Although they’re an odd couple to recommend, Kurt Vonnegut and Jim Collins make surprisingly good companions for high school teachers who are trying to go the distance as effective long-term educators.
With a few days to go until spring break, I’m wrapping up another semester/quarter of teaching on a condensed block schedule. I’m once again realizing how difficult endings can be. The theme of endings got me thinking about my experiences with philosophy, spirituality, and the meaning(s) of life.
I’m up for my second dose of a vaccine on March 12th, and that date was my last day of in-person learning in the spring of 2020. Looking back, I find myself noticing things about experience, education, and culture that I wouldn’t have if not for the influences of COVID. Here are some assorted thoughts.
Just this morning, I heard an excerpt from legendary basketball coach John Wooden’s speech at UCLA in the 1971 NCAA Championship Game. Truly, the three things of his philosophy of coaching work well for good collaboration in schools and classrooms. I found this especially timely after writing about collaboration last week, using somewhat similar connections from about thirty years ago. Wooden’s emphasis on conditioning, fundamentals, and a team spirit helps essentialize our work as educators.
Just a little short of thirty years ago, I was taught several “cooperative learning” strategies via our small school’s informal yet thoughtful approach to professional development: Have experienced teachers share knowledge, skills, and wisdom. Old timers back then knew that good cooperative learning also requires good individual preparation and accountability. The same can be said for our mostly synonymous notion of collaboration these days.
When I think of opportunities I’ve had to become an administrator, I often recall a scene in the 1994 movie Star Trek: Generations where next-generation Captain Picard meets the legendary Captain Kirk of the previous generation through a mysterious, wish-fulfilling, destructive space anomaly called the Nexus. The scene and the space anomaly provide apt analogies for teachers to consider as they face temptations to move to administrative positions beyond the classroom.
I had a much different topic ready for today, but I read Dave Stuart’s timely and encouraging post on “The Teacher’s Journey.” That got me thinking about the cycles of disorientation and reorientation that are so much a part of my life and work as a teacher. In terms of struggling through such cycles, I’d say that one of most formative books for my own journey so far is Ecclesiastes. It’s an ancient wisdom book that deals with inner and outer cycles of learning, teaching, and working through life’s messy experiences. Ecclesiastes is a bit like C.S. Lewis’ characterization of Aslan: The book grows bigger as the messy cycles of life and teaching frequently grow bigger and more wearisome.
Duane, a retired science teacher who started teaching about 70 years ago, often had practical wisdom to pass along about teaching. One of his best insights was to “just get students working at the board each day.” That still applies for in-person and distance learning in the 21st century.
In the previous post, I shared my concerns that a sort of unhelpful flea market approach to education has become too common, characterizing it as a philosophy “of” education. In contrast, I advocated that we need a sort of mere philosophy “for” education that will guide us into more effective and coordinated teaching and learning efforts. A mere philosophy approach helps coach my students to make meaningful connections with their learning and long-term flourishing in my English courses. If we could get mere philosophy working for professional development thinking, I believe we’d have healthier and more inviting schools in which to teach and learn.
Instead of the commonplace exercise of just developing a philosophy “of” education, educators of all ages need to develop effective philosophies “for” education to offset unhelpful institutional, cultural, and personal habits. I find that most philosophies “of” education resemble flea markets of scattered ideas and practices. Adapting a theme from C.S. Lewis for the public high school context, I might call the alternative “mere philosophy.” Here are some initial thoughts about the value of mere philosophy as a guide “for” better learning and teaching.