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Courtney Langton

Courtney is an aspiring high school teacher. Her teachables are History and English, but she's happy to teach anything that doesn't involve numbers or formulas. Her particular interest is in promoting gender equity and anti-oppression both in and outside the classroom. She writes a detailed To-Do list every morning, and enjoys nothing more than a good book and a plate of bacon on a rainy Saturday.

Jonathan Wong

Jonathan's primary interest is moral education. His teachable subjects are English and Music. He encourages critical thinking and hopes to teach his students to recognize, and strive for, what is truly important to them without forgetting to be compassionate, tolerant, and open-minded along the way. He likes making analogies and his favourite is one that compares life to jumping on a trampoline.

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Young Teachers and Idealism
Tuesday, July 14, 2009

I was having a discussion the other day about my worldviews/outlook on life and somebody pointed out that I manage to be very realistic while strangely maintaining a very idealistic outlook on life. And I wanted to take some time to outline why I think this brand of realism/idealism hybrid is important to being a good educator.

William Blake once wrote two sets of poems titled The Songs of Innocence and The Songs of Experience. As you may be able to guess from the poem titles, Blake writes about different things/ideas/themes from the viewpoint of what we might call "Innocence" and "Experience." The most notable thing about the comparison between these two sets of poems (to summarize something that took Dr. Morrison something like 2 weeks to illustrate in full) is how idealistic the songs of innocence are compared to the realism in the songs of experience.

I use Blake in this case because these two sets of poems are perfect to illustrating the gap that I think we, as educators, need to realize we are bridging (also, I like to reference Dr. Morrison wherever possible). As The Songs of Innocence demonstrate, there is no question that there is something amazing and hopeful about being young and innocent (like some of our students). There are many things that students learn in school (and from home) that are good and right and wholesome because they're sheltered. They learn to play fair. They learn that hard work pays off. They learn that it's important to be polite and respectful. They believe that they can do whatever they want if they put their mind to it. They learn, in fact, some very important principles about how to BE a good person. And if our education system is any good, they are taught that they can succeed based on these principles alone. They learn about how things SHOULD be and they are taught they if something isn't as it should be, that they have the power and responsibility to put it right.

The other side of this is the harsh reality that these principles do not always hold true in real life. Corporate life is particularly notorious for this but life in general will probably be enough to eventually show them that reality is far closer to the ideas that Blake writes about in The Songs of Experience. Not to say that real life doesn't have components that abide by the principles they learn in school, but we also know that in real life, you're sometimes rewarded for cheating; for stepping on people; for ignoring those in need.

As teachers, then, we have a very very thin line to tread. We're responsible for preparing our students for the harsh realities of life without extinguishing the fire that can sometimes, even if it only happens once in a million times, lead to the type of change that revolutionizes the world for the better. In a sense, we have to be able to say "Life isn't fair, but it should be." We have to be able to teach them "This is the reality of the world" while at the same time telling them "You have the power to make it a better place." Because, like Dr. Morrison said, we can't just float them through school and thrust them into the real world without preparing them for what the real world is like; they would get eaten alive. But at the same time, it's important that those students who have the strength, the drive, and the ideas that lead to positive change, aren't discouraged by the possibility that they might fail.

One of the greatest fears I have of growing old is the possibility that I might lose the ability to balance these two perspectives. It's no secret that "idealism" is almost always paired with "youth" when people talk about being "young and idealistic". And I always consider that to be a very sad truth about being in the workforce for a long time. So to my fellow teacher candidates, I am outlining this to you now, in hopes that we will all be able to look back on the days when we were young and idealistic and remember that, while the world will constantly be looking for opportunities to convince us that it will never get better, there's a reason why we continue to allow our students to think idealistically, and why we embrace the innocence of youth. It's because these are the parts of us that are worth being proud of and deep down, we understand that it's important:

To love
To trust
To forgive
To apologize
To take chances and give chances
To take responsibility for what you've down and the people you've affected
To be considerate of other people's feelings
To think critically and intelligently
To be interesting
To adapt
And, in the eternal words of Dr. Morrison, to be compassionate, tolerant, and open-minded.

Maybe your students will change the world for the better. Maybe they won't. But as educators, we have to do our part in convincing them that they all have the ability to make a difference. In the eternal words of Norman Cousins, "The starting point for a better world is the belief that it's possible."

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