Learning the Words

When I was a child, my Aunt Alma taught me how to read.  I still remember the flashcard for ‘red’ written in perfect teacher penmanship.  Of course, learning to read happened years after my toddler-self had learned how to name the things I saw and touched. Learning to speak and to read must have been exciting to my child-self, but five decades after I first learned to read,  my adult-self was thrilled to learn new words to describe what I’ve experienced in my classroom for the past two and a half decades.

For years when people asked me what I taught, my mind would go blank. Truly blank. It felt wrong to just respond with “English” or “Civics” and so I tried different words. Paradigm shifting. Personal revolution.  But even those felt not completely correct. And so I’d launch into an explanation of what I did in my classroom but I still struggled to create a clear picture of what went on there.

When I went to graduate school, I learned many new words that described what happens and what should happen in classrooms. Some of these came close to describing what I tried, or managed, or hoped to do, but none of them were a perfect fit.  In a paper about my struggle to find the words (theory) to describe what I saw and experienced in my classroom, I expressed a yearning to find words to name my experiences.

This week, I found those words.

In her book, Unlocking the World, Claudia Ruitenberg provides me not only with the words to describe what I try to do in my classroom but also offers a new lens with which I can look at past classroom experiences, differently.

Ruitenberg suggests that we can look at what teachers do in classrooms as providing a kind of hospitality. She sees teachers as hosts who unlock the world for our students (guests) when we provide the keys to knowledge. But, being a teacher-host in Ruitenberg’s sense is more complex than the commonplace understanding of the role of a host who provides cookies and comfort. Educating hospitably is an ethical task and it’s also an impossible one, with lots of room for the host to fail. ( I found this aspect of her theory especially liberating!)

According to Ruitenberg, a teacher must offer hospitality even to “bad” guests, those students who do not “appreciate” the hospitality being offered. She must expect that the student-guest will not accept the hospitality being offered and that the student-guest may respond to the classroom-home in ways that are not welcomed or expected. But the teacher-host must still offer hospitality, even if the student-guest’s arrival challenges her (the teacher’s) sense of self. It’s the ethical thing to do.

I wish I had known this when I met The Crew. I wish I had these words and terms when I first introduced The Civic Mirror into my classroom. Perhaps being able to name my experiences then would have alleviated some of my distress at the time.

As I read Unlocking the World, experiences I have had throughout my teaching career flashed through my mind and I was able to see them in a new way.

friendship day 2
Students sharing a potluck meal with a teacher.

The photograph above was taken in 1987 in Durban, South Africa during one my first attempts at trying to make an entire school a hospitable place to be, if only for a day.  I called it Friendship Day but if I could go back and change it, I’d call it A Day of Hospitality.

On Friendship Day, the normal activities of the school were suspended and everyone spent time in workshops on topics like conflict resolution and leadership during the morning.  At midday we had a communal potluck meal, with teachers, students, administrators and office staff all eating together. After the meal there was singing and dancing and drama skits, all opportunities for students to show skills that are not readily apparent in academic classrooms.

South Africa during the Apartheid-era was an inhospitable place for anyone who was not White. This inhospitablity existed in many forms everywhere but it was particularly pernicious in schools. It was through formal education that the government sought to ensure that all young people of colour would learn their “place” socially, culturally, economically, politically. I’ve written elsewhere about my response to those impositions and don’t want to revisit that here.

When I began my teaching career, I wanted to create a classroom where students would want to be. There were no examples I could follow. No language to describe what I was trying to do. Now that there is, I will look back at the road I have walked, and name what I could not before.

Friendship day 1
There are 5 teachers in this photo. Can you spot them?

2 thoughts on “Learning the Words”

  1. Reading your blog took me down memory lane. I’m talking here of ±35 years ago. Even then, you manifested the attributes that I regard as essential to be a successful teacher. The attributes are caring and empathy. You ought to be in the Teacher-training business!

    When you left Umbilo, I suggested a system to persuade the staff to embrace these qualities as part of their teaching strategy. I proposed the Canton system whereby each teacher would be mentor of about 20 students either for a year, or they could be swapped at the end of each semester. The idea was to get to know them and win their confidence, and improve relationships between teachers and pupils and among the pupils themselves. This was my idea of strengthening a child-centred approach to teaching, which you had begun by introducing Friendship Day.

    I have always advocated a person-to-person approach to teaching. My jogging club was intended to put this approach into practice. In my vest, shorts and running shoes, I became one of them. At the end of each jogging session we enjoyed some refreshments together. The atmosphere was thoroughly relaxed and they poured their hearts out about the dangers of living in a gang and drug-infested township. I understood why they had to arm themselves. I built a trusting relationship between myself and the joggers. Unfortunately, I could not persuade the staff to join me in establishing a meaningful relationship between teachers and pupils. That’s why you were a Godsend!


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