Back in January, I wrote something in my journal that I think is kind of interesting. Here is an excerpt:

There are two aspects to the problem that I’m currently facing. The first is that I’m spending time and energy on problems that are not meaningful or interesting to me. The second is that I’m not working with my hands enough. I’m going to try to better understand this by looking at and trying to better understand a few things.

One of the things that I struggle with most is finding something meaningful in my life. Writing is important to me but I think that its value to me is not something that I’m able to share. It has been, and will continue to be, very difficult for me to earn money through writing or even to gain a sizeable readership. Indeed, any of my artistic pursuits are unlikely to garner much public attention. Accepting this is going to be difficult for me, even though I’m reluctant to admit that I like the work that I produce, for the most part. Writing will likely always be a part of my life, even if just in the form of journalling, much like I’m doing right now. Writing helps me process my thoughts.

Work used to provide me with interesting challenges. Since the pandemic began, those problems have largely devolved into administrative and trite ones. Showing students how to make a copy of a document after showing them how to access it is important but the frequency with which I need to repeat this process is exhausting. Similarly, showing colleagues how to connect speakers, projectors, and printers to their computers is weighing on me. I can’t seem to move past these problems into a space that allows for more intricate and engaging thought and discussion. It annoys the hell out of me.

What I want to be working on are problems that are more of a challenge to me and can’t be easily solved. I don’t want these problems to be about behaviour. I’m tired of people being impolite and abrasive, either out of ignorance or conceit. I don’t understand how people can act so poorly with others on such a consistent basis. I can be an asshole but not without prompting. These problems challenge my emotions and not my intellect. I want to work on intellectually challenging problems.

When looking at my teaching practice, I can ask some questions about what my program looks like. What sorts of problems do students want to be working on? What sorts of problems are they being presented with? How is education enabling them to fully realise their potential without placing implicit values on their choices? Why aren’t they able to make copies of digital documents without first running through a flurry of confusion?

The last two years have been emotionally challenging for everyone. I’ve yet to meet someone who feels like they’ve thrived in the last couple of years. Sure, good things may have come from the situations we’ve found ourselves in, but not without a cost. Everything comes at a cost. In education, I think that cost has been a mutual understanding of our objectives and desires.

In a knowledge-based society like ours, we think that by naming a problem we will be in a better position to find a solution to it. With people, we provide diagnoses and labels. Anxiety, depression, ADD, ADHD, auditory processing disorder, gross motor and fine motor development. Labelling something helps us by giving us a definition. Within that definition are markers to help us navigate the problem by either addressing it or working around it.

Applying labels is like placing buckets underneath a painting. We start to become focussed on the mess we might create instead of the beauty being coloured onto the canvas. We are trying to catch drips of paint, even though most of it is being placed right where it’s meant to be.

We hear a lot about the “learning gap” and student anxiety. Students seem to not be at a maturity level that we’d expect from them. Their attention seems to be forever diverted. Even social interactions seem to be stilted. People are adaptable and students are just responding to the situation that they find themselves in. Limited to interactions on their phones, students will learn how to communicate with each other through them. Once back in the classroom, students are forced to relearn how to communicate with one another using spoken words and body language. In many ways, the masks come off when we see each other in person.

I’d argue that students haven’t been faced with as many emotional challenges that require empathy and compassion in the last couple of years as they would have had they been in a classroom full-time. The classroom is a challenging place. It requires a certain social aptitude to be able to navigate them well. There are implicit hierarchies, an endless number of distractions, and a range of personality types. You can’t remove yourself from the environment in order to make sense of it before you respond to it. You’re in the thick of it. You’re in the weeds. You are on display, the same as everyone else.

Here’s the rub: we can’t get to the intellectual problems — the problems that I’m most interested in — until we’ve first addressed the emotional ones. Classrooms are not lecture halls or boardrooms. People bring their emotional states with them into the classroom and often place them on the desks in front of them. Teachers and students do this. This is why a classroom has to be a safe place. People have to be able to be able to express themselves freely while also standing firm when challenged.

People should be able to paint the painting they want to paint.

In the curricula that were most recently released here in Ontario, there is a strand for social-emotional learning. This strand is meant to address students’ mental health through a focus on things like stress management, critical thinking, and a growth mindset. Interestingly, teachers are not to report on this strand because we have not received sufficient training to do so effectively. We don’t have enough training and knowledge to understand our biases and how they impact our assessment of students’ learning. We are meant to focus on the strands that are more easily quantifiable.

How can we be expected to take an academic approach to student learning when we find ourselves in the learning environment that we do? How can expect students to engage in meaningful learning to the extent that we are required to when we work in an emotionally precarious environment? Why haven’t we, as a system, adjusted the learning expectations to meet the current needs of the students, just like we’ve been trained to do in our own classrooms?

Prior to the pandemic, the education system was trucking along comfortably. There was a mutual, though implied, understanding of its value. Nothing had yet come along to upset its self-perception. Now, however, it’s being stubborn and asking everyone else to adjust and change. It prescribes rules that it itself is unwilling to or incapable of following. It is not taking a critical look at itself and trying to look for new ways to provide value to the community that it serves.

In January I realised that I had to change my approach. What I had been doing wasn’t working anymore. Writing, for as much as I love it, wasn’t bringing the joy and satisfaction into my life that I was wanting it to. I didn’t set it aside so much as gave it new value. In a sense, it was redefined. Education now needs to do the same. The system needs to redefine its values and make the necessary adjustments to ensure that students, and teachers, meet with a reasonable standard of success. The adjustments that people are currently making will likely undermine the system eventually. The problems that the education system is currently facing have already been named but they have yet to be properly defined.

This isn’t going to be resolved by placing more buckets down. What we need to do is learn how to appropriately appreciate individual brush strokes.

Redefining the Problems We’ve Already Named
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