Friday, March 25, 2011

One Word

by John T. Spencer

I'll take up Shelly's challenge and sum it up in one word:


Let that be the foundation and you'll see humility.   Start with humility and you'll see authenticity.  Let those be your guide and you'll have paradox.  Real paradox.  Start with paradox and you just might have something that's sustainable.

*     *     *

I search through my blog reader one summer afternoon and glance at the deafening sound of the echo chambers.

"Here are twenty-five badass apps that will revolutionize your classroom!"

"Let the kids make decisions for Christ sakes.  We need to unschool.  Liberate the factories."

"We need PLC's.  Let us make wise, data-informed, research-based decisions.  Only then will we have schools that truly improve."

"Charter schools are the only answer.  The innercity is filled with mediocrity.  We need to reform these places with the flexibility that charter schools offer."

Lots of bold answers but not too many questions.

I walk outside and feel the grass beneath my bare feet.  I meander toward the the garden.  The tomatoes are turning a bright, bold red.  Tonight they'll transform into a marinara sauce.  


It's humbling.

I didn't earn it.  I didn't create it.  But it grew.  Naturally.

The boys beckon me to a mudhole in the yard.  They grow and explore and make sense of their world and it's messy, really messy.  We clean up and read books and it's tidy. Then it's back outside where they climb a tree.  Should I tell them they're going too high?  I have no idea.

I vascillate between too much freedom and too much safety; too much direction and not enough support; allowing them to live in the imagination and helping them to see their physical world.

I don't know what I'm doing as a dad.  It's shrouded in mystery.  It's full of paradox.  But I have a hunch that if there is a "right way" it's the path of love.  Not insipid love.  Not Hallmark love.  Gritty love.  Messy love. Muddy love.

A month later, I'm in the classroom.  I don't know what I'm doing.  I have plans.  I have knowledge.  I have six years of teaching experience.  I have a resume that looks impressive.  But the present reality is mired in paradox.  It's messy.  It's confusing.  I meander between too strict and too lenient, too much freedom and too much safety.  I'm not a pundit.  I'm not an expert.  But I have a hunch that if there is a "right way" for my students, it's the path of love.  Real love. Messy love.

*     *      *

A twenty-first century education needs to be innovative while listening to the vintage voices of the past.  It needs to include creativity while still providing a framework for some common skills.  It needs to respect the balance of freedom and safety.  It needs to understand the complicated and complex human condition.  It needs to be a place that respects the local community while still engaging the larger world.

Those are huge challenges with complex ideas.  I don't pretend to speak for anyone beyond myself and my own classroom.  However, if I can approach my classroom with humility, motivated by love for my students, I think I'll be on the right path.

John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at Education Rethink.  He recently finished two books, Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and Drawn Into Danger, a fictional memoir of a superhero. You can connect with him on Twitter @johntspencer


  1. I don't say this often, probably never, but will say it here, "Amen! and throw in a Hallelujah as well."

    Love the idea of muddy love and figuring it out. Just like students are fearful of saying they don't know, many teachers feel that way too. But it must be comforting to go to an administrator and say, you know what I have no idea how this unit will turn out. But I am willing to take that chance ad trust in my professional and personal skills to make something meaningful out of the possible mess.

    We are willing to take these risks with our own kids, but for some reason we are forced to play it safe with students. Having kids has been very eye opening for me. It forces me to see each students as the child of another lost and confused parent. And so I try to bring as much of that love to our learning as I can.

    Great post.

  2. This is great John. I have found that this year's students, for me, are much different than last year's. I've had many moments this year where the lessons and methods used in years past would simply flop. My students this year have pushed me out of my comfort zone as to what they think is okay for learning and respectful behavior. I have seen those paradoxes as well. Too strict, too lenient, finding that cognitive balance, etc. I am glad I am not alone in this. Thanks.

  3. As educators, we are finally in the thick, steep slopes and curves of learning that students experience and navigate everyday. Confusion, contradiction, ambiguity--these are all part of the journey. I prefer to think of this journey as dissonant, paradoxical, authentically nuanced ("to-may-to / to-mah-to" perhaps but connotation matters in my brain).
    The point is that our journey as learning professionals is real, and as you say, muddy.
    A colleague once liberated me from an semi-conscious expectation of perfection with three words: "Learning is messy." So is life. So is love. And so it is.
    Thanks for the post.

  4. "Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels, without love I have become a noisy gong or clanging cymbal". 1Corinthians 13:1

    Thank you for the reminder.

  5. Very honest post. Thanks for it.

    Sometimes we are reluctant to admit that part of teaching is being fluid and that it is not always a precise science as some would like it to be.

  6. Let me apologize first. Sorry, I'm not sure what love has to do with preparing kids (all kids) for the future. I don't live in the US (yes, I'm American), and yes, more than likely love can go a long way there, but out here in Asia and places like Africa, education is serious business. Kids gain one step by learning to read and write and love in the home is a struggle. Tough love at best! We take a lot for granted...think global folks!

  7. I see your point, but I think you're not defining love.

    Love is looking out for the interests of others. It's practical. It's tough. It's gritty. It's human. It's real.

    Preparing for the future? Perhaps. But also preparing for the present reality.

    Education is power. It's social justice. It's learning to think well about life.

  8. @ Jason Williams:

    I can't "think global." I can only see my students, my inner-city enclave. But I have a hunch that love is a universal need. Last time I checked, all kids need love. It's human. It's global.


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