Monday, September 11, 2017

The Pursuit Of Happiness

Every now and then someone will refer to my "teaching theories" or "pedagogy" or something. They tell me that they are striving to implement my "philosophy" at their school or that they are having trouble convincing the powers that be to embrace my "style." It feels good to know that I've inspired someone, but in all honesty I really don't know what they're talking about, even if I believe they do.

My "philosophy," if you can call it that, is to wake up in the morning, get to school a couple hours before the kids to get things ready, then to spend the rest of the day listening to children, talking to them, keeping them safe enough, and otherwise just being available should they need me. The other part of my "philosophy" is to help their parents perform their cooperative school role as assistant teachers, listen to them, talk to them, and otherwise just be around should they need me. I am not anyone's superior, nor am I anyone's servant. I'm the guy they pay to get things ready, talk, listen, and otherwise be available. We're trying to create a community together, one in which we each are free to pursue our own happiness. Everything else people see as a "philosophy" or "theory" or "pedagogy" emerges from that.

When our daughter was little and I was just dipping my toe into teaching, everyone was talking about "learning styles." People suggested I read articles about learning styles, they told us that we should try to find schools and teachers that matched our child's learning style, they said we should attempt to tailor our lives to take best advantage of their learning style. I didn't do that. It sounded like a lot of unnecessary work. I had already been living intimately with this person for her entire life; no system of categories was going to give me better information because my child was a unique, stand-alone entity that simply could not be standardized. I wasn't interested in figuring out how to plug her in like a learning machine, I was only interested in her happiness.

And if there is any one thing the parents of my students most often tell me they want for their child it's that: happiness. Of course, we all know that that's a tricky thing. I've been told that Aristotle said something like this, but even if he didn't, it seems like it's true: "Happiness is the only emotion that when we recognize it in ourselves, it goes away." When I'm mad and I think about my anger, I tend to stay mad: indeed, I often get more angry. Sadness is similar. Frustration? Envy? Shyness? However, whenever we genuinely think, "I'm happy!" it disappears. Poof! That's probably because pure happiness is really only an idea. It's like light, it only exists because of darkness, and the very mention of happiness evokes the darkness. So when I'm talking about my child's happiness I'm doing so as kind of stand-in for an equation that goes something like:

general contentment+overall satisfaction+healthy relationships = happiness

As Candide famously concluded, "This is the best of all possible worlds." No truer words were ever written and it means that if we're going to find happiness it can only be within the dark medium of unhappiness.

My wife and I made the kind of study of our child over the course of years that comes from pure love and followed that up by figuring out what would most likely put her on a path toward happiness. We didn't force her into things because they were "good for her," but instead followed her lead as she discovered how to pursue happiness on her own through her passions, interests, and relationships. It isn't always good times, there are false starts and dead ends. We weren't concerned about her learning style, but rather her pursuit of happiness, the lifelong challenge that stands above all others. That this pursuit invariably becomes a pursuit of knowledge as well is merely a by-product.

So maybe that's my philosophy: wake up in the morning, get things ready, then listen to children, talk to them, keep them safe enough, and otherwise just be available should they need you. And while you're at it, make a study of the kids that comes from pure love, then follow that up by helping them figure out what would most likely put them on the path toward happiness.

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