When my daughter was very young, one of the first full sentences I remember her saying was about my job as English teacher. Whenever it came up, she would say, “My dad works at Cherry Creek High School; he teaches children how to read and how to write.” What I loved most, other than the sing-songy rhythm with which she recited it, was her use of the transitive verb, or more specifically the direct object: My dad teaches children. She didn’t say he teaches English or grammar or books or any curriculum-related words. She focused on the children. I teach children.
My daughter’s subconscious emphasis on the human element of teaching has stuck with me. Few professions have the human connection more at their center than teaching. We are not, or at least shouldn’t be, simply presenters of information. Engagement is the key to education. Think about your favorite teachers: what made them special, and what keeps them in your mind? I doubt your memory is about a specific piece of curricula. It’s probably some quirky intangible by which they deftly and subtly engaged you in learning.
Rita Pierson, a veteran educator known for her TEDx Talk “Every Kid Needs a Champion,” laments how the one thing we rarely discuss when talking about improving schools is “the value and importance of human connection.” We physically attend school to be part of a community to connect and learn with and from others. The teacher as a facilitator of learning is at the center, and James Comer, a Yale professor of child psychiatry, opined “no significant learning can occur without a significant relationship.” And that doesn’t mean friendship. Too many times kids want to only be friends and have fun in class, but that might not always lead to learning and meaningful education. Education writer Carol Jago distinguishes between an engaging class and a fun one; in one learning is happening, in the other it might not.
Responsive educators make kids the focus of their instruction and teach to the specific children in front of them, from year to year and day to day. In his book School of Life, philosopher Alain de Botton laments the imbalance in the way contemporary education worries a great deal about what children are taught and very little about how they are taught. A true teacher will focus on the unique human beings in the classroom at the moment. In my first years teaching high school, I recall a counselor and dean showing up after my class to ask about a student. They wondered why he kept coming to my late afternoon class, even though he was nearly failing, did very little, and skipped everything else. “I don’t know,” I told them after explaining it wasn’t because his friends were there or because class was easy. “I guess he just likes it here.” I’m not sure what he actually learned in my class, but it was something. And I’m reminded of the wisdom of Forest Witcraft who said, “A hundred years from now, it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove, but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a [child].”
When we speak about preparing kids for the next levels -- college, career, life -- what are we really hoping to accomplish? Socrates’ goal was summed up in two words: know yourself. Creating and sustaining an educated citizenry was Thomas Jefferson’s vision. These days too many people see education as simply utilitarian job training. However, rather than thinking about content and skills, perhaps it’s best to remember we are teachers of people. Alain de Botton also noted “much anxiety surrounds the question of how the next generation will be at math, very little around their abilities at marriage or kindness.” Which will be most impactful in the life of the child? That distinction is at the heart of social-emotional learning, and it’s the crux of true education.
Ultimately, the destination is the same: to become emotionally and intellectually mature adults who can take care of and provide for ourselves while contributing to society in some meaningful way. To do that effectively, we must choose kids over content.