Published September 26, 2018
Education policy often deals with systemic considerations, such as federal, state, and district funding systems; effective ways to use technology; and the impact of federal regulations on state and local districts. These questions are important and must be dealt with by education-policy analysts, regardless of whether they support or oppose hot-button ideas such as charter schools, teachers’ unions, and school-choice measures.
But debates about these topics often gloss over the single most important aspect of American education policy: teachers. There is no doubt plenty of commentary and research about teacher-dismissal practices, tenure, and the role of unions in the American education system. But discussions of even these topics tend not to take into account some primary questions: What do teachers — those who are responsible for ensuring students’ education — actually do on a daily basis? What does the world of the classroom look like from the teacher’s perspective?
Teaching, while it admits of some systematization, is in an important way about responding to the needs of people in the throes of many large-scale upheavals of body and spirit — that is, responding to the needs of students. It is a caring profession in the sense that human beings cannot be systematically dealt with like problems to which there are mathematical solutions. Teaching is a binary activity — it involves the conveying of knowledge, but it also involves the imparting of habits and dispositions. To take only one of these responsibilities into account is to only partially understand what it is to teach.
Let us then temporarily leave aside the policy debates surrounding teacher tenure, dismissal, and recruitment in order to consider what a teacher is and what a teacher does. In what follows, I seek to do just that based on my own experience as a teacher and assistant principal in a charter school. Teachers may have different opinions about the policy and political questions surrounding school choice, but I take it to be the case that a teacher in a classroom with 20 to 30 students faces many of the same challenges and enjoys many of the same advantages regardless of the type of school he works in (though I recognize that the students have a lot to do with those challenges and advantages). I intend for this to be a broad account of what teachers do and contend with in their professional lives. Understanding the world of the teacher — the classroom primarily, but also school life as a whole — is essential for informing policymakers as they set priorities and expectations for the American education system.
When viewed from the inside, a teacher’s work has at least as much to do with the establishment and maintenance of trust with students as it does with teaching transferable, objective knowledge. Indeed, without the establishment of a particular kind of trust that relies on accountability in a world co-created with students, teachers have little chance of either getting students interested in the intellectual material or holding them to account for it.
“Book learning” of intellectual material is no doubt an indispensable goal of schools, but the act of acquiring social trust and its attendant virtues — the goods that precede and ultimately lay the groundwork for book learning — is often the biggest movement of students’ souls that occurs in the classroom. Human beings are, after all, much more complex than their intellects, and school life, like family life, inevitably deals with the whole human being.
THE WORLD OF THE CLASSROOM
The most important part of a class is the first five minutes. That is when teachers and students encounter one another for the first time. In those five minutes, impressions of which the teacher may not even be aware are shared with students and communicate an enormous amount. And just as the first five minutes are enormously important for each classroom session, the first day of class sets the tone for the rest of the year. The beginning is more than half of the whole.
What occurs at the beginning of class is not the imparting of knowledge from teacher to student. It is the ordering of the classroom, the bringing into being of the world shared by teacher and student. This realm of shared work draws on things like humility, courage, responsibility, and respect, which goes both ways between teachers and students. It is also the realm of perception — the place where teacher and student sniff out how the other is doing and respond accordingly.
Mastering this realm is vitally important for teachers to eventually get to the stage of class in which they teach the objective knowledge that comprises their subject. Grammar, logic, calculus, biology, chemistry, history — all of these subjects come after the first discipline into which students and teacher enter together, the discipline that allows them to share a space in the first place. But what would we call this discipline, and how would we characterize it?
The word discipline comes from disciplus, the Latin word for “student.” We are today in the habit of talking about students as pure receivers of knowledge. But the original understanding of a student was someone who followed a way of life, who put himself before a teacher in order not only to acquire the knowledge the teacher possessed but also to learn how to approach that knowledge so that he might understand it. It follows, then, that in Latin the teacher was known as a magister, a master, someone who was in command of the life of knowledge.
To have knowledge is not a static thing; it is an activity. The having or holding of knowledge is an active capacity. For the capacity to be active, students must exercise the virtues that allow them to hold the object.
This active capacity is comparable to physical exercise. Say a young man sets out to build up his biceps. This can be motivated by a host of things — a desire to join the military, for example, or to project a certain gravitas in his friendships or romantic pursuits. Whatever the motivation, the goal remains the same, just as the goal of learning is always to acquire and hold knowledge.
But the building of biceps doesn’t occur in a vacuum. The potential strength of one’s biceps increases as the strength of the surrounding muscles increases. The capacity of the mind works the same way: It is strengthened by virtues that are practiced outside the realm of intellectual learning, such as courage, humility, respect, and obedience.
In the course of building up one part of his body, a serious trainee may have to divert his attention from the particular part of the body he wants to bulk up in order to strengthen other parts. He may have to exercise every part of his body within the span of a week, not only to build up each muscle in proportion to the others, but also to give the part he wants to strengthen sufficient time to rest so that he may exercise it again. Now, one way of understanding this analogy to physical exercise is to say that a fully formed student partakes of many different academic subjects — and, indeed, the ideal of the well-rounded human being is one vision of what it means to be educated.
But another way of understanding it is that human beings need more than just the ability to understand the learnable objects they encounter in class — for example, the properties of a triangle or the causes of the American Civil War or the biological structure of the human heart. They also need the virtues that allow them to approach the activity of acquiring and holding that knowledge in mind.
To hold something requires a place for an object to rest, and this implies a certain settled disposition. For children to develop the virtues that allow them to hold objects of knowledge in mind, they must learn to settle, to create a stable ground on which objects will rest. To settle means to cultivate or mold a place that is fixed and permanent, a kind of home in which activity can take place. Without this settled home, any objective knowledge will simply escape the student.
Students develop this settled disposition on the individual level through attention to what is in front of them, as well as by gaining the ability to listen, to ask questions, and to be prepared for class. More important, the social virtues they practice — which allow students and teacher to settle together and make the classroom theirs in a fundamental way — allow students’ internal dispositions to settle. Man is at home in a community when he contributes the sweat of his brow to the world he creates with others, and students learn to do this by entering into the classroom with peers and a teacher. What is important is less what gets learned — though that matters — and more the world that is created together, the shared realm of teacher and student. Settling means creating that world and caring for it throughout the year.
To see the importance of forming this shared world, consider the difficulty of telling students the rules of the classroom. This would seem to be a simple exercise wherein the teacher promulgates the laws to the students, apprising them of the standard to which they will be held while in the classroom. Transgression of that standard results in some correction, which, in this theory, ought to prevent students from disobeying simply by making the transgression more bothersome, more inconvenient, and altogether less pleasant than the alternative of following the rules.
Now, standards of conduct must be upheld, and there is a significant discussion to be had about the proper mode of correction for wrong conduct. Suffice it to say that simply asking students to reflect on their misconduct when they err, rather than laying down clear consequences, is at best ineffective and at worst negligent. When the teacher refuses to correct misconduct, it ultimately undermines the trust that the erring student has in adults. Upholding standards of conduct is essential to winning the trust of students and therefore to building the world shared by teacher and student. When a student misbehaves, he is asking whether the teacher cares enough — is sufficiently invested in his students’ education — to correct him. If the teacher does not, he often finds that he does not win students’ trust but rather a form of soft ridicule.
Having said that, the opposite extreme is no good either: Simply imposing rules from above and expecting students to follow them negates the possibility of building a shared world. This project of building looks different at the sixth-grade level compared to the senior year of high school, but the principle remains the same. At issue is the way that promulgating standards of conduct — the classroom’s version of the Ten Commandments — strikes students. How does the message of shared standards land with them? The goal of the teacher is to have students invest as much as possible in the standards of conduct from the beginning. He must therefore be maximally attentive to the way the students respond to the standards of conduct they must share.
This is not to say that the standards should change based on the class. Indeed, teachers must be attentive to the individuals in front of them precisely because they endeavor to bring their students along to fulfill and embody the standards of conduct. Taking stock of how students respond to the expected standards allows teachers to discern how much work must be done with them, as well as how energetically the students will tackle the project of building the world of the classroom together.
This challenge is more complicated still, since the way teachers present the standards can change the way that students receive them. If the teacher reads the rules out loud right away before asking the students’ names, that delivers a certain message. If he reads them aloud after asking students’ names, that delivers another. If he asks students to read the rules out loud instead of doing so himself, that delivers yet another. Or perhaps the teacher asks students to suggest rules for their shared conduct in the classroom. These rhetorical and procedural decisions sometimes make all the difference. The best teachers plan a certain procedure but will change on the fly if they see something in the students that leads them to do so.
What teachers are looking for in observing their students is how much the students trust. Trust allows students and teacher to create a world together because it enables mutual accountability. That mutual accountability wherein teacher and students are subject to the same standard of conduct — with the mutual recognition that the teacher has a different role to play — allows the group to unite, forming a whole that looks out at what it might build together. Recognition of mutual accountability and trust is the first step toward building the world of the classroom. The classroom is not a democracy but a benevolent, enlightened monarchy.
The second step is asking each member of the class to put the sweat of his brow into the common. Now that trust has been established and mutually recognized between teacher and student, it is time to test how much the group can do together. What can it build together?
There is much that is interesting and wonderful to build. The building together will differ depending on the subject taught, the people involved, and the type of school in which all this happens. A math class is going to put its shoulder to the wheel in a different kind of world than a literature class, which will be different again from a shop class. This second stage — the actual building — is much more closely tied to the particular knowledge studied in a class than was the first stage of establishing mutual trust and accountability of conduct. What is built will be informed by what excellence looks like in the discipline involved.
But just because students focus on building according to the excellence of an academic discipline does not mean that the concerns of mutual trust and accountability go away or can be set on autopilot. Indeed, they remain and must be tended to throughout the academic year. Consider the question of grading essays in high-school humanities classes, which is a critical opportunity for teachers to renew the trust students have in them — or teach students that their trust is not founded on as solid a surface as they may have thought.
Grading essays — or any assessment, for that matter — is an opportunity for teachers to deliver judgments on the intellectual work of students, to evaluate their success or failure in understanding and articulating the content discussed in class. The administration of justice is no easy thing, yet it is of the utmost importance that teachers take it seriously, as it concerns the accountability established at the beginning of the year. To undermine that foundation, or treat it less than seriously, would be to demonstrate to students that they need not be accountable either.
In the case of essays, the administration of justice means not only taking the ideas and the writing of the essay seriously, but also delivering thoughtful feedback in a timely way. Students desire few things more than feedback on their work, and it makes them rather anxious when they do not receive it. Casting out standards or not taking them seriously does not result in students being set at ease.
Other opportunities for the re-establishment of mutual trust and accountability abound throughout the year, but the most important occasion for it is the timely deliverance of judgment to students about their work. Again, this is so important as to be akin to a revitalization of the covenant or constitution shared by the teacher and students. Without it, not only is the sharing and imparting of objective knowledge not possible — one can’t be sure of having succeeded without feedback — but the unity that comprises the classroom, founded on mutual trust and accountability, is nullified. Assessment is only partially about knowledge — more important, it’s about renewing the unity that allows teacher and students to build a world together, and thereby demonstrating to students that their trust in the school’s standard of conduct is well-founded.
COHERENCE AND TRUST
The establishment of mutual trust and accountability is a major challenge beyond the classroom; it must also occur at the level of the whole school. The classroom is an intimate world, almost like a home, but the school is like a town. In between, there are certain neighborhoods — locker bays, grade-level groups, those with whom one eats lunch or with whom one plays sports or music.
A school’s success depends on its coherence — its commitment to shared standards of conduct and a shared vision of excellence. That coherence is primarily embodied and communicated by the faculty. Mutual trust between faculty members is perhaps the most important part of any school because it allows faculty to give students freedom while trusting that other teachers will, in their own domains, correct student misconduct.
Take, for instance, a middle-school student who has six teachers throughout the day: one each for math, science, English, history, Spanish, and music. That’s a lot of different relationships of mutual trust and accountability for the student to attend to. Unless the standard of conduct in each classroom is basically the same — allowing for differences in the form of the class based on the content, of course — it will be rather confusing for the student to manage. Moreover, inconsistency without explanation can be jarring.
The standard of conduct at the level of each classroom may be perfectly coherent in itself, but if students are subject to vastly different standards of conduct from one classroom to the next, there is inconsistency at the school level that can communicate incoherence to students. Incoherence is an adult word for it; what students sniff out — what they excel at sniffing out — is hypocrisy.
Middle- and high-school students are like detectives on the trail of hypocrisy. They are little skeptics, constantly trying to peek behind the curtain to find the tiny Wizard of Oz with the big voice. But their skepticism — which awakens at around 12 years of age and is therefore a fresh power sensing the world for the first time and discovering its might — is acute because it is coupled with a desire to trust. They feel the skepticism intensely because they wish to see clearly. And that desire propels them to test the propositions they have heard from adults, especially the notion that there is a shared, authoritative way of acting.
What students mean when they level a charge of hypocrisy at adults is that adults are unjust — that they don’t do what they say and that they have misrepresented the world to the students. Indeed, teachers are the representatives of the world and are responsible for demonstrating through their actions what goods are offered there, as well as for coaching students in how to engage with the goods of the world. While it is inevitable that their representation of it will be called into question as students consider how to become independent thinkers and participants in society, it is also the case that a coherent school forcefully demonstrates to students that the coherence of the world, though it has shadows and warts, can be trusted.
TRUST AMONG TEACHERS
The world-making of the school that students are invited into begins with the faculty and the trust among faculty members. Because the coherence of the school, and so the coherence of what is communicated to students by faculty, is essential, matters that may from the outside appear too small to even be mentioned end up becoming matters of significant debate among faculty members. Debate and deliberation among faculty is a good sign that faculty members care about the coherence of the school — that is, the world they share together.
For example, during my first year of teaching, the high-school junior and senior boys in our school were allowed to wear button-down oxford shirts rather than polos for the first time. The only catch was that they were not allowed to roll up their sleeves because it looked sloppy and unprofessional, and set a bad tone for the younger grades.
At the end-of-year faculty meeting, we revisited the dress code. There were all kinds of views on what we should do moving forward: abolish the oxford shirts; let the students roll up their sleeves; hold the course we had already chosen since communicating a new policy to parents could be disastrous. Some faculty, who had been handing out detentions to students who had their sleeves rolled up, were resentful (rightly) that others had simply been telling students to roll their sleeves down again without issuing detentions. Other faculty members expressed dismay that we would issue detentions for this and disagreed outright with such a policy of correction.
Setting the particular dress-code policy mattered, but what was really at issue was trust among members of the faculty. The level of trust was based on whether faculty members could be confident in one another’s enforcement of policy. Setting policy is merely writing the law; enforcement makes the law a reality.
Questions of curriculum often also raise the question of trust among teachers. This can happen on two levels: First, it can occur among faculty who are teaching different sections of the same subject — say, ninth-grade English. Second, it can occur among faculty teaching the same subject in different years, so that the 10th-grade English teacher has to answer to the 11th-grade English teacher, as well as to the ninth-grade teacher.
In the first case, teachers are ensuring that every student in a grade gets the same education and moves at the same pace. Doing so is a matter of being a good colleague — teachers learn about the subject material from one another as they study it at the same time and also learn how to teach it as they go through it. As a group, teachers of the same subject and level are engaged in preparing students for the next year’s material.
Likewise, in the second case, teachers of one grade are accountable to the teachers of the next grade. If incoming students are deficient in their knowledge, it means that the current year’s teacher will have more work to do to get students to the level they ought to reach by the end of the year. It’s not only the knowledge of the subject matter; indeed, especially in the middle-school years, students may arrive in a class with vastly different levels of competence regarding organizational skills and study habits. Teachers establish and maintain trust by setting their colleagues up for success.
Students discover the trust faculty have in one another by encountering the same standard of conduct and performance everywhere they turn in the school. This consistent environment provides coherence to the expectations set down for students as a result. But students also learn to trust the faculty by observing that teachers practice what they preach in another way — through their own study.
Teachers who live their own intellectual or academic life are practiced in the art of settling, of entering into study, and are therefore more equipped to help students learn that art. In other words, they set an example for the students. Most important, it gives students the impression that there are things of which they do not yet know; it arouses students’ wonder. As the mid-20th-century University of Kansas professor John Senior wrote in his unpublished manuscript, “The Restoration of Innocence: An Idea of a School,” faculty intellectual life ought to be “overheard by some who, though they don’t know what it is, see something good, therefore desirable and, as such, urgent.” Students’ observing teachers studying on their own also verifies their trust in their teachers, because the faculty are recommending an activity that they are themselves engaged in for their own good.
EDUCATION AND THE WHOLE PERSON
What happens in schools is richer than passing on intellectual knowledge. This is because the conveying of knowledge presumes the right ordering of student conduct, and therefore a realm created by teacher and students wherein trust and accountability are shared. Building this world, the classroom, becomes a kind of education on its own. There is no guarantee that mutual trust and accountability will be sustained, and the movement of soul required for students to uphold their end is significant.
But upholding trust in relation to the teacher also teaches students to settle and focus, to occupy as fully as possible the realm they’ve helped to create. And the crowning activity within that realm is the book learning of intellectual material and skills, such as reading and mathematics. Once mutual accountability and trust are established and the world of the classroom is created, learning is a treat to be enjoyed.
Good schools are coherent places where students trust that the implementation of policy will occur consistently. This is an education in itself for middle- and high-school students especially, because they have their antennae out for injustice and hypocrisy.
It is fashionable now among a certain kind of economically minded observer of education to argue that schools are useless. But this could only be argued by someone with a very narrow notion of what schools are and do. Education means more than the didactic instruction of intellectual subjects, and schools cannot be measured only by their utility either with respect to teaching intellectual subjects or with respect to credentialing. As long as teachers are given whole human beings to teach and not just brains to program, education will mean providing the foundation for receiving knowledge as well as the actual transmission of knowledge. Schools teach children to trust, to build, to seek, and to learn. Their work could hardly matter more.
Ian Lindquist is the executive director of the Public Interest Fellowship and a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.