10/07/2013 03:28 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Diary of a Student Teacher: August and September

Friday, August 23

There are no American flags in the classrooms here.

Like many absences, it took me a while to notice. When I finally did, I was doubly struck, because this private school sits on what was once an Air Force base. Barracks and officers' quarters are now classrooms and apartments for student teachers. During his presidency, Eisenhower maintained an office here; it now belongs to our school principal.

* * *

I chose this school and this student teaching program partly for some of the ways that it differed from my own public school education. Some of those differences were apparent the moment I walked into a 3rd-5th grade classroom for my tryout. Instead of desks arranged in rank and file, couches were the centerpiece, with tables and workstations arrayed around the room. Kids found comfortable places to sit as their teachers, Ria and Michael, opened up a conversation about how everyone had spent their weekends. There was genuine listening going on, and a sense that some of the work could wait - that beginning the day by acknowledging and attending to each other as full human beings was at least as important as the spelling lessons to come.

* * *

The etymology of the word education is complicated; its multiple Latin definitions encompass many of our own conflicting notions about what school is for. In my view, education -- at least in its most profound sense -- is not about jamming facts and figures into students' heads. Rather, it is about providing a space for them to discover who they are. And that journey of self-discovery, if it is to unfold in its truest form, cannot be charted ahead of time.

It's a strange thing, then, to begin a school day by asking students to pledge allegiance to something - to restrict the free play of their hearts and minds, to draw a boundary around the questions they're encouraged to ask.

It is even stranger, perhaps, to encourage them to pledge allegiance to an abstraction like a nation-state -- something that doesn't emerge from their own experience, that isn't something they can trust because they've felt it firsthand.

Tuesday, August 27

My mentor teachers see a remarkable amount of what goes on in the classroom. Little behavioral tics, the kid who's just a bit isolated, the ever-so-slightly-distracting side conversations. They seem to have a good bead on how much to intervene, and when. I think they understand that there has to be a little play, a little give - that they can't monitor and quash every single transgression. But they also seem to know how to rein things in, to remind kids of the norms to which we're all committed. And they manage to do this without coming across like prigs -- an especially neat trick. (A large part of that depends, I think, on the fact that they're not asserting their own authority, exactly. Rather, they're activating the kids' desire to be decent to one another -- to listen and be respectful, for example.)

September 2, 2013

I'm noticing how often I praise kids' work, in part because I don't know what else to say. "That's awesome!" "I love how X does Y." "It's really good!"

What are we actually doing when we praise in this way? On one hand, we're encouraging kids, telling them that their efforts have paid off in some way, that their particular talents are recognized and valued by the people around them. But there's a risk of fixity, of solidification. I don't want kids to build identities around their capacity to earn a particular type of praise; that seems like a sure recipe for alienating them from themselves.

Deep down, I'm not sure that any of us actually want to be praised (at least for any length of time). Having our work recognized -- which in some sense is the same as having us recognized -- can be nice for a moment. But when it goes on longer, I think part of us tends to notice that the praise is directed toward a person who doesn't really exist. We aren't some solid thing, some reliable source of the virtue in question. We are just a flow of energy and awareness; we are being itself. And it seems strange to praise being for being the way it is.

September 23

Growing up around my family's teacher friends, I was often disappointed by what I took to be their jadedness. They were frustrated by unresponsive administrations and unrealistic work conditions, true, and all of that earned my sympathy. But sometimes, it seemed to bleed into an attitude toward their kids as well -- a sense that there's only so much one teacher in one year can do for a kid. It was a kind of throw-your-hands-up fatalism, expressed with eye rolls and knowing shrugs over glasses of wine. It felt lazy and small to me, the kind of thing that people of limited talent and moderate-sized hearts would feel and say.

Now, I think I see a bit more where some of them were coming from. Each of my kids has an entire life of karmic momentum behind them. They've got genetics inside and parents and culture outside, a whole set of vectors converging and creating the people they are. Now I'm one of those vectors, but I'm only one, and none of them are static.

[The full version of this essay is available at The Wheat and Chaff.]