A Teacher Speaks Out

By Troy Headrick

I want to make a bold claim:  Good schools can save the world.

I bet a whole bunch of thoughts come to mind when you hear the word “school.”  I mention this because I have some pretty unorthodox ideas about schools and what they really do—or should do.  My point is, I’m going to talk about them in ways that might strike you as strange.

Schools claim to be places that offer learning.  Okay, I’m fine with that.  Here’s the problem.  What is learning?  What does it look like?  What is its purpose?

Let’s start by thinking philosophically about what happens when a person “learns.”  Learning may include the acquisition of new information and skills.  But let’s drill down a bit into what that means.  When a person is exposed to a bunch of new information or is taught to, say, write an essay, that person is changed—in a molecular sense—in the process.  Education is about taking a person from one state of being to another. Learning is transformation; it’s growth.  Neuroscientists tell us that our brains—I’m talking about the organs themselves—actually physically change during learning.  We literally become different people during the act of being exposed to new ideas and information.    

Joseph Campbell, famed scholar of comparative mythology and author of the seminal The Hero with a Thousand Faces, points out that hero myths are always “coming of age” stories.  The would-be hero leaves home, encounters lots of difficulties (challenges that provide her with learning opportunities), and, if she overcomes them, is transformed in the process.  In other words, myths always tell a story about an “ordinary Jane” who finds a way to become larger than life.  During this “finding,” the protagonist dies to an old way of being and is reborn (through struggle) as a new and more self-actualized human being.

Unfortunately, we’ve trivialized learning.  We don’t really think of it in the way I’ve described or Campbell understood.  If you think learning is nothing more than a demonstration of one’s powers of memorization, it’s easy to see it as little more than information acquisition.  Teachers then become the “movers” of said information.  In such a view, they are akin to the person who brings a large truck to your house, loads up your furniture, drives down the road a bit, and unloads it at a new location. 

In fact, teachers are more like wise guides who help the hero complete her journey. 

The smallest part of learning is about transference of information.  The largest part is about the transformation that comes when a person becomes bigger, broader, and deeper than she used to be.

Students are not empty vessels to be filled.  All students already have much to share with others.  Students don’t only need to be told what to believe or know; they need to be taught how to ask interesting questions—the sort likely to trigger curiosity and self-directed exploration.  Students don’t only need to be told how smart they are.  (This can easily breed arrogance.)  Students need to be told that they know very little—this is not their fault or because they are dumb.  They need to be helped to understand that the truly wise person knows there are always new intellectual roads to travel and that even an individual who has seen “a lot,” has, in fact, only seen a tip of the proverbial iceberg (sorry for the mixed metaphors, but you get my drift).  Students don’t need to be told they’ve arrived.  They need to be informed that they’ve just departed.  Teachers need to help students boldly go where they haven’t yet been.

The role of the teacher is not to mollycoddle students.  The role is to encourage them to go on a heroic quest that might involve encounters with “dangers.”  The teacher is not there to make sure students never struggle or even suffer.  The role of the teacher is to make sure they aren’t utterly destroyed while doing difficult things.

No pain, no gain!  That may sound trite, but that doesn’t keep it from being true.

Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here.

If you’d like to see some of Troy’s art, have a look.

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46 thoughts on “A Teacher Speaks Out

  1. How I appreciate this post! There is so much truth in every line. If life has changed so greatly for us in the past centuries, it is because of scientists (and other professionals) who went to schools and had good education. I like how you emphasised on “good schools.” I agree that students’ egos should not be pampered.

    1. Sorry hit a wrong key. Teachers need to understand that they too can learn as well as teach. Just because they are teachers doesn’t mean they know everything. Thank you for the post

      1. Absolutely. I don’t believe in drawing a rigid line between teachers and students. I’ve learned tons from my students, and I hope some have benefitted from what I gave to them. By the way, the best teachers are those who humbly understand that they know very little. Arrogance kills!

  2. Ah, what a beautiful vision. I’m wondering if students have to have a certain amount of maturity to be challenged in the way that you described. Transformation, as you so aptly put it — to become bigger, broader or deeper is an incredibly vulnerable journey. After all, don’t Joseph Campbell’s heroes do almost everything they can to NOT be vulnerable before they accept their way through? But I love the vision – sign me up! I’d enroll in the curriculum you describe at any age!

    1. Good question. And I’d need to do some thinking about it for a time. I sometimes think children are more open to adventure and self-discovery than adults are. Children certainly often make the most interesting art because they haven’t yet learned the conventions associated with making art and so they create spontaneously and authentically. I’m totally with you! Sign me up too! thanks for the comment.

  3. I don’t have a clue as to what is taught in schools anymore. Some of this is due to age, but most is due to the lack of curiosity and pride I witness in the children these days. I remember as a child discussing topics I had learned about in school with my mother, my brother, and most often with friends. I don’t see that interaction anymore.

    1. I remember the same sort of thing, G. J. Jolly. I hope that sort of frank exchange of ideas–no matter how “radical”–is still taking place at schools. When I see certain types protesting against the discussion of race and the importance it’s played in American history, I begin to have my doubts. As someone who has long been in the trenches when it comes to championing free speech and thought, I often find myself worrying. Thanks for the comment.

  4. Just a thought ; So can teachers be held accountable for student’s behavior? For eg. did all the good teachings go in vain in Nazi Germany? The people who burnt, tortured, and experimented on humans were also once students. Wonder why values taught in school by teachers completely failed there or continue to fail across the world today.

    1. I think there’s also individuality. Where someone is responsible for their own choice of Life. The teachers may do their part, but the student still has his/her right to choose what they want to do with their lives. So, the teachers aren’t accountable.

      1. I agree, Jermena. Teachers can’t be held responsible for what all their students do. Traditional methods of education, where students sit passively and have people talk to (or at) them, are poor methods of teaching humane values. Let’s try something more experimental to help student learn both information and ethics and decency and love and kindness and empathy and etc.

      2. I completely agree with you about teaching students to learn both information and ethics, decency, love, kindness, and empathy.

    2. I don’t think traditional schools teach values very well at all. I’m talking about a “system”–I almost hate to use the word system because of its negative connotations–that is more akin to experiential learning where children learn by getting out into the world and being exposed to reality and ugliness. If we protect our children too much, we don’t prepare them for the world that awaits them and they grow up naive and weak. Sitting in a classroom and having a very dry and impersonal lecture about the holocaust is a poor excuse for a learning opportunity. Let children viscerally experience the ugliness that took place at that time.

      1. You have a point. Though I can imagine, it would be quite difficult for a teacher to willingly expose his/her students to the harsh realities of Life, even if it would be necessary when they reach a certain age.
        That actually reminds me of my H/M in high school. She used to tell us to learn to suffer silently🤣 At the time I thought she was cruel. I mean, who does that. But as a big girl now, out in the world. I know she meant well. Her advice has come in handy occasionally. Because I know, not everyone will be kind to you when you need them to. It taught us to grow up at a young age and know that the world won’t be kind and nice all the time, if ever at all.

      2. Yes. I’m not claiming that teachers should put their students in situations where they may be physically or mentally harmed. (However, most students are likely facing things at home that are already quite traumatic.) I am claiming that we must find ways of encouraging students to do difficult things. Challenges are difficult and some would argue that this means we mustn’t challenge students. We should expose them to difficult ideas or unconventional thinking. Perhaps my method is better for adults. Perhaps. We sometimes underestimate the intelligence and adaptability of children though. By the way, I’m greatly influenced by the thinking of the Stoics and the Buddhists. I encourage everyone to look at those philosophical schools to see what they offer.

  5. Wow! I couldn’t agree more, however in this day and age, and for a long time, that’s all anyone’s been doing. Coddling kids, because the world is metaphorically, and maybe literally, upside down. Granted, there were ways that weren’t 100% great motivators for kids, but now everyone is a winner.

    I think higher education has more leeway in challenging students, bc kids aren’t forced to be there. My 19 yr old’s best friend’s mom lost her teaching job in Dallas, bc the parents BLAMED her for their kids failing school. The kids didn’t do their homework, disrespected the teacher, etc, but it was the teacher’s fault. Why? Because she didn’t coddle them. She called them out on their behavior and notified the parents when work wasn’t done.
    No, this isn’t typical at every school. I think this was a bad school, wanting to look like everything was great, so they fired a teacher that was actually doing her job. But I’ve heard a lot of complaints from teachers about parents. They don’t make their kids do homework, they never believe their kids do any wrong, so you must be lying. It would be great to instill greatness in today’s youth, if only parents would get on board with the program.

    1. Thank you, kristina smith, for sharing your friend’s story. I’ve taught in very expensive and elite universities, where the kids were rich and privileged. and I’ve taught in community colleges, where the students struggled just to make ends meet. In the former, I had a lot of trouble with the students. They weren’t used to having their work judged objectively, and they constantly complained if I didn’t give them perfect marks on everything they did. In the latter, I never had such issues. There is a socioeconomic issue at play in all this. Yes, I think balance is important. I think it’s important to challenge kids and to help them find what they are passionate about and where their skill lies. I was always terrible at math. I knew that and my teachers knew that. It was reality. To try to make it anything other than that, would have been a lie. Somehow, I survived the knowing that I wasn’t good at that subject. Honesty is required if you truly want to know yourself, who you are, what drives you, what makes you tick. Lying to yourself is in no way healthy. Thanks for the comment.

  6. Troy, I think the approach to learning you describe needs to begin in nursery school. Public schools often tie teachers’ hands. In teacher education classes teachers learn about progressive education methods, but when they get to the classroom, they are expected to be technicians. They encounter teaching to the test, drill and kill, and little opportunity to mentor or facilitate students as students pursue their own interests.

    At one school where I taught, in the months leading up to standardized tests, we had practice testing for about 45 minutes every day, with students bubbling in answer sheets to be scanned. These students didn’t have a period for social studies, even though they had to be assigned a grade based on a learning center in reading class and Weekly Reader. These methods kill motivation, are resented by students, and can create discipline problems.

    As a teacher, I was happiest at a charter school (six years) and a private school (four years) where I had the freedom to teach students, not just curriculum. I made less money than my public school counterparts during those years, but my work was far more fulfilling! Learning is fun…at least it is supposed to be!

    1. Hi, Cheryl. Good to hear from you! Yes, learning should be fun. Where is it written that learning must be dull and tedious? You’re describing the differences between educating students and “schooling” them. The latter is really babysitting and warehousing. I never had kids, but if I had, I would have chosen something like a Montessori school for them. One thing I know for sure from all my years being an educator is this: One size does not fit all when it comes to helping students self-actualize intellectually. The trick is to devise a system of education that isn’t so “systematic,” if you know what I mean. Thanks for the comment and for sharing your story. i can definitely relate!

  7. Learning is a continuous process of assimilation, grasping and reflections of what is studied. It serves well when applied the theoretical knowledge and teaches lessons to incorporate with precision. We do not need any special education but the learning that is engaging and away from superlatives. Hence, the value that I put on education depends on the value that I put on different things and conditions in life that makes me happy. Pursue the lifestyle where the end product is happiness as Spiritual orator Dandapani would put it.

    1. Imagine how much we could improve the education for children if we began teaching classes with titles like “Happiness” and “How to Treat Others” and “What Is Good about the Common Good.” Instead, we focus on giving them information and nothing at all about ethics and coexistence. I’ll have to check out Dandapani. Sounds like someone I should know more about. Thanks for sharing.

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