School as a Place to Dream
By Noa Mandelbaum
Sometimes I ask people to tell me stories about their school experiences.
Often memories arise out of an impersonal system that operates according to its own unclear logic, opposite which the small child stands, without comprehending. These experiences are clear.
School is first and foremost a socialization machine. It is the place where society trains the next generation to function as citizens that obey the social rules.
Suddenly your wishes, needs and interests are not considered, and you are required to act and succeed in accordance with the expectations of the environment. You're compressed into a packed class with close to 40 children, and share a small table with another student, who, in many cases you did not choose to sit next to. For recess you spill out with a swarm of students into a dense playground. No air, no space, no privacy.
During recess you are exposed to a strict social hierarchy: there are those who it is worthwhile to connect to and others you should avoid. There are worthwhile games and other pursuits belong to those on the sidelines. You must understand the rules, written and unwritten. When are you a good boy, and at what point do you become a tattle-tale? And etiquette in the classroom –you need to ask permission for everything: to get up, move, talk, drink, and eat. You must ask permission even to go to the bathroom. And if a friendship develops between you and your table-mate and you chat for a while, chances are you will be separated. And the material: you are required to take an interest in various areas – but for a specified amount of time. In one day you are required to focus all your interest on history, then math, then English, and then Torah. And someone always tells you, if you don't know- you won't succeed, you won't grow up, you won't have an income or family. If you don't succeed- you won't be a man.
For many children this experience is confusing, depressing and frightening. Many children enter the system when they are curious and enthusiastic and depart when they are bored and cynical.
But there are also other experiences. There are stories about teachers who opened up the world before you. Suddenly you see logic and reasoning, and it is so beautiful. You become open to new ideas and unfamiliar fields of knowledge.
There are other stories, about school as a place to dream.
When I look at school is seems like a combination of the two. Where the child learns he's not the center of the universe; that the world has a system and requirements. There are others. This is important preparation for life as an adult. But school should also be a place that develops a dream. It must raise citizens that believe and dream.
How the school becomes a socialization system, is clear. It is built entirely for this purpose. The question is, how does school maintain the dream? The dream of an administrator, teacher, parent, student.
Ask principals whether they dream. Many say they once dreamt. But today ... The need to work with teachers, schedules, required achievements, parents, students who don't want to learn;the one remaining dream is to get through the day. The dream is over.
Ask teachers if they dream. Many will say they maybe once dreamt of a unique job, developing curiosity, of good relations with students. But today... The lessons, tests, parents, administrators, who can dream? They dream about summer vacation.
And students? They certainly don't dream.They're good students! There's one daydreamer in class. He does everything slowly. If the teacher asks him something he jumps uplike he's been woken. He doesn't succeed in tests, he's just stupid. But they? They don't dream! They're fine.
Each year, new curriculum is introduced into the school in order to refresh the system. New colorful books appear, with challenging tasks. Teachers receive more training, another superintendent enters in order to implement the new curriculum, and the system sinks and sinks.
It needs a dream.
A School's DNA
When a school has a dream it should be embedded in its DNA.
It is not enough to dream and talk about freedom and space, when teachers and students are trapped between stuffy corridors. You can't talk about freedom when the principal fears thesuperintendent and pressures the teachers who in turn tell students that if they don't learn trigonometry they won't graduate and they'll end up cleaning streets.
We need to be sure that the dream is embedded in the school's DNA and that it affects teacher selection and the content of curriculum. The dream needs to be expressed in the schedule and in the diploma. If our dream is curiosity and love of knowledge (for example) then the principal has to be curious and love knowledge. Learning will be integrated in a spontaneous manner into his daily schedule. When he chooses teachers he'll ask what intrigues them, and he'll only accept teachers who are interested in something. A school like this will never have boring teacher training courses. Teachers will be allocated time to teach subjects that interest them.
In such a school the principal and superintendent will encourage teachers to deviate from the lesson if a topic of interest arises. Lessons will be dedicated to topics that interest students, and a way will be found to express the student's progress in his area, with a certificate.
This is how you imprint the dream on the school's DNA.
The Optimal Classroom Atmosphere
Sometimes when you walk into a classroom you feel that it works well. The relationship between the students and the teacher is a good one. The children are engaged in a range of activities and interact respectfully with each other. The teacher is also relaxed. Things go smoothly. It's nice to be in that classroom.
In the second class there's also a lesson, but you can feel the tension in the air. The teacher's voice is tense, and the students seem tense. There is a difference in the atmosphere between the classes.
In order for students to advance in school, for the school values to be internalized and the dream to be preserved, you need a good atmospherein the classroom. The most important talent of the teacher is to create a good atmosphere. Like all art, no exact recipe exists for how to do this, but there are important elements to take into account. The relationship between the teacher and the class: Sometimes the teacher wants to be like a friend, big brother, counselor, mother or father. Sometimes he doesn't want to be a teacher. To create a good atmospherethe teacher needs to be a teacher;to understand that it is his right and duty to be the authority in the classroom. It is his right and duty to leadthe learning, to impart behavior patterns. And the class is a class, not only a collection of individuals.
When a teacher sees a class before him he can ascertain its characteristics.There are lively classes, others are curious, calm or numb. The teacher needs to locate the working center of the class, the students that add via their presence, those who, if they don't show up one day, cause something to be missing in the class. It's important to dedicate maximum attention and develop this center. Make it a leading group. When the teacher's attention is focused on the working core, this center grows strongerand the influence of the margin lessens. The teacher needs to speak less- it is obvious how to work and how to behave. However, if the teacher focuses on every individual personally, the classroom tends to fragment, behavioral norms fade and the teacher finds himself in endless confrontation with principles of discipline. The teacher finds himself focused again and again on the sidelines of the class and they expand until they become the center. When you look at the class as a collection of individuals it becomes a very large family, and the teacher feels compelled to give individual attention to each pupil. As a result he gets tired and burnt out.
When the teacher is good and wants to reach all the students, he naturally devotes much thought to the kids on the sidelines. To foster a good atmospherein the classroom, it is important to be aware of this natural tendency and consciously give some thought to the best students, those that contribute, that make up the working heart of the class, and think less about those that interfere. When the center will work well and the atmosphere in the classroom will be good, then it will be time to note and invest in the marginal students.
Naturally the teacher occupies himself with the problems and difficulties of the class. This focus on all the difficulties is one of the main factors leading to burnout. The difficulties do not remain in the class but rather follow the teacher throughout his day. Intentionally stopping these types of thoughts and setting aside time for positive thinking about the goals of the class, the class' progress and the progress of individual students, willstrengthen the teacher and improve the atmosphere in the classroom.
A good atmosphere is one that suits a particular teacher and classroom, and nurtures their relationship. Lively classes suit me, for instance. It always amazed me how quickly the "good kids" I received at the beginning of the year become a vibrant and bubbly group. When the class is lively, I can teach. Other teachers prefer quiet classrooms. There are teachers whose classes focus on deep social issues, while others accrue educational achievements. When the atmosphere is good it matches the teachers and students.
After we build our dream school we can proceed towards setting goals.