“Teachers possess the power to create conditions that can help students learn a great deal—or keep them from learning much at all. Teaching is the intentional act of creating those conditions.” -Parker Palmer
There is something I like to tell students when they get stuck or feel frustrated about a written assignment, whether it is an essay, a paragraph, or even a simple sentence: “Writing is evidence of organized thought.” But, learning, education in general, and even schools as institutions, are complicated, sometimes messy things. Each person in a school community—administrator, parent, student, teacher, staff, graduate, or board member—has an experience of that school that is uniquely theirs. I constantly remind myself that even two students who sit beside each other will have very different perceptions of the same class. Each of them process learning through a filter formed of different backgrounds, with different life experiences, different vocabularies, different places they’ve visited, different books they’ve read, and different movies they’ve watched. They’ll have different emotions about what, and even how, they are learning (one child’s enthusiastic response to a lesson can be another’s noticeable boredom). This is true even if they are siblings. This helps me remember to design and deliver instruction that not only makes sense to me, but brings each student in the class closer to understanding something important in a way that makes sense to them.
This is a shared responsibility. We could replace the word “Teachers” that begins Parker Palmer’s aforementioned quote with any of the common nouns I named in the previous paragraph—“Parents,” “Administrators,” “Staff,” and yes, even “Students.” Every one of us contributes to a school environment where learning is supported and nurtured.
That team dynamic is why I am so grateful to have found the school where I teach. Every colleague here has asked great questions about topics I’m covering in class, and they’ve been a great resource to me in my own professional development. In finding my way around, adapting to the rotating schedule of classes, and understanding chapel traditions that are new to me, I have not once felt embarrassed or unsupported in asking a question or asking for assistance. In fact, I have never had such helpful, open conversations about implementing a lesson a certain way, or exploring different pedagogical methods in order to maximize student learning as I have had here. I’ve also seen a similar commitment to the success of the school from every staff member, every parent, every administrator, and every student I have met.
That a school has a mission statement, or a set of core values, does not guarantee it will be free of uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. We might not all make the same decisions, or try the same solution, or design identical assignments. We expect students to not only learn and retain new information, but to put it in the context of already-learned information, then think critically and creatively. We expect this at the same time they are discovering, negotiating, and navigating sometimes confusing social norms and the emotional volatility of growing up.
Schools are complex, but when we align our decisions with the institutional mission, culture, and core values, we create Palmer’s “conditions” that best facilitate learning and growth.
Kevin Gray teaches A.P. Psychology, Upper School Quiz Bowl, Middle School Debate, and Middle School Study Skills at Saint Thomas’ Episcopal School (STE). He holds a B.A. in International Relations and Latin American Studies from Kent State University, and a M.Ed. in secondary social studies from The University of Georgia. Besides AP Psychology, which he has taught for sixteen years, Mr. Gray also has taught world history, U.S. history, human geography, economics, and public speaking.