No matter where you are and what you’re doing, you’re always getting an education.
I say this often to my students: teachers learn from their students as much as students learn from their teachers. If good teaching is about relationships, and not technical content, then teachers have to learn from their students, too, because relationships are two-sided and go back and forth.
But this expands beyond my job and my classroom. There are a lot of things I could be doing better, and the first of those is incorporating more of my students’ voices into lessons. As a first-year teacher, I am prone to lecturing and doing most of the work, while not incorporating enough activities for my students to have discussions and taking over the lesson.
Outside of school, though, I reinforce the message to them and myself that they’re always learning. I have personally learned from my students how to survive in the tough inner-city environment that is Baltimore, how early they have to wake up every day to get to school, and the defenses they have to put up with a lack of parental involvement in their lives.
The other day, I had this conversation with a male student I’ll call John. John is smart and sharp, but is tough, angry, and very distrustful. John is distrustful of anyone in the school trying to help him. He has been a very behaviorally challenging kid to deal with, despite the corrections and multiple redirections my co-workers and I have tried with him.
“You know I care about you guys, right?” I said.
“That’s not true. No one cares about anyone here,” he said.
“What do you mean? I’m your teacher.”
“You don’t get it, Mr. Fan. Don’t you know this is Baltimore?”
In that conversation, John and I connected more than any period of instructional time. No, it won’t be recognized as me teaching him. It was the initiation of him teaching me, and all my students teaching me about the grim realities of surviving in Baltimore, a city that just surpassed 300 murders for the fifth year in a row. John and the other students have opened up to me more and more as time has gone on, as they’ve been more exposed to me and I to them. My kids are constantly learning how to survive.
One of the most eye-opening experiences, as a new educator, was a talk by Ta-Nehisi Coates at a local high school. Coates talked about how an education meant something very different for him and the other kids around him, growing up in Baltimore in the late ’80s and early ’90s, than it means for teachers. An education meant not ending up on the corner. An education meant not getting locked up. And if an education means not ending up on the corner and not getting locked up, I can’t imagine how hard it is to see the relevance of The Canterbury Tales to your own life.
I have a lot of short-sightedness as a teacher with the infinite obligations I have. It’s always about the lesson for me, whether it’s the planning, the resources, or wondering frantically about how the lesson will reach my students. But it is the extra things beyond the lesson, beyond what is planned that I find myself learning the most about. As much as the cliche goes, as someone new to the system, I can only see the trees, not the bigger picture forest.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned is this: there is drama everywhere. Maybe it’s just at the middle school level, where drama-obsession is most blatant, but in the high school, among adults. Teachers across my school can attest to the difficulty of getting kids’ attention and to get them on task when there’s some major social media beef going on. I thought the kind of drama that happened when I was in middle school, from who was dating who and who said what about who, was limited to my environment.
But I couldn’t have been more wrong. There is drama at any level, even among adults. There’s a lot of drama and chaos in my personal life, almost all the time. Once people get older, the drama becomes more discreet, but it’s still there. Perhaps the biggest life skill I’m learning from my job is the capacity to handle middle school drama.
Outside of work, on a serious note, I’m still always learning. I’m learning when I go to church and interact with people in my congregation. I’m learning when I’m just talking with my roommates. I’m learning when I’m mindlessly browsing my phone on the couch, watching TV or exploring ideas. I’m learning when I’m on a run, taking in the beauty of nature or just taking the time to reflect and think. I’m learning when I’m on the phone with my parents, and they impart their valuable life wisdom on me.
Just because the education is informal, and not formal like in a school setting or college, doesn’t mean it’s not an education. Some would argue that education has to be systematic, but I disagree because that reduces the experiences we have outside the formal setting.
How is the first time you sign up for a credit card not educational? How is the first time you make coffee or cook not educational? How is the first time you drive a car in a parking lot not educational?
And I consider the fact that we’re always getting an education liberating, not limiting. It means that the adage that failure is the best teacher is true, but also that time not hustling, not being busy, is educational. It means that play is educational. It means that navigating the public transportation system is educational. It means service jobs like being a cashier and stocker are educational. It means that relationships always give you something to learn, that you’re always teaching yourself.
Some people would even argue that the time we spend outside the classroom is more educational than the time we spend in. And what’s wrong with that? Most things in life are impossible to learn unless you learn them by practice and experience.
No matter how many degrees someone may have, I’ve come to realize that no person’s education is more or less than someone else’s. They’re just different. Some are more valued by a certain job market and society than others, but that also means that everyone has something to teach and offer that maybe we just can’t see right now. It’s more of a matter of perspective, that every experience is growing us and valuable.
So let’s take some time to reflect on what we learn, even in experiences outside the classroom. Although we don’t always see it, we’re always getting an education.
Originally published on November 19, 2019 on P.S. I Love You
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