The Real Mr. Fitz: A Teacher Emergency Kit: Reminders for a New School Year                                                  

A Teacher Emergency Kit: Reminders for a New School Year

I have always loved the Narnia books by C.S. Lewis, and my favorite book in the series is one that doesn't get a lot of attention: The Silver Chair. It is a classic quest story. Two children, Jill and Eustace, are called into the mountain country of Aslan, the great lion who rules Narnia from afar. Aslan gives Jill a quest. She and Eustace must travel through Narnia to the giant-filled wastelands of the north to find a missing prince.

Before he sends her on her quest, Aslan tell her, "I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly. I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia the air will thicken. Take care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs that you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there."  

My summer break as a teacher is like being on Aslan's mountain. The air is clearer and I get a better perspective, clearer thoughts about teaching when I look at it from a distance. Once I get down into the thick air and the overly busy, demanding stress of the school year, the truths that seemed so clear on the summer-break mountaintop become muddled. 

I am one week in to a new school year with my students, and because I am still thinking clearly, I've had a great week. But as the year progresses, my mind may become muddled, so I'm writing this Emergency Kit to remind myself of what seemed clear over the summer, but is so easy to forget in the midst of the school year: 

First, remember that teaching is about people. Not projects, not data, not scores, not curriculum maps, not textbooks, not tests. People. People you are attempting to influence for the better. Living, breathing human beings. Always remember that the real needs of people trump the needs of the system, the needs of the bureaucrats, the need for data, the need for following rules and being compliant. If the system puts its own needs before the needs of individual students, the system is wrong. If I put my own need to advance my career or keep my job ahead of doing what is right for kids, I am in the wrong. Here is what treating students like people means. It means I don't refer to them as test scores ("He's a level 2."). It means I find out something about who they are as people. It means I know that I have a girl who plays team football and a boy who writes poetry. It means that I want my students to understand the importance of what I'm teaching, enjoy what they're learning, and feel they are growing a bit every day, not to produce data, but to help them become better versions of themselves. It means that I acknowledge every day that being human is a far more mysterious, complex, multifaceted, and fascinating than we want to admit. And that's what I am dealing with. Every. Single. Day.

However, if teaching is about people, I must remember that teachers are people too, including me. I need to take care of myself, or I can't take care of my students. (It's that airplane oxygen-mask thing.) And I must acknowledge and honor my own calling to be a teacher. Yes, I am in teaching for me, too. Because it is my deep joy when I do it well, and because it meets the world's deep need. If I ever feel tempted to think that I should give in and become standardized because that's what the system wants, I should think about my students. If one of them felt the call to be a teacher, would I want them to have to someday stifle their gifts and hide their lights under bushels so the system will be happy with them? 

Remember that education is often about paradox. I said above that education is about people. But it is also about the subjects being taught. Parker Palmer's writing has made me think about the fact that putting students too much at the center of things can hurt the subject, while putting the subject too much at the center can make it disconnected from the students. We tend to think about education being about getting right answers, yet the best thinking comes out of ambiguity. Yet sometimes there is only one right answer. My subject is paradoxical. My students are paradoxical. I am paradoxical. And I wouldn't have it any other way.

Remember that teaching and learning are about thinking. So many things work against thinking and questioning: curriculum maps, pacing guides, textbooks, rubrics, standards upon standards that set parameters and limits on thinking, mandates about how students should be allowed to read and what they should be allowed to write and how their success will be measured. I don't want learning to be about my students jumping through hoops--someone else's or my own. I don't want my students to jump through hoops, but to question the need for hoops. I have seen too many students walk up to me in class or raise their hands to ask, "Am I allowed to...?" They think school is about doing what you're told, not thinking for yourself.  

Remember that that teaching is transcendent, not reductionist. In a system that reduces students to test scores who will someday be "human capital," teachers to VAM scores, schools and districts to letter grades, everything that needs to be learned into lists of codified standards, and the act of teaching into a robotic, assign-and-assess algorithm, I need to remember that teaching has higher purposes, larger perspectives to offer. Neil Postman said, "Children enter school as question marks and leave as periods." I should be enlarging their questions, not simply answering them; growing their curiosity, not stifling it; encouraging their interests, enthusiasms, and passions, not training them to subvert them. 

Remember to teach on all cylinders. A good lesson teaches a standard. A great lesson goes beyond one standard. It teaches students something about life, something about learning itself, gets them to question, gets them to think, and helps them see things in a new way, if only for a moment. It's not as hard as it sounds. You just need to think in more than one dimension. 

Remember that they are watching you. You are a model for what an educated person can be. Model wonder. Model enthusiasm. Model questioning, thinking, engagement, interest, fascination, and a willingness to entertain paradoxes. Even model how to be frustrated with something and then take action. Remember that many students don't come from settings where people talk about big ideas. Your class may be the only place where they ever have a real discussion about happiness, about success, about the way people use and abuse power, about themes, which run not just through books but through life. 

If you are having a bad day, remember that it will fade into the past eventually, and that it doesn't mean you are a bad teacher. It means you are still learning. You need to be a model of that, too. Remember that you should try to succeed with every student, but that you won't succeed with all of them. And that's okay, too. But also remember that for every former student you run into in theme parks, grocery stores, restaurants, or anywhere else who tells you how much your class meant to them, there are probably ten others out there. 

Remember to re-read this when you are having a bad day. It's easy to forget these things when a student has mouthed-off at you, an absurd edict has come from on high, and you had to break up a fight in the hall. 

Have fun.