I'M the teacher! Now LEARN!
I have this seed. Someone told me it would turn into the most beautiful, fragrant and amazing flower. I put it in a little pot, bury it in the dirt, water it, and wait. It starts to grow. It grows so fast, that the initial leaves of a sprout have been gone or a long time now, and it is fully blossoming, big, beautiful, vibrant petals; the fragrance is so amazing. I want to share this flower with everyone!
I am still watering it. I water it the same amount of water as when it was a seed.
My flower has stopped growing. It is dry. It wilts. It dies.
I don't understand.
Why did my flower die?
"Education must be based on a sound philosophy of life. If there is no right understanding of the ultimate aim of human life, if there is no clear idea of what man is meant to become through the process of life, no scheme of education will be satisfying and beneficial."
-Swami Sivananda, Bliss Divine
In 2010, I was contracted by the tutoring company I worked for to teach at a few charter schools in Brooklyn, NY a group of high school aged young men and women the "English" part of the SAT test. After every class, I would have to submit a form, detailing what we covered, any road blocks, and what my strategies were for "dealing" with said issues. I was working as the editor in chief of humanities for this company, and when I was not teaching, I was sitting, pouring over content submitted by educators to create.... standardized tests.
The first few classes were really difficult for all of us; attendance was a challenge; students rarely were consistent in showing up to class. If they were, sometimes they were not sober; sometimes, they were not prepared, sometimes, they did not have a pencil when they came to class.
There were a number of students who struggled with basic reading skills; others were unable to sit still for three hours at a time- the length of the class, some really wanted to learn the test but because of the mixed levels of the students, I found it challenging to teach a consistent class.
At the end of every class, I had to submit my report, then continue with the syllabus, REGARDLESS of where the students' understanding of the material was.
Add to this, the fact that my students did not understand who I was, why I was there, and why they should ever trust me- I was a random Jewish quasi-mediterranean looking woman in her early twenties telling a group of mainly hispanic and black students in their late teens that if they wanted to go to college, they needed to take this test.
And I didn't believe what I was saying.
And they knew it. And I knew it.
And it sucked.
Living a lie is exhausting.
Teaching through a lie is absurd.
Time and time again, as a student myself, I experienced proof that a standardized test score did not result in my success. My SAT score from high school was incredibly low for someone who was an exceptional academic student, went to a top north-eastern private preparatory school, and won awards. I was supposed to do well on that test- particularly since I took it five times.
Yet, regardless of that poor score, that only got worse the more I took the test, I got accepted to The Johns Hopkins University for undergraduate study, because I was not afraid to share my self to the board who reviews applications.
When I applied for a master's in education, I needed to take a standardized test called the PRAXIS. I would be exempt from having to take that test if my SAT score was higher than a 1200 (which it wasn't) yet, they accepted my SAT score anyway, as my work and merit spoke for itself.
The University of Oxford did not need a score of any kind of test for me to study for graduate work later on; they required evidence of my ability to think. They accepted me based on my ability to think about the subject matter I wanted to study.
Over and over again, the world was showing me that this test did not matter.
When I applied for this teaching and tutoring job in New York City, they made me take the SAT, and I did horribly.
This test was following me around.
Fast forward three months, and I am now editing content for what will soon become the SAT, ISEE, SHSAT, and ACTs practice tests, students will be practicing all along the tri-state area and beyond.
And then, I'm at this school. And I have to teach this test. I've been given explicit directions on what to teach and when, but my children are struggling, and what they really need is someone to stop teaching them the test and practice reading with them.
And I wasn't allowed to do that.
Because the tutoring agency needed to provide results. The school needed to provide results to keep their accreditation current. I was being pulled in too many directions.
And I was afraid.
I was afraid, afraid that if I did give my students what they actually needed, that I would lose my job, and I needed my job, so I could keep living in the city. If I lost my job, I would have to move home, and prospects at home were slim.
I was afraid, afraid that my students wouldn't score well on the SAT, if I taught them what they were ready to learn, and I was afraid that I would be seen as a bad teacher, one who breaks the rules, one who is seen as irresponsible, because I was not churning out results, and the SAT is all about the results.
None of what I was afraid of was about my students.
It was all about me. About my ego, and my fear.
I was so busy, being afraid for myself, that I had begun to starve my students.
I was not nourishing them. I was not giving them what they needed. I was trying to dress them up in a costume that- for most- did not fit yet, never would, and even if they could squeeze into it, the seams would hurt them, prevent them from being the people they were- regardless of what I did- on their way to becoming. My students were uncomfortable, confused, disoriented, afraid, and little by little, I saw the light of learning disappear in their eyes.
I was failing.
I want to point out again, that as I watched my students flounder, my concern was not for them. It was for my self; thoughts like, "What am I doing wrong?" passed through my head, "How come they won't listen to me?" were common.
I taught at these charter schools for four years. During that time, I noticed a few things.
1)The students who wanted to learn would learn regardless of what I showed them
2) The students who did not want to learn the material didn't
3) No matter what I taught, the students were learning something
4) I affected my students much more than I ever thought I would
Starved, exhausted, bored out of our skulls, I made a decision. Something needed to change.
After a round or two of teaching this test, I began to do it in a way that worked more for my students and what they needed. I stopped following the formula, because the formula I had, inhibited their ability to grow and learn. I needed a new formula- I actually needed about 15 new formulas at any given moment- because these students were a mixture of talents, voices, expressions, and skill levels.
For some, the formula I was shown worked. For others, it was like learning an entire new alphabet.
I stopped speaking to them in that foreign language; I started teaching those who spoke Spanish in Spanish at times.
I started talking to my students in their vernacular, surprising them by serving them my personality when they least expected it, and when I did that, they learned who I was. They began to respect me. They started to show me who they were.
Then, they started to pay attention.
Then, their test scores started to matter more to some of them.
And when they failed a practice test, some of them wanted to improve.
I stopped caring about the syllabus and taught whatever they were ready for in that moment, with an eye on the test- sharing with them in the process and the struggle, and encouraging them to push "for ten more minutes" to finish a set of practice problems.
I stopped filling out the progress report forms. No one seemed to notice. I didn't get fired. The school loved me.
But, I was not very good at this teaching thing yet.
Because now, I was no longer afraid for myself.
Now, I was afraid for them.
I felt like all of a sudden, I had 25 16-19 year old children, and I loved them all. I wanted each of them to succeed. I would walk around the room like a nervous mother thinking, "Oh no, not that answer! Ack! What are you doing? You're not listening to me! Don't answer that question; it's too hard for you. You'll get a bad score!" I had to resist the urge to grab the pencils out of their manicured hands and yell at them, because, they were doing their best, and I was afraid that their best, well... just wasn't good enough.
Again, I was squelching them.
Again, I was letting my fear prevent me from seeing who they were, where they were going, and why they were in my life, in my class.
One fear had replaced another.
I was not able to see them for who they were. I was not able to see the larger picture of what they were meant to learn from my class. I was just totally. 100%. In my Fear.
Last night, I tried to count how many students I have spent time with in the role of "teacher." I lost count around 1,000.
Then I thought about all the people I have taught without being aware I was teaching them. And I realized that every experience is a moment- an opportunity- for learning. We are learning all the time.
I do not walk around the earth forcing my definitions of success and knowledge on the people I pass by in the grocery store; I do not force the amazing woman who answers all of my questions at the bank to learn from me. Every person I interact with has a choice to learn from me, and in what way.
I cannot force my definition of success on another person. They have their own purpose.
The likelihood of a student's success is not determined by me, the teacher. Nor is it really all the influenced by the content of what I teach them.
If I am lucky, I share something with someone, and it ignites in their heart a knowing, a remembrance, a passion and understanding. If I am really lucky, that student goes on to become EXACTLY who they were always meant to be.
Because, we each have their unique purpose in life we are fulfilling and creating for ourselves.
Why, then, when I "teach," do I get all bent out of shape about if my students get it or not?
Because it's all about me.
And, in those moments, I am no longer teaching someone how to access their truth and freedom. In those moments, I starve myself and my students of the possibility of more. The moment I become a better teacher, is the moment I create space for my students to be the people they truly are.
As a teacher, as a mother of over 1,000 students, if I pushed and screamed and cried and fainted every time my student birthed into their potential, if I let myself be overcome by my fears, I would be dead.
My heart, my body, my soul would shut down.
It would be too much.
To teach effectively, is a constant experience of being present with your student as they change. They are changing while you teach them. If you are doing your job well, no matter what you are teaching, your student is not the same person they were when they came into your class. They are more of themselves.
A teacher births the environment and leaves some clues for the student to arrive, show up, and receive themselves.
A teacher sits back and marvels at the student, as they become themselves more and more through learning about their world, and ultimately, themselves.
A teacher waters the plant based on what each unique seed requires and when they are thirsty.
It is up to the student to grow.