Let me indulge your imagination. Picture a school in which teachers and students are highly motivated. Imagine a learning environment filled with vision and purpose. Paint for yourself a scene of students engaged in purposeful and meaningful learning activities. How do we get to such a place and how do we maintain it?
In preparation for a session that I am co-presenting at the upcoming Prizmah Conference for Jewish Day Schools on the subject of teacher autonomy, I am reminded of how schools are only as great as the vision and values they hold. On that note, I have included some of my personal philosophies and values that both inspire and infuse my work. I hope this begins to generate a conversation about how schools might best articulate a values based approach teaching and learning.
At my core I am an educator. I so often think about what that word means and of the many hats I have worn over the years under this title. In all of my years teaching, from the high school to the university classroom, I have never seen myself as a teacher of just content. Whether it was teaching about the Holocaust, the History of Israel, Arabic, Curriculum design, or applied linguistics, I have always seen myself as a leader, a mentor, and as a role model to those around me. My passion for teaching is not only about loving the content area but for using the classroom as an opportunity to inspire, to take risks, and to transform through knowledge.
When I teach my graduate students, who are teachers and school leaders themselves, I remind them to consistently think about not only the what of what they are teaching but the why. I ask them to think about what they want their students to know, why they want them to know it and what they want their students to be able to do with such knowledge. I ask my graduate students to think about ways in which they can transmit their content in a way that it may create an experience for their students. I consistently charge them to contemplate ways in which what they teach will ‘stick’ in their students’ long term memories. I lecture on how learning can be made meaningful, and how the moment students and teachers begin to make these connections between knowledge and meaning, the entire landscape of the classroom begins to change.
I so often think about why I wanted to be an educator and why I fell in love with the humanities. On a fundamental level it made me feel more human; more connected to the world around me. The humanities opened my eyes to connect to those different from myself. I felt electrified every time I was able to connect to someone different from who was familiar to me. Each time that I was able to approach someone with empathy, understanding, and care, became an opportunity to take what I had learned in school and apply it to a real life context. I loved school because I loved and respected so many of my dear teachers. I benefitted from having teachers who engaged with their students fully. They cared about my intellectual and social development, and went above and beyond staying late and arriving early to help me maximize my potential. When I am challenged with how to reach one of my students in the best way, I so often think back to the giants in my life and draw on elements of their practice.
In today’s educational reality, so many schools struggle to find the practically impossible balance between creativity and autonomy in curriculum amidst the pressures of standards of learning and bureaucracies. Schools in our current era are so often wrought with the tendency to over-intellectualize, stripping some of our most beautiful subjects of heart, soul, and deep engagement. Far too many teachers feel a general lack of autonomy over the choice of what to teach, how to teach it, and how best to reach their students in a meaningful way. This trickles down into lower levels of motivation, weak engagement, and a general lack of clarity about task and purpose.
My educational philosophy includes a vision to collaborate between disciplines, allowing students to see clear connections between content and learning strategies. It involves a deep desire to have teachers and students who meaningfully collaborate and consistently ask reflective questions about content and methodologies. My vision includes a desire to teach with purpose, creating a mission and values driven community that believes in what they are teaching and how it will take on meaning for students in both the cognitive and emotional plain. I believe so strongly in what we as educators model for our students. I remain hyper conscious of what I say to my students, how I behave, and how I am perceived. I think deeply and purposefully about the language I use and how my words have the ability to invite my students and colleagues into knowledge or to shut them down. I care passionately about how we engage students, how we relate to them, and how we ready them to learn. I think this is something that can not be ignored. I believe we are tasked with loving our students fiercely and that it is not their job to meet us, but our job to meet them with an appropriate level of care, compassion, leadership, and rigor.
I believe that in order for our classrooms to be great we need to know our students, have insight into their social emotional conditions and tailor our pedagogies to best engage them. Furthermore, we need to create a school culture which honors and respects teachers. We need to support their growth, professionalism, and autonomy and create a collaborative school culture rather than one which is top down.
My educational vision is not naive. Learning can be magical under the right conditions. When students and teachers feel invigorated, inspired, motivated, and heard, there are no limits. When schools are led with an ethos of care, integrity, and academic rigor, greatness will be achieved.