upper-middle-class community) or by our culture in general

Lately I’ve been reading a lot about ‘breakthrough capitalism’, and the idea that our current socio-economic system is very broken.  Part of the break, to me, is how we value and don’t value different kinds of work. It’s an extension of how we value, and don’t value, different kinds of students. It’s an unhealthy, systemic problem that we need to fix.

So, parents, teachers, students: I’m throwing an idea out there – invite your caretaking staff to visit your class. Sit in a circle, and introduce yourselves. Ask them questions. Allow them to share their interests, motivations and struggles.  Get them to show you some of the tools of the trade, and see if they’ll teach you a technique or two.  Serve them a drink, and thank them for coming. Make them a card to show your appreciation. Put yourself in their shoes. What do you think?

Chances are, the next time you throw out some trash, you’re liable to make sure it gets to the bin. Less sea glass for me, but I can deal.

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