The Facebook photos of 5:30 am alarm clocks and teacher meetings have begun. Far too early for my taste, the forces are re-gathering to begin again the school year. The beach chairs are being put away, the planning books ordered, the last few barbecues with fresh corn and tomatoes from the garden enjoyed as teachers everywhere seek to savor the last sweet taste of summer while preparing for the return to work. I’ll join them soon in a couple of weeks, mostly with excitement sprinkled with a bit of sadness that this miraculous and marvelous summer is soon to be over.
One of the Facebook photos was a staff meeting with computers open about the latest in digital assessment. It made me worried that we might once again squander this incredible opportunity to create a future worthy of our children by attending to the wrong things. It reminded me that here at the cusp of a new school year, with millions of children required to spend the good part of their days the next nine months in the schools we have created for them, we are given a chance to start fresh and get it right this time. Now is the time to re-configure everything to fit the actual needs of children, to let them play and explore and follow their overflowing curiosity right up to the doorway of discovery and understanding. To guide them as needed, to help them when they’re reached the end of their own resources and capacity to figure something out. To investigate the mysteries and magic of this world side-by-side, companions at different points on the same path, yet sometimes walking together.
My friends, business as usual is not working. I don’t believe it has ever worked as well as it could or should, but these days, the stakes are so much higher. As H.G. Wells said, “We are in a race between education and catastrophe” and according to the daily news, catastrophe is winning hands down. How else to explain people preparing to vote on the basis of ignorance, incapable of looking a fact in the face or engaging in anything approaching rational discourse? How else to account for an emotional intelligence that never rose higher than cruelty and bigotry and prejudice and hatred? How else to understand what happened to people that never had adults—parents, teachers, neighbors—discover that seed of beauty we all carry within, notice it, praise it, celebrate it, cultivate it? Empty inside, unable to locate their own glory, they can only create an identity that needs the illusion of people below them in order to feel worthy. How else to shed light on a national discourse that has fallen so low that someone vying for the leadership of the most powerful nation on earth is publicly suggesting that some among his followers consider murdering his rival?
And so I say to my fellow educators, we have failed. We have not worked hard enough or deep enough or high enough or broad enough. We’ve allowed the bulk of our energy to be wasted on technological upgrades, the next pedagogical system, the obsession with tests and numbers and all the things that block our view of the most important people—the children. We have not talked enough amongst ourselves about how to love the children, how to comfort and protect them in a culture of trauma, how to nurture and water their unique genius and possibility, how to challenge them and motivate them with contagious passion instead of threats or rewards, how to inspire them, how to see them, how to discover their secret jewel, help them discover it and publicly praise and shine it. I know it’s not as easy or sexy as learning to use the coolest new edu-ap, but it is ten thousand times more vital and lasting and important.
So this year when we return to school meetings, let’s stand up amidst the next agenda of nonsense and distraction and say, “Stop! Where are the children in this discussion? Where is the present in this discussion, our urgent need to reveal beauty and compassion and moral uprightness? Where is the future we hope for? How will this help our country in future elections?” I fervently believe that as soon as we agree what not to talk about, that the needed discussions will finally arise. And not just talk, but the active doing in training us as teachers to enlarge our own humanity, to finally uncover our own hidden jewel that lay neglected in our childhood. It’s never too late.
I know this is possible because it’s exactly what we are doing here in our Orff training. No one ever asks us how we do what we do, but we are here and ready to answer. Take off your shoes, turn off your device, open your mind and heart and step into the circle. And then return to your school with renewed determination to get it right. Not someday, but now.
The kids will soon walk in the door. Let’s do this.