Empty classrooms are strange places: silent rows of desks and artwork that once looked so pristine and was a source of pride now faded and lifeless without its proud creators. Schools so full of energy, sometimes muted and restrained like a force field and sometimes buoyant, but always humming from September to June, fall suddenly quiet and the business of winding it all down begins.
Grades must be entered, floors cleared, books returned and stacks made that represent all we have done throughout the year. Somehow they fail to catch the point of the teaching endeavor in which we have been engaged. Now is the time for reflection: Did I understand what that student was trying to tell me? Did I push too hard or not hard enough? The goodbyes we say to our students are both sad and happy and intensely personal. We shake hands and wish our students well who are heading to Harvard or some other Ivy League establishment, and we listen to the plans of the students who have ambitious goals such as driving from Massachusetts to Florida for a living or working three jobs to afford to take a course to train as an electrician. We pray for their safety and that all their dreams will come true. One student who sought me out as he entered his sophomore year and never actually took a class with me but adopted me as his mentor — spending time with me most days discussing problems and plans — comes by to say goodbye. There are no words to express what we both know. So, he says thank you and I reply you’re welcome. But we know that our lives intersected meaningfully. Those goodbyes are real as our students walk out of school for the last time as boys and girls and begin their journey on to the people that they will become. It’s a truism of education that every child needs to be known by at least one adult during their school career. Our young people need solace, encouragement and, most of all, just to be known and accepted for who they are.
Now, in the quiet of the abandoned classrooms thoughts turn to, of all things, teaching. The tragic stories coming to us from the border of children as young as three and four years old walking alone into the U.S.A. has shocking parallels for me with the story of the Orphan Trains in the early 20th century that scattered thousands of Irish, Italian, Jewish and German children across the Midwest, far from everything that had any familiarity. I find myself thinking, this is something we should learn about in Irish history next year. Even in exhaustion the teaching bug bites.
It has been a tempestuous year in many ways. Educational reform continues to be mandated with new and sometimes contradictory edicts. Teaching, which traditionally has been a solitary activity with the teacher dominating the life of the classroom, now is expected to conform to measurable outcomes. A good teacher observes the students and often intuitively knows who needs more care, more stimulation, more encouragement, but now they must gather the data on the student performance before they can intervene. Teaching has become a science, and in many ways that is positive. If the gathering of data makes it clear to us that teaching is not a performance to dominate, dazzle or bore, but rather an empowerment dedicated to the notion that all students can learn and be successful, then data gathering is of great importance. Still, we must be aware of our biases. The data we have gathered is part of our students as is their culture, their family and their story. The stories must not be lost and our students must remain human beings, not acronyms. If all our kids are to be successful we must acknowledge that the path they have walked has not always granted equal access, and honor them all. Teaching is like gardening: we plant seeds, we water them and sometimes what grows is not what we expected but we cultivate it and wait to see what it will become. There is little instant gratification, but many plants grow and flourish years after they were planted.
Four years ago a group of Brazilian American students asked if they could wear their national colors at graduation. First their request was denied; later it was granted. The victorious students wore their scarves with an equal mixture of fear and pride. The following year, with the help of Harvard’s Brazilian studies department, the Brazilian History and Culture program began. Tentatively we worked on cultural celebrations and held our first Brazilian-American friendship lunch, hoping we could find enough people to invite. Now four years later, the class is established, the lunch is an annual sold-out event necessitating a security guard, we have hosted a visit from the Brazilian Consul and visited Harvard and those brave young people who stood up during a storm of protest serve as an example for all of us. We all understand that we are supposed to take a stand for justice and how many times do we actually do it? This year, 13 Brazilian American students wore their scarves to graduation, proud to be part of the mix, recognized and supported. It takes time to see what time can do.
Now we face changes and challenges. The unknown can be intimidating and the familiar, however imperfect, can seem reassuring. Outside events beyond our control such as educational reform or the unfairness of the College Board will affect our school and our students, but our job and responsibility is to educate human beings. When those classrooms fill up the life and energy will return because teaching and learning is first and foremost about really seeing our students for the unique individuals they are, and celebrating the stories that they bring. Leadership will change, bringing new fads and new atmospheres whether those be of trust or of fear, but the real game will remain what it has always been: the fascinating dance between teacher and learner. In the classroom is where transformation happens or does not.
Elaine Cawley Weintraub is chairman of the history department at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School.