Uh, actually; yes.
Strangely enough, I’m where I want and need to be. Each day, I wrestle out how to continue my tiny little life’s work. Sure, there are days when I phone it in, I whine or snivel about how hard it is, how many hours I put in. Or I pine about our families financial implications as a result of me not bringing home any bacon and even investing more time and money into what it is we do. Truth is, I don’t bring home a paycheck. I’m a full time plus volunteer. Right now, I have no health insurance. Yeah, I know, that’s insane. My friend Jim is rolling in his grave at the notion. And yet, it’s honestly the mountain I want to die on. Shuffling up rocky slopes with an unreachable peak, clawing my way hand over hand not to teach horsemanship, but teaching joy and trust. Yup, that’s what we do.
There is an article in Teacher Magazine (here) about whether or not teachers are empowered. It poses the question that children can’t learn empowerment from people who are so badly paid and who are in the school system where they are repeatedly stripped of power.
Bullshit. And several teachers in the article call it. One of the teachers, the mentor of the article’s author, points out that the students watch everything you do, a very small portion of which happens to be your subject matter. They watch who you are and how you react. When you take up the teaching mantle, you are on the stage, stripped of a persona and your students see you for exactly who you are. Get over it and start modeling the best of what you’ve got.
Who thinks that showing a kid how to clean a horse’s hoof doesn’t make a bit of difference in the suffering of the world? Oh yeah, that’s me, late at night when I’m trying to figure out how to pay the ranch lease or the horse shoer. That’s me when I’m honored by a volunteer’s gift of her time and her heart.
It’s time to re-define teaching. More importantly, it’s time to re-define learning. Each day, I talk to parents who are battling school systems and IEP’s. They are wrestling with big decisions about where their child goes to school and what services they need. All the schools are coming under tremendous budget constraints. I hate to tell you but it’s going to get worse. We will have to do more with less. Teachers will have less resources and more demands. That means each teacher and each parent will have to learn to entrust the students to own and care for their own education – teach them how to value what and how they learn. Folks, here’s the kicker, the part you don’t want to think about; the academic part is only a small portion of what they learn in school. It’s an important part to be sure, but smaller than you think.
I had breakfast with a young volunteer and her mom last weekend. She’s 13 and hates school. Well, she likes the kids, she even likes most of the teachers but she refuses to turn in work. The school is at the end of their rope. They suggest upping the ante and forcing this young woman to start producing work. She’s made it clear to everyone that forcing her is going to create mayhem. Serious mayhem. The school tells her parents that it’s a life lesson that she needs to learn. That life is not all about doing whatever you want all the time. That she needs to learn this now, or it will be even harder the older she gets.
So what the school is trying to get across is that work needs to get done, on time and with best effort. Fair enough. However, what the student is learning is the bigger lesson: That if someone doesn’t do what you want them to do, you just up the ante until you force them to. Gosh guys, I think she already knows that lesson and it’s not such a good one.
It seems to me that what this very bright young woman is desperately trying to establish is a sense of self. She’s refusing to turn in work not because of laziness or impudence but she’s desperately trying to set boundaries of who she is and how amenable she is going to be about who forces her to do what and when. For her, caving in and turning in work feels like giving up and of being less of her own person as a result. Of course I’m not advocating that all teachers or schools do away with assignments, deadlines and grades. It’s been tried, with varying results. But it’s clear that what’s going on here has a lot less to do with book reports than it does with a developing human’s struggle for self-hood.
Profound? Maybe. But this is a typical week at Square Pegs. For each of these stories, there are scores of others. Kids who don’t fit in, or perhaps even more scary, kids who manage to fit in and fade away. These are opportunities to make a real difference. To teach compassion and joy. To let the world experience what’s special and beautiful about a person.
So I’ve answered my own question; this is the mountain I’m willing to die on.