Curriculum, Opinion, Teaching

Viewpoint: The Key to John

I have always been haunted by the memory of one of my former students sitting alone in a school office. The image remains frozen in my mind. With book in hand, he waits for his mother to pick him up for an afternoon appointment with his doctor. His book is closed – it is the same title he has been carrying to school for months, opening and closing during silent reading, mouthing the words that elude his full comprehension. John is a special educational student, a fluent reader who does not understand the meaning in the books he has read.

The book seems a magic key to him. It will unlock the door to his future, where his mother holds the expectation that John will graduate from school and someday enter a college or university, fulfilling his promise for a bright future. As his teacher, I will continue encouraging the use of strategies that will help him read between the lines and draw a deeper meaning from his book. John will continue to see no further than the details in the story.

I understand now that if John held the key to his own success, I was the lock.

I understand now that if John held the key to his own success, I was the lock. In my desire to awaken a greater reader in John, I imposed obstacles in the form of academic goals that were beyond his grasp. My commitment to curriculum duped me into thinking that scholarly excellence was the main objective to my teaching profession. So I was just teaching John the skills of reading as opposed to reinforcing the joy he had already found in reading.

What are teachers if we fail to recognize the whole student? We provide tight restrictions in our curriculum, as if academic content were the panacea for a happy and fulfilling life. We set barriers for students – assignments upon assignment, test upon test – demanding they compete with their peers for the highest possible marks, and set high academic standards so that failure makes “weaker” students feel like pariahs among their peers. In our desire to isolate the intellect, we abandon the human essence of character, our ability to be fully human, the capacity to be adjusted in our intellectual and emotional needs – and to those of others living within our communities.

Here is the report card comment I should have presented to John: John has consistently demonstrated strong organizational skills in class, ready for each lesson and eager to participate. His independent working skills continue to exceed expectation, showing a student willing to learn new concepts at every given opportunity. John places a lot of pressure on himself to succeed in his academic endeavours. He is encouraged to seek help whenever his academic work is challenging so that he may experience greater success. During peer projects, students enjoy working with John, given his ability to work hard and cooperatively with every member in our classroom. 

It is a comment I never gave John because report cards concentrate primarily on academic results; held in less esteem is the measure of character through which we determine our ability to be productive and happy individuals. My fear is that, if we only succeed in academic work, we aspire to less in ourselves, becoming as it were, mechanical cogs in the machinery of society.

If schools are to cultivate a better society, curriculum needs to move beyond the academic. Where is the expectation for who I am in this world? What is my purpose? What is my goal? What is my responsibility? These questions initiate a challenge that urges us to build a bridge between understanding the world and understanding our place in it. Limiting a student’s success to the intellect is based on the same reasoning that kept me from writing the report card comment I should have written for John.

I could not entirely surmise what motivated John as a student, but I have a suspicion that he burdened himself with the aspiration to excel in his academic subjects: pressure for high grades from his parents, a self-image based on pleasing them, a feeling of inadequacy among his peers. My own wish to optimize his academic abilities may have urged him to accomplish what was beyond his capabilities. Despite his limitations, John tapped into his own natural abilities with patience and a diligence to detail. Those qualities, and his interpersonal skills with peers and teachers at school, were often overlooked because they weren’t part of the curriculum. It is to John’s credit that, in spite of ourselves, we didn’t undermine his motivation to grow as an individual inside our educational system.

If schools are to cultivate a better society, curriculum needs to move beyond the academic. Where is the expectation for who am I in this world? What is my purpose? What is my goal? What is my responsibility?

I am not suggesting we move away from the academic component of curriculum, but rather that we expand the definition of curriculum so that it may be inclusive enough to bear all students within a complex society facing challenges in its future. As technology takes over more and more of our learning and our lives, we have to ask: Is the key to our hi-tech future any more sound than the key we left John holding in the office with the book he did not fully comprehend?

I have lost track of John over the years. I find myself wondering: Did he sit through his Grade 8 graduation as an observer, watching his peers receive awards beyond his expectations? Did secondary education further alienate him from school, subjecting him to a litany of rotary classes where teachers have even less contact with students?

In my career as a teacher, I have learned many lessons. The most important has been to look beyond the official curriculum document. Is the student with the quiet demeanour avoiding eye contact because he or she is a target of bullying? Is the student who acts out in a classroom frustrated by the academic workload that is either too easy or difficult? John is always there for me – a scathing indictment of the inadequacy of curriculum, which failed to give credit for all the efforts, skills, and behaviour already in his possession.

John will one day leave school and take up an occupation judged by our educational standards to be inferior to jobs requiring a university degree – reflecting an elitism that perpetuates a myth about its own high regard and threatens to undermine our diverse democracy.

Thanks to John, I am no longer a teacher of a subject, but a teacher of students. Through his initiative alone, he has set a standard of excellence to which all our curriculum documents have yet to catch up.

EN BREF – Que sont les enseignants si nous omettons de reconnaître l’élève dans sa globalité? Nous restreignons sévèrement le curriculum, comme si le contenu scolaire était la panacée assurant une vie heureuse et enrichissante. Nous posons des obstacles aux élèves – travail par-dessus travail, examen sur examen – exigeant qu’ils luttent contre leurs pairs pour obtenir les meilleurs notes possible et nous établissons des normes scolaires élevées, de sorte que les élèves « plus faibles » qui échouent se sentent rejetés par leurs pairs. Dans notre désir d’isoler l’intellect, nous abandonnons l’essence humaine du caractère, notre capacité d’être totalement humains, la capacité de nous adapter à nos besoins intellectuels et émotionnels – et à ceux d’autres personnes dans nos collectivités.

Meet the Expert(s)

Mark Bennett

Mark Bennet has taught internationally as well as in Canada. He is now teaching at St. Emily Elementary School at York Catholic District School Board.

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