I’m reading David McCullough’s most recent book, The Greater Journey. In it, he describes the lives of Americans who traveled to Paris between 1830 and 1900. The reasons Americans left their homes for the French capital were varied; but, among the travelers Mr. McCullough describes, the most common reason appears to be education. They are particularly drawn to the studies of medicine, fine art, and music. What I find most intriguing is the manner in which they pursued their educational goals. Each of them finds a mentor from whom they learn their trade. This mentor lectures, assigns homework, oversees practicums, and has the students shadow their work.
The author quotes correspondence between these American students and their families to help describe the lives of these students. In these letters you see why they learn from their mentors; the students describe how the mentors inspire their desire to learn, how they are afraid to disappoint their teachers, how the master will prod more out of their students than even they believed was possible, and how the students are in awe of their mentor’s wisdom. In other words, they love their teachers. They take extreme pride in meeting the standards set by their teachers; they are devastated when their teachers are disappointed by their work. They love how their teachers help them become better.
In reading the book I am reminded about an article from the New York Times in which David Brooks makes the following statement:
“People learn from people they love. Anything that enriches the space between a student and a teacher is good. Anything that makes it more frigid is bad. This doesn’t mean we have to get all huggy and mushy. It means rigorous instruction has to flow on threads of trust and affection.”
As my colleagues and I have written about standards, curriculum, teaching strategies, tools, and activities that may be useful in instruction, what we have not mentioned often enough is the most important: How do we build trust and affection between us and our students? Is there anything in our standards, curriculum, and tools that will lead students to believe that their success means as much or more to me as it does to them? No. Standards and curriculum define “the space between a student and a teacher” but they do not enrich this space. This space is enriched by a teacher’s tireless preparation, their never-ending quest to learn more about how students learn, from setting and supporting students in meeting rigorous expectations, and from building trusting relationships with their students. When we discuss educational changes we should ask ourselves: Does it allow teachers and students to develop deeper and more meaningful experiences? If not, move on to the next proposal.