The Space Between

Written by Tim King

Having taught for a number of years in a professional capacity, first as a coach and then as an ESL teacher, I have often been confounded by the seemingly random nature of classroom atmosphere. Excited at the response of a new lesson on one class, on another day it flops, even though I delivered it almost exactly the same way. Why does this happen? At first I thought it was a matter of my delivery not being polished enough, and of my being unable to exactly duplicate the lesson, but after a time I began to realize that I was only one part of a very complex equation. It took me thousands of hours in the classroom to get an inkling of just how multifaceted that equation is. Looking at the dynamic of the classroom without our preconceived notions of authority, what we see is a gathering of people with a common purpose, to share ideas and develop their knowledge of themselves and the world around them. One of the most appealing aspects of becoming a teacher for me was the opportunity to examine the complex relationship between the teacher and student. At the basis of this examination is an understanding of how knowledge is best transmitted and what a teacher can do to guarantee a greater level of success in the process.

Current educational culture seems to revel in a tightly rationalist view of erudition, yet the general feeling in the ranks of teachers is that it is harder than ever to provide students with a meaningful, retained learning experience. In his article "Putting Students in the Center", Benjamin Levin suggests, "Insofar as we are concerned with students' entering skills and backgrounds, we think of them as materials. Insofar as we pay attention to students' actions in school, we think of them as workers." (p. 759) With our industrialized curriculum interested in an assembly line approach to knowledge acquisition we even commodify the very people we hope to educate. Levin follows up by stating that "Students play a far more complicated role than that of raw materials." (p. 759). I am certain that most parents, teachers and especially students would agree with this profoundly. If education is about creating better people, teachers should be focused on those people, not on how to stuff eighty curriculum demands into a lesson plan.

The main impetus for the new curriculum was to make Ontario competitive with other countries. Having taught in those other countries I know for a fact that they operate a segregationalist system of education. Students marked as inferior are put in schools for "The Weak and Useless" (literal translation of the name for special education schools in Japan). These segregated students are not put through international testing. Ontario must compare all of its students, regardless of ability, against only the cr?me-of-the-crop from these other educationally superior countries. This misunderstanding has resulted in the idea that our educational system was somehow broken and in need of fixing. The absurd result is that one of the most advanced educational systems in the world was pulled apart and rebuilt in the image of business. I know of this contrivance first hand. In six years of working both for and as a contractor for dozens of businesses, I have found that business, at its best, is the appearance of wealth. It is essentially a process of deceit and spin in which the noble businessman is doomed to failure in an environment of false promise and economically infertile theory. No business I have ever met accurately assesses their economic costs. Issues such as the environment and how polluting it actually kills the people you are trying to sell to are considered flexible areas for cost cutting and inflatable profit margins. No one sells their product at its actual cost. Ironically enough our new curriculum is essentially the same thing, the appearance of wealth. Students appear to do more but in fact learn less. This environment does grave damage to the actual process of knowledge acquisition, which requires an acceptance of the complexity of the relationship between student and teacher. That student-mentor relationship is the conduit for the intuitively understood act of learning. By veiling it in questionable philosophies of greed and deception, the very act that makes us homo-sapien-sapiens is put in jeopardy.

Ren? Arcilla describes the intensity with which teachers interact with student development by describing it in very personal terms: "? my self-understanding depends on the teachers I incorporate into myself." (p.165) Teachers do not simply transmit knowledge, the process is not that antiseptic. In understanding something, the teacher imprints some of their own intelligence into the knowledge. When they teach a student they are also giving some of themselves away in the transmission. A teacher's students are imprinted by their acquisition of knowledge because they do not learn in a vacuum free of context. That context of transmission is the teacher themselves, and the process with which the teacher passes on knowledge seems more biological than informational. As in so many other things human, the medium is also a vital part of the message.

David Plaut wrote an article warning of the dangers of a close teacher-student relationship, but in doing so he also acknowledges the value of this closeness to both student and teacher:

"The student experiences an acceptance of ideas and contributions that may be unequalled in previous life experience? The mentor may experience, through the student, the closest one may feel to a professional immortality -- a feeling that the baton is being passed and that one's work will live on" (Plaut)

Once again, the student/teacher relationship is described in terms that rival familial (ie: biological) ties rather than professional ones. If the relationship is of such pivotal importance, why is it all but ignored (and even shunned) in the current curriculum? Why are teachers being charged with trivial administrative duties instead of being asked to spend time on developing a more meaningful bond with their students through extracurricular and other mentoring roles? The business mentality of modern education once again grossly simplifies this situation, demanding fiscal restraint over meaningful contact and student development. Erudition, under the thumb of an accountant, is all but choked out in favour of obvious, simplistic, easily quantifiable goals.

The biases with which we define the modern classroom are very much circumstantial and in no way reflect an absolute truth. The process of learning seems to be a human archetype understood throughout the world, and beneath that understanding is a simple existential truth: that we are all, teacher, student, parent and administrator, human beings interacting with each other in a synthetic, non-authentic manner. In Arcilla's article he stresses the importance of authenticity in developing a meaningful student/teacher relationship (p. 164) Only by overcoming that artificial relationship can we engage with each other in an authentic and meaningful way, and so produce a truly efficient learning environment. The way a teacher teaches the most resilient, intensive and retentive lessons is to create a personal connection with a student and through that conduit transmit their own understandings.

One day I was looking out at forty blank eyes wondering why this lesson was flopping when it did so well the day before with another group. Some neurons twisted together in a new way and suddenly I realized why it had worked before but didn't now. Yesterday I had intuitively sensed my student's moods and pitched the lesson to them in such a way as to make it powerful, personal and memorable for them. Today I pitched it the same way I did yesterday, except these were different people with different circumstances. In the next moment I dropped what I was doing and turned back to the class. In a matter of minutes I discovered through their broken English and my terrible Japanese that they were upset because a child who had beaten his mother to death with a baseball bat (an unheard of crime in Japan) was caught just outside of their small town. The rest of the class worked because I didn't try and beat them to death with countable and non-count nouns. Instead we talked about how crime seems so rampant in North America and how we deal with these horror stories. My students learned something, and I did too. I wonder if I could (or should) take the time to do something like this when I have so much Ontario curriculum to get through with my class?