Like philosophers, teachers are generally a misunderstood lot. Those who care to take a look at what we do sometimes fail to see what is really going on. Often they expect that what goes on in school nowadays is the same as what went on when they were there. One of the great paradoxes of education is the fact that, as the job of teaching became more and more demanding and wide-ranging over the years, the general level of respect for teachers as professionals went down. Gone are the days (thank God) when rows of students passively sat absorbing information to be immediately forgotten after the test. In those "good old days" the job was easier: kids listened, even when they were bored, or else. Nowadays it's a performance, and every day you have to be ready for whatever good fortune comes your way when the channels of communication between teacher and student open up. You might only get one chance in any given hour to light a little fire of learning, but when it happens it's real and you know it. That's the challenge of the job nowadays.
On Tuesday, September 3, I went through an existential crisis bordering on near panic and despair when I suddenly realized that my job was too hard for me to do. I say "suddenly" as if it just crept up and slapped me in the face, but in actuality it had been building all Labor Day Weekend, infecting the family festivities with a sense of unresolved malaise. You see, we returned to school on August 26 (27th for the students) and put in a whole week prior to Labor Day Weekend. When I returned on Tuesday, somehow the whole house of cards seemed to have collapsed.
For some reason, although the first week back at school is always physically and mentally draining, it isn't until the second week that the enormity of the task settles into the psyche and causes one to realize just how much has to be juggled with to ensure even a modicum of success. The first week knocks the stuffing out of staff and students alike, but the novelty of the new setup carries you through. By the time the second week rolls around I begin to question the very concept of education.
On Labor Day I happened to be speaking to my brother-in-law at a family gathering. Perhaps that was what caused the crisis. In his innocent way he asked me to explain what the purpose of learning German could possibly be. He knows I teach some German, and regards himself as a practical man, not some sort of ivory tower pedant like me. Sure, he said, I can see Spanish for around here, in Northern Michigan, what with the migrants and all, but German? How practical is that? O.K., I can handle this question, I thought. Take a deep breath, don't get offended. Trot out some statistics for him. You know the sort of thing: We live in a global village. German is an international language in technology, chemistry, medicine, music, philosophy, and art. One out of every ten books published in the world is written in German. German also improves the understanding of English; students of German are likely to score higher in college entrance exams than others. Enough? Probably. But ultimately there are other reasons for learning German, or any other foreign language, that go well beyond those rather narrow concerns.
Once you learn a foreign language you begin to understand something about the very nature of language as an instrument for representing reality. You know when the politicians are lying to you, you see through the hypocrisy of Madison Avenue and you understand the very provisional nature of some so called "truths". Is this practical? Well I certainly think so. Shall we talk "life skills"? Why not. Being able to filter out the cant and hype that gets thrown your way every day is certainly as important as being able to do quadratic equations, but when was the last time somebody questioned the relevance of the math or science curriculum? Don't get me started!
Being able to communicate, be it in English or in German, is a basic human need. Our mental health depends on it. Do words precede thoughts or thoughts precede words? Hey, who knows. But there is nothing more practical or important than the ability to communicate our own version of reality, first to ourselves, and then to the outside world, to the very fullest extent, and in turn to receive that communication from others. And that is why, when people like my brother-in-law attempt to define education in the narrow, practical terms of the immediate needs of the business world, I despair. And that is why, when I attempt to explain what really ought to go on in the classroom, I realize the futility of my task. Because we are not speaking the same language.
It's as if the outside world (as represented by my brother-in law) sees school through the filter of some sort of outdated clip art. You know the sort of thing: chalk, apples, Greek pillars and such. Or worse yet, cheap pictures of computers and VCRs. Either they think that the job of a teacher is just like that of the teachers of their youth - standing watch over diligent students - or they allow themselves to be frightened into believing in some alien notion of machines taking over the business of teaching.
You know, teaching is just one long challenge. I love it, but it wears me out. Every day I have to re-invent the wheel. I have to find a new way to say something new to a new group of students on a new day. It's never the same twice. It's a performance, and just as a musician has to inject fresh life into an old song every time he performs it, so too does a teacher need to find a way to keep it alive. Bad teachers are control freaks. They see their jobs in terms of setting up very narrow parameters within which students can operate. They generally give true/false, multiple choice tests because they are easy to mark and are either right or wrong. Good teachers let go of the control, not the discipline, and go down paths that have no predetermined finish. It's a hard job - never boring, usually rewarding - but ultimately nothing like what most people think it is.
Mark Smith and teaches English and German at Leland Public School, and English at Northwestern Michigan College. He also maintains a web site for a student journal, called the Beechnut Review.