It is worthwhile to stop and ask the question: what exactly are we as a school community about?
Consider the well-known parable of Jesus:
A man had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.” So he divided his wealth between them. And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living. Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. But when he came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! “I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.” So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” And they began to celebrate.
Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. And he said to him, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.” But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. But he answered and said to his father, “Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.” And he said to him, “Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. “But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.”
In this parable we find three major players, each with a different orientation towards life.
- The younger brother who seeks to ESCAPE and INDULGE
- The older brother who seeks to PERFORM and CONTROL
- The father who seeks to KNOW and to LOVE
Teachers regularly encounter students who like the younger brother seek to ESCAPE and INDULGE. They are minimalists when it comes to putting forth effort, long to be entertained, are quickly bored, are impulsive in their actions, and sacrifice the good of others for their own pleasure. Self-denial is a habit far from their experience. And, thus, they wander far from the place that would provide peace and deep satisfaction.
Likewise, teachers regularly encounter students who fit the type of the older brother. Their primary concern is to PERFORM and CONTROL. What could be wrong with seeking to perform? Nothing, if by perform one means to give one’s best effort in diligently pursuing that which is good, true, and beautiful. Everything, if by perform one means besting others for the sake of narcissistic self-satisfaction. Indeed, such persons are tragically self-focused. Like the older brother in the parable, everything is about self. They find it difficult to enter into the joy of anything that is not about “me”. They do not seek to know for the joy of knowing but to know for the sake of besting others. Older brothers are anxious and angry. They don’t know how to enter into the celebration of life. Often, teachers will fail to concern themselves with such students. They seem to be doing well. Yet, they are often harder to reach.
Then, there is the father, who seeks TO KNOW and TO LOVE. He knows his sons, reaches out to them, undeterred by their brokenness. He does not become selfish because his sons are selfish. He does not become neurotic because his sons are neurotic. He knows with a relational knowledge. His “stuff” does not get in the way. He sees his sons, is willing to hurt with them, is unafraid, thus can love, and potentially lead his sons TO KNOW and TO LOVE.
Is this not a worthy goal to put before ourselves and our students? TO KNOW and TO LOVE – to know and to love God, others, self, flowers, birds, stars, music, art, literature, math, all that is good, true and beautiful. It is obvious that this kind of knowing is not “the parrot-like saying of lessons, the cramming of ill-digested facts for examinations”  which characterizes too much of so-called education. Rather, it is the kind of knowledge implied in Charlotte Mason’s statement that “education is the science of relations” or that ALL KNOWLEDGE is a product of “the teaching power of the Spirit of God". It is the knowledge gained when a child recognizes the symmetry of a leaf, the courageous heart of a literary figure, the struggle for justice in a civilization, the discovery of order in multiples, all which nurture a deepening relationship between a child and her world. Furthermore, these relationships are inherently satisfying. All coming to know is a seeing of the good, true, and beautiful relation of things (even when through recognition of the evil, false, and ugly). Thus, all true knowledge leads to love and in turn love leads to deeper knowledge. There is a relational mutuality between knowing and loving. If this mutuality between love and knowledge has been disrupted, something has gone terribly wrong.
A little over 500 years ago, western civilization made a terrible mistake. It began to associate knowledge with the cold, calculating, rational processes of the brain’s left prefrontal cortex. It abandoned the much more global RELATIONAL CIRCUITS of the brain in favor of the RATIONAL CIRCUITS. This is not to say that the brains relational circuits are irrational. In healthy mature brains, they are supra-rational, integrating the very important data which comes from the rational circuits with the relationally meaningful data which comes from other parts of the brain and extended nervous system. In the parable above, the older brother’s rational circuits were working overtime. He had no problem rationally justifying his own indignation. However, his relational circuits were completely shut down, leaving him literally out in the cold. This happens not only between student and teacher, between student and classmate, but also between student and mathematics or student and literature. If the mutuality between knowing and loving is severed, if the relational circuits are closed down, progress will be painful, minimal, and likely enhance the neurotic aspects of both student and teachers’ personalities.
If we are to be instruments of KNOWING and LOVING, as our students need us to be, it requires that we be a certain kind of person ourselves. We must be oriented to KNOWING and LOVING. We must have our relational circuits turned on. If our relational circuits are turned off, we are part of the problem not part of the solution. Below is a simple diagnostic questionnaire to assist in determining if relational circuits are on or off.
- I just want to make a problem, person, or feeling go away.
- I don’t want to listen to what others feel or say.
- My mind is “locked” into something upsetting.
- I don’t want to be connected to someone I usually like.
- I want to get away or fight, or I freeze.
- I more aggressively interrogate, judge or seek to fix others.
If any of the above apply, it’s a safe bet that relational circuits are turned off, that everyone around (consciously or unconsciously) knows that your relational circuits are turned off, that you are now part of the problem rather than the solution, and that the best thing you can do is give yourself a prayerful time-out to allow space to turn the relational circuits back on. Seek the support of someone who has his/her relational circuits turned on. Nothing helps us get our relational circuits back on like being with someone who keeps her/his relational circuits on in spite of us. This is, of course, always the Father’s stance with us. His relational circuits are always open to us.
What are we to be about? To know and to love. This is a worthy goal to put before students and teachers each day of the year.
- Identify a time when you were engaged with a student and both of your relational circuits were turned ON. Describe your experience and that of your student in as detailed a manner as possible.
- Identify a time when you were engaged with a student and both of your relational circuits were turned OFF. Describe your experience and that of your student in as detailed a manner as possible.