Teach Them Well

I have featured a number of authors lately – Sir Ken Robinson, Daniel Pink, James Bach – and might be interviewing another (an eleven year-old writing/teaching prodigy, but we shall see) who deal in one way or another with education. Until I had children, my own thoughts about education could be boiled down to: get through it and then get on with real life because you’re going to have to teach yourself everything you really want to learn anyway. I continue to feel that way, more or less, but the fact remains school dominates our early life, returns again once we have children, and maybe a third time with grandchildren. In my own life, my sister is a devoted public school teacher, and my father-in-law started two experimental schools in the 70s (School One and A.L.P., for you Rhode Islanders).

But why is Author interested in education? Because in the end every writer, just as every person, is a teacher and a student. What we call education or a school system is us wrangling—officially—over what it means to be human. At some point, students—and particularly child students—will ask, “Why do I have to do this?” This is an entirely legitimate question, and our answers, from, “Because I said so,” to, “Because it’s what we do,” to, “I don’t know,” reveal to us our current view of life, sometimes buried beneath useless habitual thinking.

I sometimes think of my characters as students in this way. They ask me, “Why do I have to go talk to the king?” Because I said so isn’t going to work. Those characters, just like our children, want to be themselves, and so I have to find the real reason my hero would go to the king. This search for the character’s self is the joy and challenge of writing.

The same is true of teaching. All we are ever teaching is how to be ourselves. Strange to think because every route toward the self is different, but the route is never the point. That the route exists is the point. I’ve known good teachers and I’ve known bad teachers and all the good teachers share one thing in common: a knowledge that life is interesting and meaningful. Without that understanding, you can never teach anything, you can only share your misery and hope your students reject you emphatically enough to wake you from your nightmare.

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