When we think of “school,” or even “learning,” we tend to think of students and teachers in a classroom. We tend to hold the perspective that young people must play the role of students, and adults must be the teachers. It’s usually required that these adults have a credential or a degree in their area of expertise.
When we talk about a person being “educated” we often associate that with holding an advanced degree, or at least with many years of formal instruction. Formal instruction is certainly one way to learn something, and can be a helpful tool. But America’s K-12 conventional schools leverage formal instruction in a one-size-fits-all system that, unfortunately, does not fit most.
Meaningful learning is not about the hours of formal education received, or the amount of information retained, but about engagement with the world. How we learn – the number of neurons firing in our brain, and the number of dots we’re connecting – is much more important than the number of facts we might manage to memorize. Engaged learning happens all the time in informal settings – on the playground, in conversation with friends, and at the grocery store. It also happens in formal settings, with a teacher and a student (or many students).
The best science teacher I ever had was the fabulous Kitty Peck, an elementary school teacher in my small hometown whose contagious love of the natural world led many of her students to fall in love with science, too. She filled her classroom to the brim with plants, aquariums, terrariums, and even a cage with our class pet, Lillian the Rat. I remember Mrs. Peck’s passion and kindness, and am grateful to count her as a friend to this day.
The best chess teacher I’ve ever had was a 10-year-old at the Village Free School (VFS), a self-directed democratic free school here in Portland, OR. She hosted a chess club every Wednesday while I was a Staff Intern there. I’ve never had someone explain chess so enthusiastically, and without condescension. Instead of being patronizing, she was patient and kind. She offered the class because she was eager to share her passion with anyone who was curious.
The best language instructor I ever had was Guadalupe Franco, the 11-year-old who lived next door to me in a rural community in Paraguay. She quickly became my best friend during the two years I lived there. I learned the local indigenous language only because of the time we spent together, without formal instruction. She was incredibly kind and endlessly patient. She beamed when I said something correctly, and she didn’t hesitate to tell me when I made a mistake.
What if all teachers got to teach what they were most interested in teaching, and did not have to follow a set curriculum? What if teaching didn’t mean “to impart information” but to “share passion and interest”?
The “best” teachers are not necessarily those who have the most credentials or the most years of teaching under their belt. They are often those who are passionate about and experienced with a subject and want to share that with others. A young person who loves building towers and knocking them down has a lot to teach their peers and the adults around them, and certainly lots of joy to share. A retiree who just discovered their love of poetry might be the best facilitator for a poetry class. The best skateboard instructor might be someone on YouTube who doesn’t consider themself a teacher.
I asked a friend recently if he’d be willing to teach a workshop at Alder Commons. This person just designed and built a Tiny House completely by himself, and last weekend he climbed to the top of Mount Hood before snowboarding down. He said, “I don’t know what I would teach.” I was floored. He has so much to share, but because “Tiny House Construction” and “Epic Backcountry Snowboarding” aren’t conventional academic subjects, he doesn’t feel qualified. You don’t have to have a credential or be an expert in an academic subject in order to have something to share with others.
What if everyone could study any academic subject (and many more non-academic subjects) through the lens and context of something they’re interested in, with people who are also interested?
The “best” student is anyone who is excited and curious about a topic. Someone who chooses to be in a class/workshop/club/lecture will be more engaged and will get more out of it. These students will retain their curiosity for the world, helping them to continue to be lifelong learners.
The classes I’ve taken as an adult have felt completely different than when I was a full-time student; I’m choosing to be there, and I’m resenting no one. As a younger person I think I would have had a more comprehensive knowledge of Chemistry if I could have studied it through the context of my fascination with trees, and would have had a more intuitive understanding of fractions if I had used it to figure out my share of the pizza.
Humans have a natural instinct to educate ourselves, and we all have the capacity to share what we’re most interested in with others. Let us reflect on what we are excited to share, and what we’re excited to learn. Calling all teachers, calling all students!