It’s still all about the students

We’re not trying to churn out a uniform product to some industrial standard, a truth those in power are reluctant to learn.

B

ehaviorist psychologist B.F. Skinner once commented that, “Education is what remains when what has been learned has been forgotten.” Although paradoxical, the idea is substantially true. Spending 18 years or so on my own formal education, and 31 years devoted to that of young people, I’ve had plenty of time to forget, and still to feel enriched by education.

In deciding to retire from School District 82, I’ve spent considerable time thinking over my past career (its various assignments, personalities, satisfactions and annoyances), but also about some of the changes to education brought about through social and political change, and technological advancement.

Teachers today use desktop computers, high-speed photocopiers, YouTube videos on overhead video projectors, smart boards, web-search library programs, e-mail collaboration with colleagues and students both here and around the world, satellite programming, smart phones and occasionally still, a green “blackboard.” The only one of these present when I began my career was the board.

The students are strangely the same, though. Although kids today are considerably more tech-savvy than my generation was, they are still the confused, impatient, bright, hopeful, energetic humans adolescents have always been, perpetual reminders of our own disappeared youth. To envy them is natural. To resent them, even when they become foolish or inconsiderate, would be churlish.

Teaching has always been devoted to learning, and not just other people’s learning. Psychologists and learning theorists know that the best way truly to learn something is to learn it well enough to teach it. I sometimes imagine I’ve learned far more from my classes than I’ve taught.

Each class has its own blend of student abilities and energies. Add to this the fact that each student is his own composite of previous experience, personal preferences, strengths and weaknesses, and one finds each class a unique experience.

Teaching is a process that requires much quick thinking. If the way to make God laugh is to tell Him your plans, I learned early on that the best-crafted lesson plans sometimes go awry. Knowing how to artfully bail when the boat is sinking is an irreplaceable skill in teaching.

Whatever its numerous frustrations (sometimes students fail), teaching has been a strange, perpetually challenging experience. Those who imagine teaching as an “easy” career should be reminded that others’ expertise always looks easy.

Though governments grudgingly pay education’s bills, they are unusually skillful at driving good education toward mediocrity. Sometimes they’ve been well meaning; usually they’ve been ham-handed and if not intentionally so, destructive nonetheless.

Efforts to superimpose a business model onto education have been like trying to put stockings on a pig: it doesn’t make the pork any better, and the pig doesn’t like it. Schools are as good as the people who work in them and use them. We’re not trying to churn out a uniform product to some industrial standard, a truth those in power are reluctant to learn.

Working with my professional colleagues has almost always been a privilege. My professional union is more democratic than the legislature, and responsible to an exemplary degree, as one would expect from people educated as well as they are.

To grads that confide in me that they’re thinking of becoming teachers, I usually advise that with hard work they will likely become fine teachers. But given the political climate today, I don’t recommend it.

Certain experiences become stamped on your memory in a long career.  After an “inspired” lesson many years ago on time travel (related to some science fiction we were reading), one junior high student raised his hand and solicitously asked, “Mr. Lehmann, are you on some kind of medication?” Hmm.

I met some former students who’d been out of school for about ten years. They still addressed me as “Sir” and inquired, “We were a pretty badass bunch, weren’t we?” When I assured them that I thought they’d been a decent group, one replied, “Yeah, we were scared of you, man!” Moi?

One morning after I’d spent three or four minutes chastising an underperforming group, a First Nations boy put up his hand and guilelessly asked, “But you love us, right Sir?”

Well, yes. Perhaps that kind of says it all. I haven’t forgotten that.

Terrace teacher Al Lehmann is retiring this month.