President George Bush, the primary force behind 'No Child Left Behind'. Wikimedia Commons

No Theory Will Save a Teacher

The evolution of the teaching method. A deeper look into how to truly educate students beyond the education heirarchy.
Dino D’Agata

Every few years here on the front lines of education, the buzzwords change. In the early to mid-nineties, when I was five years into it, the buzzword was “student-centered education.” We had seminars run by educational consultants, for which our schools paid lucrative sums, who told us that telling kids what to do was not the way to make them critical thinkers. Instead, we were to place them in front of the materials and allow them to discover what was valuable in them. A woman who ran one of these seminars happened to teach fifth grade science, and I recall her reiterating the fact that this was something you couldn’t do with biological pathogens, obviously, since the kids could get infections. Another colleague in the math department was certain that if she put a quadratic equation on the board and told the kids to figure out how to factor it without memorizing the FOIL method, they would be lost.

During these sessions, the consultant nodded her head up and down several times, but she never did come up with any way to address these teachers’ experiences; their very experiences, in fact, rendered her mute. Like all theories and ideologies, student-centered learning seemed to work well on paper, in doctoral dissertations at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, but in actual experience it is full of holes.

More than ten years later now, the zeitgeist–in the tradition of a good Marxist-Hegelian dialectic–seems to be that of refuting these theories through their antitheses. There is talk of how student-centered learning isn’t all it was cracked up to be, that the instructor as the center of things is indeed valid.
If there is anything I have learned in my 22 years of classroom experience, it is that the education hierarchy that is entrenched in time-honored Ivy League graduate programs like Harvard’s is uncritically adhered to with the same doctrinal or even dogmatic allegiance that these very same institutions rancorously accuse the Catholic Church of imposing on its own followers. No matter that despite what is implemented, schools and systems still fail. If it comes out of Harvard, it must be foolproof.

In 2001, the Bush administration had its own way of addressing the education crisis by implementing the No Child Left Behind Act, which sought to remedy the crisis in school systems by implementing rigorous standardized testing as a benchmark for whether or not a teacher or school could be deemed effective. Whether the theory and/or policy comes out of Harvard or out of Washington; whether it seeks to improve education through psychosocial theory or through merely bolstering the educative effort, the one evident thing in all this, which no one is able to address, is that the true crisis is one of meaning. The other evident thing is that because we do not know how to address this, we skirt it by attempting to develop palliative social ideologies or by goading more productivity out of ourselves (which further exacerbates the crisis by displacing any question of meaning with frantic productivity).

The first thing that confronted me when I began teaching was the hard fact that my students weren’t learning from me. If you enter a classroom thinking only of what you are going to achieve with the kids, you forget the fact that what’s in front of you is an infinite creature, mysterious and unfathomable. And unless you are accompanied in recognizing that you yourself are an unfathomable mystery, you will reduce both yourself and that which you have in front of you to what you think about it rather than freely engaging in what it actually is. You can try a number of theories to educate and perhaps even be successful in small ways, but you will never truly educate, because to educate means to recognize someone in front of you who, like yourself, has an eternal longing that, before anything else, urgently needs to be addressed—a longing that is in fact elicited through anything relevant to truth and beauty you place in front of him or her; and if you do not allow this to be addressed when someone is confronted, for example, with the question of love in a literary text, or truth in a mathematical equation, you only exacerbate hopelessness, and this has a devastating effect on the learning process because it suffocates the possibility that the perennial human questions are valid because there is a Something in reality that created them.

It was not until I met someone who addressed and took seriously this eternal longing in me that my teaching began to be effective–not because my methods improved, but because I began addressing the persons in front of me by starting from the underlying recognition of my own, and in turn their own, existential need.

After so many years of experience, if I were to attempt to summarize (through any idea I could formulate) what makes a teacher grow, it would only smack of the same abstraction as a social theory or a government policy. Instead, when I think of what has made me grow, I think of what all the pairs of eyes that come in and out of my classroom will echo within me about my own desire for life and happiness, and I know my job is simple: to not be afraid of the gaze of those eyes so that, in this reciprocal process, neither my own nor their desire dries up, since this very desire is a valid goading within all of us from the One who created it, whether it is now or later that we learn to utter His name.