The job, and the mission

As I write this I am listening to the soundtrack of the second in the series of films based on J R R Tolkien’s novel, The Hobbit. The lyrics speak of the fire deep inside the mountain, unseen but known. It’s wistful yet hopeful.

For teachers, classroom interactions can sometimes be like the search for something we know is there but so hard to bring to the surface. Often, we can see the potential in a child and spend a whole year trying to tease it out and take the form of performance, but no, it stays stubbornly in the realm of “potential” and “promise” and just refuses to be realized. We grade papers that we know are not someone’s best work; they show minimal input and effort. But of course we cannot evaluate on the basis of what the student “could have done” and must restrict ourselves to what the student has actually done. We must go by the fire we can see and feel and not by a vague spark we believe in.

The gap between what we know a child to be capable of and what we see delivered as performance is the space we have to work to bridge. A lot of this depends of course on our ability – and willingness – to discern that potential, and to retain our belief in it over time. But it is precisely this quality, marked by discernment and faith, that sets the teacher’s job apart from many others. It is what makes our task more than just the delivery of curriculum to a “taker”. While it gets complicated by the numbers we have to deal with and the administrative framework we must work within, it is really at the heart of what we cannot (and must not) stop seeing as a mission.

In this issue we deal with the rather complex and troubling question of commercialization of education. It’s a big question and what we do is to only raise certain points for consideration and take a stab at outlining their contours. We may accept and even welcome some aspects of this, seeing it also as a kind of “professionalization” of the sector. And if one goes beyond the most crass aspects of education as a market, there could be benefits to be gained from a focus on efficiency and standardization.

But maybe we don’t need to worry too much, if the individual teacher can continue to see herself as someone whose job is, at core, to travel that distance between hope and reality for each individual child.