I had a much different topic ready for today, but I read Dave Stuart’s timely and encouraging post on “The Teacher’s Journey.” That got me thinking about the cycles of disorientation and reorientation that are so much a part of my life and work as a teacher. In terms of struggling through such cycles, I’d say that one of most formative books for my own journey so far is Ecclesiastes. It’s an ancient wisdom book that deals with inner and outer cycles of learning, teaching, and working through life’s messy experiences. Ecclesiastes is a bit like C.S. Lewis’ characterization of Aslan: The book grows bigger as the messy cycles of life and teaching frequently grow bigger and more wearisome.
Duane, a retired science teacher who started teaching about 70 years ago, often had practical wisdom to pass along about teaching. One of his best insights was to “just get students working at the board each day.” That still applies for in-person and distance learning in the 21st century.
In the previous post, I shared my concerns that a sort of unhelpful flea market approach to education has become too common, characterizing it as a philosophy “of” education. In contrast, I advocated that we need a sort of mere philosophy “for” education that will guide us into more effective and coordinated teaching and learning efforts. A mere philosophy approach helps coach my students to make meaningful connections with their learning and long-term flourishing in my English courses. If we could get mere philosophy working for professional development thinking, I believe we’d have healthier and more inviting schools in which to teach and learn.
Instead of the commonplace exercise of just developing a philosophy “of” education, educators of all ages need to develop effective philosophies “for” education to offset unhelpful institutional, cultural, and personal habits. I find that most philosophies “of” education resemble flea markets of scattered ideas and practices. Adapting a theme from C.S. Lewis for the public high school context, I might call the alternative “mere philosophy.” Here are some initial thoughts about the value of mere philosophy as a guide “for” better learning and teaching.
Each year about this time, I start wrapping up a unit on American Romanticism with my juniors. Each encounter reminds me of some helpful things about Romanticism for teaching, learning, and living well, but I also find important limitations in Romantic philosophies.
“John, I made it thirty years, and here’s how: I didn’t coach.” That was advice from Larry in my first or second year of teaching, but Larry did coach: He coached students in how to learn science as a discipline and teachers in how to live a balanced life. I was also mentored by some educators who did coach athletics. These educators went the distance for over three decades of teaching. Many of those teachers still worked as substitutes, coaches, and mentors well into their retirement years.
At 27 years of teaching high school, too many days feel like badly directed versions of Bill Murray’s Groundhog Day. Not too long ago, a good friend texted to ask how I’ve made it this long. I was tempted to answer that it was probably due to a head injury. Actually, a big part of making it this long has been with the support of such friends who love to learn and love to promote learning but struggle with our cultural and institutional settings that seem absurdly obstructive to learning.