“A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.”
– Oscar Wilde
“Profound teaching, transformative teaching, does not draw its essence from curriculum structure or tools of dissemination or planning and marking objectives, but from the quality of a human being. Despite the rhetoric of accountability, it is the nature of humanity that lies at the centre of transformative learning and teaching. If you want human beings to function well, you have to give them space to do so. You have to trust them and their authenticity.”
– Welby Ings, Disobedient Teaching
May is always a crazy month for a teacher. At least in the States it is our last full month with students, decisions for the coming year are impacting our current exhausted realities, and students energy is usually ecstatic with various end of the year activities. Here in New Zealand my month of May kept with the same sort of exuberant energy. I have interviewed many school leaders, visited schools, and surveyed staffs in schools using the relational approach of restorative practices. I enjoy the ability and time I have been granted to dig deeper into the ways whole-school transformation can happen and the ways culture shift in schools takes root. There are very simple truths I keep coming back to, truths that for me have kept me in the classroom and sane over the years. My concern and value for the humanity in education is always at the core. Culture shift isn’t easy. It takes time. It takes risk and willingness to try. But in all the years of my push against the norm of what education has become, the reduction of children, teachers, schools to numbers, was not a push backwards to what came before, more a push to imagine a different future for our schools.
Today, I listen to the On Being podcast with Krista Tippet in conversation with Physician and writer Abraham Verghese and education researcher Denise Pope. Denise Pope addresses the concept of success and achievement in our schools in the States. “Parents want the recipe for getting their Roberto to be successful. And the problem is, there is not a recipe, which is really hard to hear as a parent. What’s even harder is, the things that you really care about, you can’t measure, and you won’t know. It’s longitudinal data. You’re not going to know how this all works out until it’s working itself out and they get older and all that. So it’s really hard on the parents. Here’s just a little example to show this: You can now check your child’s grades at every moment, at every time of the day. Technology has allowed this to happen, and there are parents who literally say, ‘I can’t stop myself. I go on multiple times a day. I know it doesn’t even change that much.’ And the kids go on, and everybody becomes more and more obsessed with check-check-check-check-checking. And the stuff that you really care about — are they kind people; are they healthy; do they love learning; has that spark hit them; do they ask great questions; do they know what it’s like to be a friend —” Our schools are producing stressed out, unhappy students. What we have valued, measure, counted and ranked have produced such stressed out unhappy students. And I would argue teachers as well. I would recommend listening to the whole of the podcast, Abraham Verghese brings the perspective of the medical field and health. Our structures and systems are not focusing on the people they are serving or the needs at hand, but instead these external measures that are costing us our health and happiness.
Despite the current reality, despite what I know, see, and have experienced as a student and educator in the States, I have an enormous amount of hope. I have talked with so many school leaders here in New Zealand willing to shift schools to focus on relationships and the wellbeing of their students, teachers, and communities. The value of who that learner is, above what that learner can produce or do is evident with those leaders. (There are still places in New Zealand that function in punitive, standardized ways. This is no utopia.) The leaders I have talked with do not see themselves as having completed the “restorative practices” task. Whether 3, 5 or 12 years of implementing restorative practices and a relational approach to discipline and learning they speak to a circular need of reflection: What are we doing? Why are we doing x, y, or z? And what could we do to better support students? Almost all have the willingness to speak to a time they could have responded better. All have said they believe restorative practices, a relational approach is not only a more humane way to run schools, but also a more humane way to engage in society.
In the next few weeks, as I reflect on what I have collected in my time here and start to finalize my learning (for now), I will do my best to share the gems of my interviews and key overlapping themes that I will be taking home. The best souvenirs I have ever been given in my life, over the many years I have traveled or lived in other countries, are the lessons that have challenge me to question and grow from those questions personally and professionally.