When the world outside the classroom is tectonically shifting every half-minute, how should educators respond? What is the role of the teacher when everything beyond the classroom has changed in fundamental ways? Some of the purest moments of my career as a teacher have occurred this year when there have been no answers to the student’s questions. The only choice for me in those moments is to respond with complete openness, honesty, and vulnerability.
"How are you doing?"
I am often guilty of greeting my one-to-one classes with banal salutations that are posed as questions. They are so ingrained in my lexicon that I usually don't realize I have asked a question until the answer follows, which is beneficial because the common response to, “How are you doing?” is: “fine.” This often isn’t the real answer and prompts me to ask the question again with more intention. These general questions I absent-mindedly ask have now become a pretext for a larger conversation about the ways my students are struggling to comprehend the current uncertainty of the world. No longer a replacement for hello, these simple check-in’s are a way of entering into a dialogue about much deeper things. As teachers, especially at Fusion, we get glimpses into our student’s lives which grant us a fuller picture of who they are and helps us access our empathy to better understand their academic needs amidst a broader spectrum of life concerns. The shared reality of 2020 has aligned student and teacher experiences outside of the classroom in a way that only national or global events can. “How are you doing?” translates into “how are you coping?”
The Value of Teaching
I was fortunate enough to create and teach a Media and Politics course this summer. The class covered everything I was struggling to digest and wanted to talk about. In honest and full disclosure, it was as much a class for me as it was for the students. We traveled through the intertwined relationship of politics, capitalism, and media. We explored Obama and Trump’s relationship with the press; we discussed Manufacturing Consent, the MeToo movement, COVID-19, Black Lives Matter, and anything else that caused the students to question their previous understanding of the world. Frustration can bring about repetition that makes the days long or it can incite change. The more students I had moved through the course the more I unraveled the answers I was searching for to understand this ‘brave new world’ of ours. This is when the real value of teaching was fully realized because the more clarity I achieved, the less I found myself wanting to provide answers for my students. This is what I believe education should be: A teacher utilizing the knowledge they have to create questions that empower students to arrive at their own answers.
Every teacher at some point questions the value of what they are doing and wonders if they are teaching with purpose. These timely and sometimes daily doubts are essential for my teaching practice. If I am not questioning myself then I have no internal ‘record of journey.’ I have never questioned my teaching practice more consistently and meaningfully than I did this year.
Wonder and Curiosity
When I was twelve years old, I went to the Museum of Modern Art with my father. My father was an art teacher. Well, really my father was an exceptional football player known across Long Island for his bruising hits until he suffered a freak accident diving into the Sound that left him partially paralyzed. During his recovery, he found that art was the only thing that brought him solace. I don’t think he ever wanted to be a teacher, but he was. He was in that moment in the museum when I made the joke most people make about any Jackson Pollock painting. He didn’t correct me. He just politely laughed at my trite attempt at humor and then explained One: Number 31, 1950 to me in a way that taught me to always look at paintings with wonder and curiosity. He explained it in a way that left me space to find my own answers. I often think of that moment when I get frustrated with my own teaching experiences.
For me, the beauty of this year was the experience of hearing students ask questions that deeply mattered to them. They were asking questions in an attempt to understand the world, understand why some of their friends saw the world differently, and understand how their parents arrived at their beliefs. Most importantly, they were asking questions in order to understand themselves and how they might find balance atop instability.
Embrace the Moment
This summer, my students reminded me of the value of embracing the moment. So much of the focus and drive behind our conversations in daily life seeks to define the past or determine the future. “ “How was your weekend?” and “What are you looking forward to later?” These are not harmful questions but it often takes something severe for us to ask about the moment. What are we doing right now and how does it make us feel? What do we want to learn in this moment and does it tell us about who we are? These are the questions I want to continue to pursue with my students. When the world is changing in dramatic and incomprehensible ways, being in the moment has immeasurable value. Being in the moment can help us exist, ever so briefly, just as the paint that has left the brush but hasn’t yet decided where to land.