The month of August ushers in one of the greatest of all human migrations: the migration back to school. It’s a migration not only for students but for parents, teachers, administrators, and the countless other people that make schools come to life each year. As we collectively gear up for this annual journey I want to share a few thoughts that might inspire us to pause and reflect on what it is that we’re doing here. Though I write from a very particular context, that of The Davis Academy, Atlanta’s Reform Jewish Day School, I believe most of these thoughts are relevant for anyone embarking on the great migration back to school.
Formal education is one of the most ancient of human institutions. There have been societies that didn’t have the wheel or know how to kindle fire, but there has never been nor could there ever be a society without a structure for ensuring that the young learn from the “less young.” Though the aims, content, and structure, necessarily vary, the education is one of the roots of human experience. It’s something we do out of biological necessity. Knowing that we are participating in this great and timeless undertaking should be a source of pride, and more importantly, a source of meaning. There is truly no calling more noble than that of teaching and learning.
Too often we think of the relationship between student and teacher, between teacher and parent, between family and school, as a contractual one. If we dig a little deeper we’ll discover that these relationships are actually covenants. A covenant is a relationship between equals. It is a relationship that places mutual obligation and mutual promise at its core. It’s a relationship that, by its very nature, cannot be broken (though it can be damaged). It’s a relationship of deep accountability and respect. It’s a relationship built on honesty and dialogue. A relationship where both parties are responsible for teaching and learning.
We talk about educating the whole child, but too often talk isn’t translated into action. The whole child is mind, heart, body, and spirit. Would any of us really assert that American schooling as it exists today is educating the whole child? From where I sit, the answer is no. One particular area where we could and must do better is nurturing spirituality. The separation of church and state doesn’t mean that we can’t and shouldn’t be helping students cultivate a sense of connectedness, awe, and wonder. The sciences and the humanities provide endless opportunities for awakening and engaging the human spirit.
The classroom is an undeniably important learning site, but it’s not the only one. Learning doesn’t start and and end in the classroom. When our students come back to school, they are coming from somewhere. When the bell rings they are headed to somewhere. We are all learning all of the time. Students don’t come to class ready to learn, they come to class in the midst of learning. If what we teach them is operative only within the classroom then our students won’t carry their learning with them. If we ask them to disconnect from the natural learning that they’re doing when they enter our classroom then we are inadvertently stunting their learning. We all have the chance to view our classrooms as spaces wherein we can acquire certain skills and knowledge that will help us thrive in the ultimate classroom of human experience: the world.
There are times in life when prose is insufficient. Wherever we are, whatever we teach, however we fit into the back to school migration, let us find ways to bring poetry into our lives and into the world. Read a poem, write a poem, be a poem. Let us show our students the poetry of the world and let them show us the same.
Relationships are the core of our humanity. Our existence is meaningful only to the extent that we are connected to one another. That we value other people and are valued by them, that we take an interest in other people and are of interest to them, that we care… This is what gives our life purpose. The relationships between teachers and students, children and parents, teachers and fellow teachers, teachers and administrators– these and other relationships are what make schools work. Good relationships are built on trust. They take time to cultivate. They are simultaneously strong and fragile, dynamic and stable. Growing and sustaining meaningful relationships may be the most important thing to focus on as we head back to school.
There’s a great debate out there. Sometimes it takes the form of an obscure argument about whether human nature is good or evil. Sometimes it focuses on whether human beings will eventually destroy or save the planet. It’s basically a debate between people who think things inevitably (if sometimes slowly) get better and people who think things inevitably (and sometimes rapidly) go down the toilet. If you’re headed back to school then you are, by definition, an optimist. Even if you don’t think so. If you’re headed back to school and you’re not an optimist then you should consider taking an eternal summer or reconsider your self-assessment. Optimism, a belief in progress and human potential, is a non-negotiable for education. If we believe in the human capacity to learn and grow then we inherently also believe in the human capacity to become more compassionate, thoughtful, loving, gentle, and interested in advancing not only our own betterment but the betterment of all.
As we flock to gather our school supplies and migrate back to school I want to wish all of my fellow teachers and learners a meaningful and memorable school year.
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.