Alas, poor teachers–I knew them, dude!

Near the end of Shakespeare’s Hamlet we find one of the most famous scenes in all of literature.  Prince Hamlet and his friend Horatio find themselves in a graveyard with skulls and bones scattered on the ground around them.  Hamlet picks up a skull which he learns belonged to his father’s former court jester, Yorick.  Hamlet is fascinated with the skull, and begins a monologue on the finality of death.  So famous are his words on the horrors of the grave that it is easy to miss the significance of his actual words about Yorick himself: “Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio! A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.”

Here is Yorick’s entire life summed up with words that we today might render as, “Poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio. He was a funny guy.”

Whether Hamlet grasps the significance of his words is unclear, but Shakespeare certainly does–there is something both dramatically tragic and existentially absurd in the summation of a man’s entire life in a few brief words, and such trivial, empty words at that.  Hamlet is tormented by his fear of the grave, but Shakespeare is troubled by the way all of our endeavours are so easily forgotten, dismissed, and trivialized by those who remember us–assuming, of course, that they remember at all.  If you wanted to know what kind of a person Yorick had been, what kind of achievements he was proud of, how he loved, laughed, and celebrated the world around him, you would need to ask someone other than Hamlet, who would only shrug and say, “Yorick was a funny guy.”

I thought of poor Yorick after attending a high school graduation banquet tonight.  During a tribute to the teachers presented by some of the graduating students, a number of teachers were mentioned with little commentary or exposition other than humorous (and occasionally perjorative) anecdotes.  Instead of hearing about the teachers’ educational achievements, we heard things like, “You guys remember the time Mr. Smith couldn’t get the projector working? That was funny!” or “How about the time Billy fell asleep in Mrs. Jones’ class? Wasn’t that hilarious?” (Mr. Smith, Mrs. Jones, and Billy, obviously, were not the actual names).

I couldn’t help but wonder what those teachers were thinking as they heard all of the time, energy, passion, and effort they spent teaching students being reduced to a punchline.  “Alas, poor teacher–I knew him! Remember the time he lost his keys?”  As a teacher myself, the experience was somewhat disheartening and depressing.  One of the students giving the presentation said, quite candidly, that it was sad that her greatest memory of school was the day the building flooded and classes were cancelled.  At least she recognized the irony.

It makes me wonder what it would take for students to be genuinely inspired by the things they do in school, so that their experiences become a source of authentic amazement rather than sentimentalized humour.  I believe that teachers themselves need to take responsibility for the legacy of their classrooms.  If students, when leaving high school, can think of nothing to say about their experiences other than a few funny stories, it seems unreasonable to blame the students themselves.  They are, after all, merely being honest.  As teachers we must see it as our responsibility to create such profound learning experiences that students will value not only their extracurricular activities (which they seek out because they already value the activity to begin with) but the core curriculum itself. 

The problem of teachers failing to inspire students is hardly a new one.  In 1938 the great education philosopher John Dewey posed the following rhetorical questions, questions that are depressingly familiar:

How many students are rendered callous to ideas, and how many lose the impetus to learn because of the way in which learning is experienced by them? How many acquire special skills by means of automatic drill so that their power of judgment and capacity to act intelligently in new situations is limited? How many come to associate the learning process with ennui and boredom?

If students find little in the classroom other than rote skill acquisition, boredom, and ennui, is it any wonder they have little to say at the end of their time besides amusing anecdotes?

The what, of course, is the easy part.  It’s the how that is so perplexing. 

This is an especially personal issue for me because lately my third-grade daughter has been finding school to be discouraging drudgery–for the first time in her short academic career.  It just seems wrong to me that I should be telling my nine-year-old “hang in there” and “school doesn’t always have to be fun” and “just try to do what the teacher says.”  Should I really have to encourage a third grader with the axiom, “Don’t let school destroy your love for education”?

Right now I have no answers.  It’s past midnight and I’m very tired and, frankly, overwhelmed with the scope of the problem.  But I know one thing: I am haunted by the words of that young woman at the banquet, who described her favorite day of high school as the day it was cancelled.

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