Note: This is the text for a talk I gave to Olivet's graduating teacher candidates last April. The audience consisted of seniors who had just finished student teaching, and were poised to enter the field. I used the space to reflect on the changing and unchanging aspects of teaching, and gave some advice to our graduates on how to hold steady amidst what can feel like a tumultuous world of education. At the end, everyone got a trowel.
I’d like to thank the ONU School of Education for the opportunity to address you student teachers as you leave the period of teacher preparation, and enter the field of teaching. And field is an appropriate word here, because the point of my talk tonight is to invite you to consider teaching as farming, or gardening.
As you well know, the theme of the Olivet Nazarene University teacher education framework is “Professionals Influencing Lives.” One of your teacher-candidate colleagues recently asked me whether I thought this phrase was one of those nice-sounding sayings that is more form than substance. Whether “professionals influencing lives” really means something. And this student spoke with all the confidence of a Junior, which he is. He said that "influence" can be positive or negative. He said that "professionals" might refer to anyone who gets paid for their work. So really–this student said–“Professionals Influencing Lives” could mean “Paid workers doing work that affects those around them either positively or negatively.” The student’s point called into question our theme, the backbone of who we are. I mean it’s literally the writing on the on the wall outside our offices! In one sense, this student is right. It’s always important to define your terms. And while I know your professors who taught you as freshmen were clear about what we mean by “professionals” and “influence,” I want to take one more stab at the phrase before you leave us.
What do we mean by professionals? What do we mean by influence?
If we were to poll 100 veteran teachers, I am willing to wager that all 100 would tell you that teaching has changed drastically in the last 20 years. The changes in educational technology are nearly impossible to keep up with, data analysis is a new job demand for teachers and school leaders, increased competition has entered the educational marketplace, reliance on experts and evidence has supplanted teacher instincts, and high stakes evaluations have moved “teacher accountability” from a political talking point to a reality for teachers. So here we are, at a time of change for teachers. And many school reformers are pushing to apply concepts birthed in the business world to fix our schools. You can hear reverberations of business-talk from each of the trends I mentioned: increased technology; increased data analysis; greater competition; reliance on experts and scientific evidence for our teaching practice, and high-stakes accountability.
This cross-roads—this time of change—reminds me of the crossroads faced by our nation’s farmers in the years following World War II. My own grandpfather was one of those farmers. He grew up before the war, and before the war, he farmed in the “old way,” with a humble, 80-acre plot in Central Illinois, in close proximity with his dad and his brother, and with his animals. Grandpa Stipp never went to college, but he was known as a bright man and as a prankster. After the war, Grandpa came home and married my grandma, and they began farming in the new way that is quite nearly the only way professional farming is done today. Teams of work horses were replaced by tractors. Days of camaraderie with father and brother were replaced by days of solitude. Small farms were replaced by big ones. And the list of changes goes on.
I want you to listen the characteristics of this new way of farming: it had an increased use of technology, it involved greater data analysis, it required trust in agricultural experts. And famers of whatever scale needed large-scale machinery, debt became a way of life, and became a way that high-stakes accountability entered the sphere of agriculture. Do these changes sound familiar? Increased use of technology, increased data analysis, more rigorous competition, increased reliance on experts and research, and high-stakes accountability.
In addition to farming, grandpa Stipp also enjoyed collecting antique tools, guns, and knives. Part of his draw to these old tools was the opportunity to remember. He told stories of how old tools were used, and in so doing provided windows into how life had been. Shortly before Grandpa Stipp died back in 2013, I asked him about the horses he worked with in his fields. As he described them, he began to cry. Even though he embraced new farming methods as much as anyone, It was clear that grandpa also missed something, and felt something about deeply about the old way of farming. The working life of my grandpa’s boyhood was barely recognizable from the farming work he did from 1945 up until 2013.
Well since I’ve been a professor here at Olivet, I’ve gotten to take a step back from classroom teaching, and do some watching. When I go to our schools, either to observe teacher candidates, or even to attend my own kids’ parent-teacher conferences, I observe two categories of teachers. First, there is the type that acquiesces to the changes in the field without a vision. These teachers adopt any new technology or teaching tool, with the wrong assumption that the “new” will provide shortcuts that make the teaching profession easy. These teachers are frustrated with the uncontrollable nature of students and building administrators, and find that the "new" ways provides more pressure than relief. Threats of losing their job are felt daily, and cause them to question their pedagogies. Often, it is these teachers who encourage young people, “don’t go into education.” And if teaching were merely the frustrating dead-end that these women and men experience, they would be offering good advice.
But there is another category of teacher I observe, too. These are the teachers who take the long view. These are the teachers who find the joy in instructing, in their students’ humor and wonder, in the “light bulb moments,” and even in the challenges of teaching. These are the teachers who recognize the ancient nature of teaching. Who would share a fraternity with previous generations of teachers from one room schoolhouses, Mann's common schools or Dewey's progressive schools. I think of these teachers as gardeners. They are not relinquishing the joys of teaching because the educational trends provide new challenges. This is the type of professional influencing lives we want for you to become. If these teachers are gardeners, then their classroom is their garden plot, and the students are their plants.
Good gardeners are concerned with the long-term health of their plants. Your job is to remove weeds and to water your plants, but to do so with care. Not for short term yields (like standardized test scores) but for long-term health markers like curiosity, neighborliness, mutual enjoyment, and delight. You are concerned with the health of your plants. So don’t teach your students strategies for comprehending isolated paragraphs. Teach them to loves stories; teach them to get lost in novels. Don’t teach your students techniques for cramming their short-term memory for test success. Teach them to care deeply about your content.
Good gardeners use all their senses to adapt to their garden’s needs. Good teachers do the same. Good gardeners are collaborators. Good gardeners are hungry for ideas that can improve their garden, and love to share their ideas with others.
Good gardeners are primarily interested in their own plot; but always recognize that the context of this plot is important. A garden of diverse vegetation is easier to grow in Illinois’ rich topsoil than in rocky Wyoming. In the same way, a classroom “plot” is dependent largely upon its context, too. The broader context of a classroom—the history, sociology, economics, and culture that exist in a school or in a neighborhood—are critical for full understanding of the garden plot.Gardener-teachers are students of their context. Over the course of their careers, gardener-teachers arrive at conclusions, subsequently challenge their conclusions, and are careful to listen to natives of a given context. I hope that you are finishing your liberal arts degrees with a humble understanding of how little you understand. Too much confidence can hurt your ability to understand. In the words of Frederick Buechner, "it is no so much their subjects that the great teachers teach as it is themselves."
Good gardeners have a vision for their plot that is not dependent upon anyone else’s approval or opinion. Remember the teaching philosophies that you wrote as freshmen, and revised and reworked over the years? These philosophies were just the start of your philosophy that will evolve over the years. Like good gardeners, good teachers are independent thinkers who know their ideal, their philosophy, regardless of what their administrators tell them.
Good gardeners use a combination of science, experience, and intuition as they plan, tend, weed, and harvest. Good teachers use a similar combination of research-backed practices, experience, and intuition as you plan, teach, and assess. Good gardeners are grateful for the gift of the good earth and for its bounty. In the same way, good teachers recognize that they building upon prevenient graces. Think of all the things teachers must together to make a classroom work:
- Students’ intellect and curiosity.
- The books they use, all of which are authored by those who have gone before them
- The symmetry and internal logic mathematics
- The natural world
- History, fascinating, terrifying, and compelling
All of these are gifts for which a teacher should give praise, and none of them are created by the teacher. It is the teachers job to weave these gifts together, to make the content understandable, to make it pop, and to make it stick. Teaching is difficult to do well, but a work of true beauty when all the moving pieces align.
So what kind of professional do we want you to be as you go out into the field of education? What kind of influence do we want you to have in the face of the changing nature of education? We want you to teach as one who recognizes the dignity within each of your students. We want you to water your garden plots with careful attention, and with prayer. We want you to nurture your students into health and growth. We want you to survive the changing conditions that threaten the vitality of education as a profession. We want you to enter into your plots each day ready to endure what there is to be endured, and enjoy what’s there to enjoy, day in and day out. Like a gardener.