Over these first couple of days of school, I keep thinking about the
phrase "the fog of war". I feel the way I always do the first week
back: in the classroom I'm energized, but I keep worrying that I'm
missing something. Out of the classroom, I'm exhausted. My colleagues,
brilliant and amazing, all seem to know exactly what they're doing; I
feel lost and kind of scared. Overall, I need a pep talk. Luckily, our
incoming freshmen got a pep talk at their assembly, so I get to chew on
that a bit, and see if it nourishes.
In fact, pep talks and cultural initiations have been happening
all over the place during these first days. I don't think I've ever
realized how much our school indoctrinates its students, how thoroughly
we try to educate them in the norms and values of the school, and of a
decent society. The freshmen were urged, among other things, to take care of the building, to balance freedom and
responsibility, to bring their best selves to school every day, to work
hard over time, to ask adults for help when they need it. This pep talk was pretty similar to a lot of the others--they
were almost none of them about efficient procedures, almost none about nuts and bolts. We were dealing with the freshmen not only
as students, but as people.
In our classes, too, most of
us have started off with acculturation. My department chair's advice
was: "Relationship before task!" One of my students told me that my
class was the only one in which she actually did anything--but
that, too, was acculturation, since I wanted to impress upon the kids
that reading and writing would be our primary activities.
With a close relative being treated for cancer this summer, I've been
thinking a lot about medical care, about how medical care is becoming
more and more standardized, impersonal, mechanical, algorithmic. For
cancer care, this is probably a good idea. But a lot of people
are pushing education in the same directions that medicine has been
taking--greater standardization, increased central planning, attempts to
be "data-driven" or "research-based"--and I'm much less sure that it's a good idea in education. Instead, what we need is more of what we've been doing over these first days: creating a culture of learning; helping our students learn to be calm and centered in themselves; helping them with their extracurricular trials and tribulations; providing a safe space for them.
I'm feeling foggy, but maybe that's okay, at least for now. In medical care, the doctor needs to try to be precise. In education, the teacher can't even try to be perfectly precise--that's the student's job! The teacher needs to leave room for the student to move, to change, to learn. But maybe this is partly true of doctors, too. Think of that line from Kafka: "To write prescriptions is easy, but to come to an understanding with people is hard."