Education and Identity

“What did you learn today?” I often ask students after class or at the end of a school day. In part, I want to know the answer for my own sake, but I also want students to be aware of their learning. Too often, education becomes transactional–do this for the grade, or the credit, or some other practical outcome. One of my administrators, in explaining the haphazard way in which students were put in one section, explained that the older students in a class of mostly underclassmen “just need the credit,” as if credits are a legitimate aim for schooling without regard to learning, knowledge and experience.

Education, especially secondary and postsecondary schooling, is meant to impart something more important. Teaching high school often has me searching for a persuasive answer to the question “Why do we have to do this?” That question also serves as a test for myself in planning–if I cant explain why I have students doing an activity or assignment, I throw it out. Time in school is too short, too precious to waste on inessential distractions. The list of distractions, in my mind, is inordinate, because our higher purpose stands in stark contrast to the everyday minutiae.

School is where students first make meaning of themselves and their existence. Young people have to form an identity in relation to the world. For the upper classes, college has long provided the time and opportunity to “find themselves.” All students need this opportunity, but more and more it is being removed even from the Ivy League and other elite universities. A former Yale professor advised young people and their parents to steer clear of these schools in a recent opinion piece in The New Republic:

“We’ve taught them,” David Foster Wallace once said, “that a self is something you just have.” But it is only through the act of establishing communication between the mind and the heart, the mind and experience, that you become an individual, a unique being — a soul. The job of college is to assist you to begin to do that. Books, ideas, works of art and thought, the pressure of the minds around you that are looking for their own answers in their own ways.

College is not the only chance to learn to think, but it is the best. One thing is certain: If you haven’t started by the time you finish your B.A., there’s little likelihood you’ll do it later.

During my undergraduate years at a prestigious institution (mentioned in the article above), I was so conscious of being exposed–as (relatively) poor, ignorant, or otherwise undeserving of my place–that I failed to take the academic and personal risks that are essential in forming the contours of a self, or a stable identity. Working in an urban public school after college reminded me of how limited my education to that point had been. I learned more about myself through teaching and mentoring young people than I did in four dedicated years of academic study. I expect this is a pretty common experience for my peers who went into public service after college.

My identity today is deeply connected to my profession. I wonder, when considering future career options, how I might personally be affected by changing jobs. When I began teaching, I knew it was temporary. The job of a public school teaching–all apologies to my colleagues–is damn near impossible. As a recent opinion piece on the Huffington Post argues, there is simply never enough when it comes to teaching–time, resources, etc. Even mediocre teaching is exhausting, soul-sucking and depressing at times. It is also an extraordinary gift, and I wouldn’t trade my experiences to this point…but I am unable to shake the feeling that I simply cannot keep this up.

Despite my criticism of Teach For America (e.g. here), I’m at risk of following their model too closely for comfort. I may burn out after two years in the classroom. I might be tempted by “greener pastures” elsewhere…I could make more money and have less stress at work without much searching. My big concern is how a career change would affect my identity, my self. Who am I, if not an educator? What would a career change mean for me, personally and spiritually?

Welp, we’ll play it by ear for the time being. Education is all about discovery.


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