Recently, I found myself in an impassioned conversation with a teacher who kept asking, “How do we get teachers, especially secondary teachers, to believe they have to teach the whole student, not just their content?” For well over an hour we sat and talked, trying to grab some piece of that elusive answer. He wondered if more training and professional learning would help. He asked if new school policies would jolt some out of a textbook and into new methodology. He questioned if more accountability might create more urgency for the unsure or unaware. Despite our best efforts, it was a treadmill conversation: even though it was exhaustive, we still ended up where we started because we knew, none of those surface actions could guarantee depth of change.
Like all compelling conversations, this one didn’t leave me. I’ve been turning it over in my head ever since, trying to discover what’s underneath that resistance, that hesitation to “teach the whole student.” I can imagine some pretty legitimate responses: There’s so much pressure to cover so much content; I would do more if I could. I see 170 kids a day and you want me to do what? I also imagine some pretty honest responses like that’s not my job or that’s what the counselors are for or I’m not qualified to do that work.
But underneath them all is a sense of separateness, a sense that if we pay really close attention to one facet of a student it will compensate for the parts we set aside for someone else. It reminded me of this note I wrote for my physical therapist this fall – a wonderful person who carefully helped me take a leg that would persistently go numb from hip to toe, to a strong limb I could rely on for regular catharsis. Here’s an excerpt that’s really more a plea to myself than to my amazing physical therapist:
I know there’s only so much you can do. I know my body will take the time it needs. But you also have to understand you’re not just treating my muscles, you’re treating my whole self. When my leg doesn’t work like I need it to, I can’t run like I want to. When that happens, I’m not as patient of a mother, I’m not as productive of a teacher. I fall into bad habits and lose my way. Maybe most importantly, I’ve been outrunning a shattered heart for over a year and I’m almost on the other side, but I can’t get there with my brain alone. So, I can’t just be a 2:00 appointment because I’m depending on you to see the human impact of your work. We’re all triggers and levers, these complex systems, where the biggest work hinges on the smallest details. And I’m grateful you get this. Even if we never talk about it, I sense you know this and it’s why I trust you. It’s why I do whatever you tell me to and why I know if I just keep patiently persisting, you’ll get me there.
It’s not really much different in school. There, we may not be fixing people who are broken or damaged (although we often do), but we will impact the whole system of a person whether we mean to or not. If we avoid one aspect, then we create atrophy. If we overexert before they’re ready, we create injury. If we overcompensate, we cheat another valuable muscle. If we focus on “processing” kids through a curriculum, we end up weakening them instead of strengthening them.
Teachers may not be therapists, but if we fail to understand that learning isn’t a product of a well-positioned assessment or comprehensive rubric, we have failed to see that the invisible levers we’re pressing still compel the whole child.