Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Common Sense Approach to Education

Two 11-year olds, Simon and Alice, come back from recess and see their teacher hanging from a pipe in their classroom.  Really.

Monsieur Lazhar is a poignantly fabulous little film about "an Algerian immigrant seeking asylum in Montreal who replaces an elementary school teacher who committed suicide and helps the kids deal with their loss."  

The film transits how various adults in authority keep wanting to push the tragedy away and move on, while Bachir Lazhar — who has talked his way into being their substitute — desperately wants to allow the class to express what they're feeling.

I won't summarize the plot because as beautifully written and thought-provoking as it was, my focus was on something the film portrayed: How restrictive and rule-driven our educational system has become.   In trying to make sense of what he's supposed to teach, Monsieur Lazhar asks himself "...cross-curricular competencies ...what's that?"

When did we lose the common sense approach to teaching?

When did we stop trusting teachers to simply ask and assess if a student could: 
  • read, comprehend, intelligently discuss, extrapolate and apply information?
  • write an accurate, cohesive, succinct, and persuasive report?
  • manage money and be financially literate?
  • treat others with respect and compassion and act with integrity?
I know that isn't everything that kids should learn but we're so busy spelling out every single step that teachers can and CANNOT take that we've lost the essence of what teaching does when it's at its best:  guide kids to become happy, healthy, caring and contributing citizens of their local and global communities.

Monsieur Lazhar is instructed, cautioned, and later warned not to have any physical contact with the students.  He says he feels as if he needs to "treat kids like they're radioactive waste and keep hands off."  Though he doesn't even realize he's swatted a boy on the back of his head, throughout the film you can see the ache on his face when he longs to give a reassuring touch or a hug to these children who have been traumatized beyond what anyone could imagine.  

Instead of being able to use what's occurring in their young lives and address their emotional well-being, he must stick to the lesson plans and ignore the teachable moments that offer an opportunity to deal with their grief and loss.  Granted suicide is an extreme, but in the real lives of all our students someone dies, parents get divorced, jobs change, families move away. Shouldn't these be the things teachers also teach about in their classrooms? 

I am the product of many, many wonderful teachers who took a personal interest and nurtured me when that was absent in my home life.  When things were chaotic in my family (which was pretty often) I could always count on the stability and comfort of the classroom with my teacher.  

Were there exceptions and teachers who disappointed?  Yes.

Will every teacher reach every student?  No.

Will every teacher be a great teacher?  No, but what profession can boast 100% excellence?

And while we're at it, what other profession is constantly judged, regulated, and monitored by those outside the profession?  
Just because you've had a teacher doesn't mean you know how to be one.

I say put teaching back in the hands of teachers. 


  1. Fabulous, Denise! I assigned an experimental "self-care lab" in the college course I'm teaching this semester, requiring students to spend 35 minutes with themselves each week engaging in an activity that makes them feel centered and whole. Then they write "lab reports" about the experience. As an adjunct, I don't have much to lose, but I do feel like I'm pushing the envelope by asking (and authorizing) students to do something other than compete for grades.
    Hugs, WK

    1. And how lucky are those students to have YOU. Reflection is an enormously valuable tool and one we usually fail to equip students with in our system...sigh. Thanks for reading and writing!