The Great Migration: Back to School
This month ushers in one of the great human migrations: back-to-school season.
As we – students, parents, teachers, administrators, and everyone who makes schools come to life each year – collectively gear up for this annual journey, I share these thoughts to inspire us to reflect upon the essence of teaching and learning. Though I write from a particular institution – The Davis Academy, Atlanta’s Reform Jewish Day School, where I am the director of Jewish and Hebrew studies – these thoughts pertain to anyone embarking on the migration back to school.
- Formal education is among the most ancient human institutions. There have been societies that didn’t have the wheel or know how to kindle fire, but there has never been – nor could there ever be – a society without a structure for ensuring that the young learn from the less-young. Though the aims, content, and structure necessarily vary, education is one of the roots of human experience. It’s something we do out of biological necessity. Knowing that we are participating in this great and timeless undertaking should be a source of pride and, more important, a source of meaning. There truly is no more noble calling than that of teaching and learning.
- Education is about covenantal relationships. Too often, we think of the relationship between student and teacher, between teacher and parent, between family and school, as contractual ones. If we dig a little deeper, we discover these relationships are actually covenants – relationships between equals. They place mutual obligation and mutual promise at their core, and, by their very nature, cannot be broken (though they can be damaged). They are characterized by deep accountability and respect, honesty and dialogue, and, in this case, by an obligation by both parties to teach and learn.
- We talk about educating the whole child, but too often, talk isn’t translated into action. The whole child is mind, heart, body, and spirit. Would any of us really assert that today’s American schooling educates the whole child? From where I sit, the answer is no. One area where we can and must do better is nurturing spirituality. The separation of church and state doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn’t help students cultivate a sense of connectedness, awe, and wonder. The sciences and the humanities provide endless opportunities for awakening and engaging the human spirit.
- The classroom is an undeniably important learning site, but it’s not the only one. Learning doesn’t start and end there. When students return to school, they are coming from somewhere. When the bell rings, they are headed to somewhere. Students don’t come to class ready to learn, they come to class in the midst of learning. If what we teach them applies only within the classroom, they won’t carry their learning with them. If we ask them to disconnect from the natural learning they’re doing when they enter our classroom, we are inadvertently stunting their learning. Let us view our classrooms as spaces wherein we can acquire certain skills and knowledge, helping us thrive in the ultimate classroom of human experience: the world.
- There are times in life when prose is insufficient. Wherever we are, whatever we teach, however we fit into the back to school migration, let us find ways to bring poetry into our lives and into the world. Read a poem, write a poem, be a poem. Let us show our students the poetry of the world and let them show us the same.
- Relationships are the core of our humanity. Our existence is meaningful only to the extent that we are connected to one another. That we value other people and are valued by them, that we take an interest in other people and are of interest to them, that we care… These are things that give our life purpose. The relationships between teachers and students, children and parents, teachers and fellow teachers, teachers and administrators– these and other relationships are what make schools work. Good relationships are built on trust. They take time to cultivate. They are simultaneously strong and fragile, dynamic and stable. Building and sustaining meaningful relationships may be the most important thing to focus on as we head back to school.
- If you’re headed back to school you are, by definition, an optimist – even if you don’t think so. Optimism, a belief in progress and human potential, is a non-negotiable for education. If we believe in the human capacity to learn and grow, we inherently also believe in the human capacity to become more compassionate, thoughtful, loving, gentle, and interested in advancing not only our own betterment but the betterment of all.
As we flock to gather our school supplies and migrate back to school, I wish my fellow teachers and learners a meaningful and memorable school year.