With the summer break nearing its end, I went in yesterday to check on my classroom. I wanted to see how much work I’d need to do to set it up before I welcome students to the first day of school in two weeks time. The floor was shiny, the board sparkling clean, an open slate awaiting the first lessons of the new school year.
The start of a school year has always been like a second New Year for me, and like traditional New Year, I make resolutions. In the past, my resolutions have focused on how to make my classroom a more comfortable place, a space where my students would want to be. At first I tried to make the space more physically comfortable, adding colour and curtains to dull, grey spaces. Over the years I’ve added couches and cushions, a micro-kitchen. I have also tried to make the classroom more psychologically comfortable by adding brain breaks during lessons: dancing, stretching, laughter yoga. Sometimes students meditate, sometimes they nap before lessons.
I have also tried to increase comfort in other ways. Right from the start of my teaching career, I’ve attempted to democratize my classroom. I often discuss the requirements for assignments with students and we regularly negotiate due dates. A few students each year meet with me to discuss underlying issues in our classroom community. We also have a process for dealing with conflicts. But, as I discussed in Lessons Learned, despite all these gestures and my best efforts, my classroom is only sometimes a comfortable place to be for some students.
My resolution this school year is to be okay with that and to check my ego at the classroom door.
Don’t get me wrong. This does not mean that I will stop working to make my classroom a place where students can learn, and a place where they would want to be. It does mean that decades after I first walked into a classroom to teach, I now accept that I have an impossible task: to make the education environment hospitable for all my students, all the time.
I’m sure there’s no need to list all the ways that schools can be inhospitable places for many students. Although the discomforts of students who endure homophobia and racism and bullying are well-known, perhaps less acknowledged is the discomfort of all students who have to sit for six hours each day while someone talks at them. Every year I apologize to my students for what they stoically endure in schools.
This year I will continue to make those apologies with a much clearer understanding of why they are necessary. This year, I’ll be attempting to educate my students hospitably.
Educating students hospitably goes far beyond providing couches, cushions and cookies as I learned in Unlocking the World: Education in an Ethic of Hospitality by Claudia Ruitenberg.
A teacher-host who educates hospitably has far more demands on her than the kind my friend Stephanie had when she hosted a house party recently. All Stephanie did to prepare for her guests was to clean her home, buy some food and send out invitations. During the party, she kept drinks refilled, replenished food platters, and circulated through conversations. Most guests said they had a marvellous time. Stephanie definitely did.
But the kind of hospitality that Ruitenberg proposes in her book requires a different kind of preparation than what teachers normally do during the summer break.
During the summers, if we’re not upgrading our qualifications, then we’re attending conferences or workshops, reading posts on educational social media and revising lesson plans. Although all this preparation takes different forms, it’s essentially focused on increasing our knowledge and know-how.
To make the shift to educating within an ethic of hospitality however, I need to interrogate my identity as a teacher.
I confess that I’ve been quite smug about being a popular teacher. I’ve revelled in being the maverick who does cool things in her classroom. I had grown so accustomed to being told how much students enjoy my classes, that it came as a complete shock this past spring when some students really disliked being in my classroom. Taking their criticism personally, I considered myself a complete failure.
I admit that when students do not get excited about the content of lessons, I take it as an affront, as though I had personally created the knowledge I was presenting.
If I’m to educate hospitably, I must accept that I do not own the knowledge I share with my students. I have inherited it from the millions of people who made discoveries throughout human history. As a teacher, I am just one of many temporary custodians of our collective cultural knowledge. My work as a teacher is to provide some of the keys to this knowledge, to “unlock the world” for my students.
I once had a student, D, who gave me a reality check years ago. I clearly remember him saying to me: “Ms Foster, you know that point in the universe around which everything revolves? It’s not you!”
I remember bursting out laughing at this. It was the most perfect challenge to whatever puffed up position of a “great educator” I had assumed at the time.
In checking my ego at my classroom door, I also need to expect that my students will not be as enthralled as I am about the curriculum and that they will challenge what it contains. Educating within an ethic of hospitality demands that I not only allow those challenges to occur but that I should encourage them. After all, this is how human knowledge has advanced through the millennia – with fresh eyes looking at old truths and seeing something more, something different.
As you can see, this kind of preparation involves a paradigm shift in my role in my classroom. Although I am responsible for creating a space for my students to hopefully be comfortable and engaged in, I cannot expect that they will appreciate all that I have done to prepare for them or that they will like what I have to offer from the curriculum.
In preparing for this new school year, what I bring into my classroom is not as important as what I leave at the classroom door.
There is no place for my ego in a hospitable classroom.