The classroom as microcosm for the world, or: the work of the teacher

To see a World in a Grain of Sand ~ William Blake

The audacity to hope. ~ Jeremiah Wright

Make it work! ~ Tim Gunn

Teachers have the privilege (and pain) of working within the semi-real and semi-idealised world of the classroom.

Teachers work with students whose rights and dignity are partially protected by the broader “real”, school, societal, and legal expectations that govern their responsibilities and authority. But teachers know that all rules require interpretation and that this interpretation can cut in different ways. In other words, there can’t be perfectly enforceable rules because we aren’t mathematical creatures or mere computational machines. That people are messy and the ways we assess value is often arbitrary and unfair is very clear in the classroom.

Teachers know that there is no tool that can properly assess the full value of a student’s work. In uncontroversial, and objective areas, i.e. much of math, assessment can be straightforward. But a lot of, if not the majority of, assessment is hard. All teachers have encountered flawed student work which they know to be as creative, intelligent, witty, humorous, and interesting as something that could be found in the Louvre. It’s a special knowledge available to the teacher, who is one of the few who appreciates the confluence of circumstances, journey, and progress to produce that work.

Teachers know that the needs of students vary and ebb across time, as well as between and within the students themselves. All teachers have that dreaded class at a dreaded time slot, when hunger or restlessness or Wednesday afternoon lethargy or Friday afternoon exuberance kicks in. The needs of a Grade 1 student are very different from those of a Grade 6 or 9 student, and those needs change from the beginning of the school year to the end. The introvert’s needs are different from the class clown’s, or they may not be.

Teachers know that there are haves and have nots in the classroom. The haves possess all kinds of privilege: family support, intelligence, confidence, talent, social capital, economic capital, linguistic capital, physical capital, racial capital, gendered capital, cultural capital, and on. The have nots don’t.

Teachers know injustice. The potential cruelty that lies in all of us. The burden of inequity. And we understand the frequent relationship of cruelty and injustice to ignorance and social climate. We witness how terrible people can be with an audience or under threat, and how vulnerable and normal people are one on one. We’ve seen tears, cried by little, and big, boys and girls. We’ve seen hurt and disappointment. We’ve seen children at their worst, but don’t always hold it against them. We know the bully is often the bullied.

Teachers are burdened with finding a way forward through the competing values of objectivity, aesthetics, usefulness, and fairness.

We often fail.

My point is not that classrooms are usually happy places (too often they aren’t), or even that most teachers are committed to the overall well-being of their students (they often aren’t). No, my point is that the absurdity and complexity AND potential of the human experience is on full display in the classroom.

Teachers may be idealistic at times, but it would be a mistake to say they live off of idealism. No, a teacher could not survive without their pragmatism, daily acts of civil disobedience, or the flexibility given them through their professional judgement. Students wouldn’t stand a chance if there teachers were perfectly principled, didn’t allow second chances, didn’t see structure in the chaos, or didn’t know how to nurse a vulnerable idea into a tangible and useful work.

I’ve often thought that all world leaders should spend a good chunk of time in the classroom of an experienced teacher to glean some wisdom from this resolver of ambiguity, this pragmatic-idealist.

It really is an absurd project to find security, health, meaning, and purpose for some 7.6 billion people all the while not annihilating the planet in the process.

In important ways, the task of the teacher is also absurd.

But we do allow the teacher to hope.

We must allow the world to hope.

If the classroom is not really a microcosm of the world, I think it should be a microcosm for the world. Confronted with absurdly complex and seemingly hopeless problems, teachers are and must be fuelled by hope. Although the classroom is filled with competing ideals, the effects of injustice, and a diversity of bodies and minds, teachers still manage to see beautiful wholeness through the fragments.

Or, they are only doing what the wise Tim Gunn would say: “Make it work!”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.