We Are All Students, We Are All Teachers.
In this thread, the author discusses social dynamics between teachers and students as the foundation of revolutionizing our educational system.
Part 1: Lak’ech
This week’s post illustrates the disparity between how educator/student social interactions occur and how they should be functioning for a healthy educational environment.
In the culture of the Mayan people, there is a concept called “Lak’ech.” It means, roughly, “I am you, and you are me.” A similar notion exists In the Christian bible: In John 13:34, Jesus says: “as I have loved you, love one another.” Even among secular folks, we have heard “treat others as you would like to be treated.”
As an ideal, these mantras seem like common sense. We regularly see similar idioms on motivational posters, bumper stickers, and tee-shirts. Certainly, treating everyone equally, or at least respectfully, should be the goal of every moral person.
Of course, no one is perfect. As human beings, we err, flaw, make mistakes, and act in regrettable ways towards each other. It is the duality of humanity: just as we commit intense acts of beauty and kindness, so too are we capable of unspeakable acts of cruelty. The ideal of Lak’ech therefore may seem far-fetched or naive, but arguably, character is developed through our acts of contrition when our behavior has been less than beautiful. Moreover, is there anything wrong with striving for perfection, even if we may never quite reach sainthood?
All religious overtones aside, what does Lak’ech, Jesus Christ, or any other Hallmark card cliches have to do with education? This author argues that we cannot hope to revolutionize our educational system until we develop a pedagogical perspective that respects all of the human beings involved in learning.
A constant complaint from fellow teachers is the behavior of certain students in their classes. (Note: the author is not excluding themselves from said complaining). In three years of teaching at American High School, I have been subject to a gamut of negative encounters with his pupils: I’ve been kicked, stabbed, scratched, shoved, cursed out, yelled at, spat on, stolen from, and had personal property vandalized. Sadly, these are not unique experiences – every person I’ve met who has taught for a considerable length of time has a litany of their own behavioral horror stories.
Likewise, conversations with students have yielded their own litany of negative experiences with regards to teachers (to say nothing of their interactions with fellow students). Every student I’ve ever known has had a teacher deliberately embarrass them in front of peers, had their intelligence or capability questioned, or been subject to punishments clearly banned under Federal Verbal Abuse/Corporal Punishment guidelines.
In my own public school experience, I recall my moment of greatest horror as a young student. It was in 8th grade, attending Montgomery Village Intermediate School. In the words of a few of my teachers, I was “one of the Ritalin kids.” This meant that I had been medically diagnosed (an idea that will be discussed in later posts) as a student with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. It meant that every day, after lunch, I was mandated to go to the nurse’s office and take 5 milligrams of Ritalin, so that I didn’t drive the people around me crazy.
Like many children, I often “forgot” to take my medicine at lunch. This is especially true when I was socializing with friends, playing in the gym, finishing a chapter in a good book – or really any activity other than my daily reminder from the nurse’s office about my inability to sit through 51 minutes of note-taking from a passionless teacher with the emotional sensitivity of a rabid wolverine (or alternatively, drying paint).
On one particular fall day, I was extremely nervous and preoccupied. The result was that I “forgot” to go to the nurse and take my ADHD medicine. But, this particular fall day was important! I had finally worked up enough nerve to ask Linda Suarez to be my date to the homecoming dance. Linda was beautiful: long dark hair, clear skin, and liked to laugh at my jokes. Linda also liked science, which was a bonus for an honors kid like me. In 8th grade, I had a mouth full of metal braces, a thick “bowl hair cut”, and a Metallica tee-shirt for every day of the week. Today was going to be the day. I was going to ask out Linda, she was going to say yes, and I was going to be one of the cool kids for at least a week or two.
Me: Middle School (I’m on the right side of both pictures).
So, my conversation with Linda was going as well as a former 13-year-old can expect. Like any 8th grade male, my palms were sweating, my voice had cracked, and I was debating whether or not to ask Linda out at all. Just then, there was an announcement over the PA system: “Will Jacob Sugar come to the nurse’s office please. This is the third day in a row that he has not taken his Ritalin meds.” Realize that at MVIS, we had an old school. They literally tore the entire school down the year after we graduated. This old school (not ole skool!)’s PA system could not differentiate between classrooms. When someone was called on the PA system, everyone in every classroom on every floor heard the announcement.
Needless to say, Linda didn’t go with me to the dance, and my entire town knew that I was on crazy pills. As horrifying as this story was, I love telling it to people. Students in my self-contained special education classes think it’s funny, and usually respond with a painful experience of their own. Teachers usually gasp in horror, and a few have amended their treatment of “problem children” in response.
I also use this story to exemplify the potential negativity in the traditional teacher/student social dynamic. As children and adults, we hope that teachers and students are able to have healthy social interactions that focus on the transfer of knowledge and communication of ideas. Far too often, however, students are subject to the ego and negative behaviors of adults – who are themselves subject to a myriad of psychological pressures and systemic expectations in excess of their jobs as facilitators of learning.
Teachers and students alike are placed under a great deal of pressure to succeed on standardized tests, pass their classes, and facilitate/conform to school rules. Students that fail to conform are met with punishments that sap their sense of self-worth and ability to succeed in life – even if said students’ learning profiles or lifestyle circumstances interfere with uniform school expectations. Teachers are subject to the whims of their administrators – who are able to evaluate teachers with the same power as the teacher/student dynamic. The result can be a rewarding life spent engaging students, or a fear for one’s sanity and fiscal stability.
In the next post(s), this author intends to ask the questions: “What is a teacher?” and “What is a student?”. I will demonstrate that regardless of age, subject of expertise, or legally defined role, human beings in a classroom alternate between the role of teacher and student. By proving that these positions are simultaneous for all people in a classroom, we can observe that there is no difference between teachers and students. This critical analysis lends credence to the ideal notions of Lak’ech, and offers the necessary social foundation to revolutionize our education system.
Stay tuned for next week’s post: “What is a Teacher? What is a student?”