12/31/2013 03:07 pm ET Updated Mar 02, 2014

Diary of a Student Teacher: Why I Quit

"What do you want them to learn?"

My mentor teachers and I were discussing the upcoming social studies lesson that I was to lead. The lesson would mark the beginning of our unit on Greek mythology, and I had free reign: I could teach the kids whatever I wanted.

For most teachers, this might sound like a dream: there was no curriculum to obey, no standards to integrate, no state tests to prepare for. I could call on the depth of my own interests and decide exactly what I wanted to convey.

But I was drawing a blank. And as I turned my mentor's question around in my mind, I realized why: the things I most wanted our kids to learn had nothing to do with Greek mythology -- or any of our other upcoming curriculum units, for that matter.

All I really cared for them to know was that they were basically good -- that underneath all their budding anxieties and competitive instincts, there was something true and trustworthy in each of them. And that something -- what Buddhists might call a basic nature -- had nothing to do with whether they could remember the names of Greek gods or multiply two-digit numbers. I was glad that they would learn these things too, but I no longer felt like I was the person to teach them.

* * *

For most of the semester, I had found myself trying to use our curriculum as a means of encouraging the kids to look within and listen to themselves more deeply. Sometimes it worked -- in an unpredictable but thrilling eye-to-eye flash -- but often, it didn't. (For my very first lesson, I had read the kids a traditional Zen story about how we can't ever say luck is "good" or "bad," since new events always change our perspective on the past. The children followed along and gave me the answers I sought, but they did so too well, and without much real reflection. I suspect the lesson was too abstract. And while I'm sure many teachers are more skilled at drawing on kids' personal experience in order to make the abstract concrete, there were also some real limitations: 3rd-, 4th-, and 5th-graders aren't necessarily ready to consider the kind of questions I most wanted to ask.)

To say it more simply, I just didn't care whether the children knew most of the material we were teaching. It wasn't that I thought it was unimportant -- it was just that almost none of it seemed crucial in and of itself. Yes, I wanted Jeff to be comfortable with the rules of punctuation. But it also seemed clear that if he didn't ever figure out how to use a semicolon, his life wouldn't be much different.

The trouble was, I could apply this logic to everything we were teaching. This made it awfully hard to stay after the kids, to teach with the same urgency as my colleagues, to embody the conviction that what they were learning that day mattered. Sometimes, when the kids were listless and bored, I didn't feel like a single thing was going wrong.

I raised these concerns with my mentor at one point, and she made a fascinating suggestion: that it's possible to teach the kinds of things I most cared about using curriculum as a kind of delivery mechanism. That in fact, that's what we were doing every day -- showing kids that what mattered most wasn't their score on an assessment, but the process of learning and growing and stretching themselves. And, more fundamentally, that they were valued (and valuable) already.

I could get on board with the latter point -- this, after all, was what I wanted to convey. But the former point befuddled me. Yes, growing and stretching are important, but in which directions? After all, curriculum isn't just an indirect means to the ends of tenderness and compassion toward self and other. And it certainly isn't just a set of objective facts and skills that are useful for navigating the world. It also inculcates certain forms of self-understanding and orients students toward other people and institutions in particular ways. (Every time we taught a lesson involving play money, it seemed to me, we were also subtly accommodating our children to the economic status quo.)

But even if curriculum didn't work this way -- if it was a perfectly fluid, if oblique, means of introducing students to their own basic goodness and helping them to uncover their own stores of compassion, openness, and nonjudgment, it probably still would have felt too indirect.

Because increasingly, I find myself less and less tolerant of this kind of indirectness. I want to talk directly out of what's deepest and truest in me to what's deepest and truest in others, and anything else feels like a distracting game.

What do I want them to learn? That while the world will demand all kinds of practical knowledge from them, they needn't take this knowledge too seriously (and they certainly needn't try to build an identity on the facts they know or the talents they have). That in order to be educated most fully, there's very little they need to learn from the world, and a great deal they need to learn about themselves.

This essay originally appeared at The Wheat and Chaff.