When I was in graduate school at The University of Texas, my office mate was Sophia Papaioannou, now a Classics professor at the University of Athens. One of our many wonderful conversations turned one day to the topic of war, and she pointed out something I had never considered. She said that while for many Americans a debate on war could be held in abstract terms, for her, it was a very real thing. She said that her fellow Greeks lived with the constant threat of war and knew just how long it would take enemy ships and planes to attack from various locations. Another way to put it is that war, for Sophia, was an incarnate issue. It was a flesh-and-blood reality.
So it is with education. A recent article in The Washington Post explores just how hard teaching really is. The piece is a collection of thoughts from a wide spectrum of teachers, including an aerospace engineer and numerous professors. What struck me most, however, was this from elementary teacher Beth Lewis.
“In the primary grades, we deal with gross bathroom-related issues. – Even a high school teacher could never understand some of the crises related to bodily functions that a typical K-3 teacher has to deal with on a regular basis. Potty accidents (and more instances too disgusting to reiterate here) are something that we can’t shy away from. I’ve had third grade students who still wear diapers and let me tell you – it’s stinky. Is there any amount of money or vacation time worth cleaning up vomit from the classroom floor with your own two hands?”
There is much to be said about education, and a good portion of the discussion is and needs to be abstract. Education is art. It is philosophy, and these are give rise to abstract thought. Yet we can never escape the fact, nor should we want to, that education is about people, including teachers, students, administrators, parents, bus drivers, custodians, and school board members. Beth Lewis reminds us what this means, but let's explore that a bit further.
When a car has difficulty performing, it is a matter of time before the mechanics figure out why and do something about it. In simplistic terms, if tab A has become bent and no longer fits into slot B, we can see this, bend tab A back into shape, and we are off and running. Of course, it may take hours of work under the hood and sophisticated diagnostic equipment to discover the problem, but it really is just a matter of time. On top of that, once the problem is discovered, the solution is known. It may be an expensive solution and one that will require a lot of labor to implement, but it does follow logically upon analysis of the problem.
Consider now a child who has difficulty performing. As in the garage, there are sophisticated diagnostic tools to help us discover the problem, but there are many more factors at work, and we may not always have the right equipment. Does the child do poorly because she is hungry, abused, or lonely? Does she have a learning disability, or is she distracted by somebody or something? Does she have a cold? Did she get enough sleep last night? Maybe she and the teacher simply do not get along. It happens. Perhaps she does well in one class because her friends are there, but is intimidated in another. Then, of course, it may just be that it is Tuesday, which in the life of a physically, emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually developing human being is as different from Monday as Mars is from a taco. The teacher cannot always pop the hood, dismantle the engine, and diagnose the issue.
And if he did, what could he do about it? Certainly there are pedagogical strategies and techniques that can be changed to meet her needs. There are appropriate resources and aides that can help, but they do not cover everything. It is not possible for every individual teacher to meet the hunger needs of each one of his students. Even the resources of the school or district may not be up to that challenge.
Oh, and let's not forget the teachers themselves. We see as much as we can, listen to as much as we can, discern and read between the lines as much as we can, but we will miss things. Yet we, too, get distracted, find our capacities diminished when we are teaching while ill, and get tired.
None of this is to say diagnosing and solving the problems of education are impossible. As a matter of fact, given the the number of factors that can never be known when human beings interact, we do quite a good job. Yet all discussions and debates, especially those that lead to policy design and implementation, must always remember that this is a flesh-and-blood, incarnate reality. As a result, we must remember that there are significant factors we may not know, and implementation of the most wonderful idea in the abstract may take on a different appearance when those words become flesh and live among us.