Saturday, July 21, 2007

Err on the Side of Hope

As a teacher, I often reflect on a long-running debate about human nature between another teacher, Plato, and his student, Aristotle. At the risk of oversimplifying that debate, as an idealist, Plato, in the guise of Socrates, argued that people are inherently good. Aristotle, on the other hand, believed that while people could be taught to be good, they are generally more self-interested, hence his claim in The Politics that “man is by nature a political animal.”

As educators, we stand somewhere in the middle of this debate, albeit leaning more towards Plato. We don’t quite claim that people are inherently good, but we do believe that they can and should be taught to be good. In this sense, our dilemma is better contextualized by the contrasting ideas of Plato and Aristotle about art. Whereas Plato argued that art should portray an abstract ideal, Aristotle argued that art should reflect concrete reality, with all its imperfections. Aristotle summed up this contrast in his distinction between the potential, or the ideal, and the actual, or reality as we see it.

As educators, we tend to idealistically believe in the potential of our students. Other professionals, however, are much more Aristotelian in their practical inclination towards baser aspects of human nature, namely self-interest. Lawyers work within an adversarial framework that pits parties against each other, each struggling for its respective self interest. Businesspeople play off of people’s self-interests in a competitive market driven by commercial consumerism. The medical profession has profited off of people’s insecurities with products such as Botox, Viagra, and plastic surgery, rather than encouraging everyone to live healthier, balanced lives. Politicians and the entire American system of federalism rely on conflicting interest groups, under the fatalistic and paralyzing expectation that these interest groups will cancel each other out. Journalists thrive on bad news about people who do bad things. Police officers spend most of their time hunting bad people, all the while trying not to become bad themselves. Even accountants operate under the assumption that someone somewhere at sometime will steal something.

In short, most professions are premised on the reality of self-interest. However, for us teachers, our profession is premised on the ideal of potential, that is, the ideal potential of our students. Maybe that’s why we have such a hard time communicating with politicians, business leaders, and other professionals in the great education debate. Maybe their pressure for accountability stems from an Aristotelian perspective of education, a deficit perspective that sees children as incomplete and broken machines that need to be fixed, not as “living systems [that] grow and evolve of their own accord” (Senge, 2000, p. 37), which is how most of us teachers see our students.

Yet the Aristotelian perspective is validated by our shared history, where violence and bloodshed eclipse our few, ephemeral moments of kindness and charity. Indeed, if the usual outcomes in human history are any measure, I can’t blame the realists for wanting to err on the side of caution and assume the worst of humanity.

In this light (or darkness?), ours is not so much the noble profession as it is the idealistic profession that requires quantum leaps of faith. And as one such professional, I confess that I profess that faith.

And at times, my faith is validated by a few but proud outcomes; like when Marvin, whom everyone had dismissed as lazy and stupid, one day understood and related to the children of Polonius in “Hamlet”; or when Nicolette, an overachiever obsessed with building her resume, humbly learned the value of service when tutoring a child at a battered women’s shelter as part of a National Honor Society service project; or when Rabban, a troubled kid who once came close to being arrested, found the drive to do better in school in order to land a disc jockey job we had arranged for him at a local radio station; or when Marie, after her father had passed away, found solace and meaning in my own story of my father’s passing. There are many moments such as these, moments that give me reason to hope.

Thus, while the Aristotelians choose to err on the side of caution, I’d rather err on the side of hope.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Transformation: More Than Meets the Eye

Dr. Gini Shimabukuro’s reminder that “Catholic pedagogy calls educators to transform students” (Shimabukuro, 2007, B-1) might seem too obvious. After all, that is why we entered Catholic education, right?

Another obvious insight is that the responsibility for learning should not rest solely on the educator, especially if we are to shift our focus to “academic processes that will empower our students to interiorize their learning” (B-1). And that is probably the hardest thing to accept, that the most we can do is to create the most optimal conditions for student learning, for ultimately, the responsibility for learning rests on students, not teachers or schools.

But this does not absolve teachers and schools of their own respective responsibility, namely to, in turn, take responsibility for their learning. “We must simultaneously allow ourselves to be transformed [and]…shift our focus from teaching to learning” (Palmer from Shimabukuro, 2007, B-1). Indeed, taking responsibility for one’s own learning may be more difficult than relinquishing responsibility for the learning of another. In other words, it is easier to preach than to practice. This too should be obvious, right?

Another obvious insight is that “an effective curriculum development process hinges upon routine teacher reflection and dialogue among colleagues” (Shimabukuro, 2007, B-2), where teachers come together as true learning communities. Despite this call for teacher reflection and dialogue, I have heard and read many laments that teachers do not do enough of either. However, I have found that teachers will reflect and dialogue in their own way, usually around the water cooler or in a remote corner of the faculty lounge. I believe it is only human nature to reflect on our experiences and share those reflections with others through dialogue, or, in this case, gossip. Our goal, then, as school leaders, is to steer that reflection and dialogue through healthier channels that lead to the fulfillment of a school’s mission. In fact, healthy reflection and dialogue should be about just that, the school’s mission. Shouldn’t this also be obvious?

All of this might seem obvious, but it is funny how, when we get swept away by the currents of everyday school life, we become oblivious to the obvious. Perhaps what we need is not only a transformation of pedagogy but a transformation of perspective, one where we stay attuned to the obvious. When we do that—when we transform our perspectives—we might ironically find that there is more than meets the eye.

And so, to paraphrase one of my greatest teachers, Optimus Prime, I call on all educators: “Transform and roll out!”

What about Catholic Pedagogy?

Industrial-Age vs. New Science thinking. Where do I stand? To be quite honest, with one foot in each. To speak to the Industrial-Age pedagogy, we cannot deny and should not neglect the utilitarian nature of education. In one way or another, it is incumbent upon us, as educators, to prepare students “to deal with the stress of the real world” (Senge, 2000, p. 28). To do any less would be irresponsible and almost criminal. Perhaps it is the privilege of first-world countries to worry so much about Abraham Maslow’s coveted self-actualization, but the fact remains that before you can reach that level of fulfillment, you must first fill your stomachs. And quite frankly, “deepening our sense of who we are and what we are committed to” (p. 35) does not feed your stomach. So, educators must accept the real world in which their students exist, which is still very Industrial-Age in its preference for educated workers who can outperform their peers. However, the changing needs of the new global marketplace also place my other foot in New Science, or systems, pedagogy. Peter Senge noted, “Employers of tomorrow likely will place a much higher value on listening and communication skills, on collaborative learning capabilities, and on critical thinking and systems thinking skills—because most work is increasingly interdependent, dynamic, and global” (p. 51). So, even from a utilitarian perspective, we must employ systems pedagogy if we want our students to be competitive in the global marketplace.

However, I did not get into education for strictly utilitarian reasons. That is why I work at a Catholic school, whose mission not only subsumes both Industrial-Age and systems pedagogies, but also transcends utilitarianism. My school’s mission states, “Mount Carmel School educates the whole person to see with Christ’s eyes.” From an Industrial-Age perspective, to see with Christ’s eyes means to perceive with the clarity of Christ’s vision and recognize how different parts of a whole work, just as Jesus recognized how the different laws of the Old Testament worked. From a New Science perspective, to see with Christ’s eyes means to discern with Christ’s wisdom and recognize how the different parts work together as one whole, just as Jesus synthesized all the old laws of the Old Testament into a new and profoundly simple new law. My school’s mission, which integrates both pedagogies, also offers utilitarian value to students’ education by equipping them with the analytical and critical thinking skills they will need to succeed in the real world. However, that same mission sees students from a holistic perspective and calls on them to transcend utilitarianism to find a higher purpose, a deeper meaning to their life on earth. For what does it mean to see with Christ’s eyes but to see people as Christ did, and love them as He did?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

...and I am an eduholic.

My name is Galvin Deleon Guerrero...and I am an eduholic.

I have been an educator for eleven years now. In that time, I have spent one year as a Vice Principal for Student Discipline, three years as a Director of Institutional Development, four years as a regent for higher education, two years as a board member on a humanities council, two years as a principal, and every year as a teacher, drama advisor, speech coach, and education enthusiast.

However, I don't proclaim to be an expert on education. In fact, I am constantly learning only to learn that the more I learn, the less I know.

So, I encourage y'all to read these thoughts as catalysts for further thought. In other words, I hope my thoughts galvanize your thoughts.