As we mature as an educator, we become better at understanding the lived experience of our students. We start to see patterns and we become more nuanced in our ability to predict and pre-empt. We practise and refine our empathic response and we gain perspective.
Perspective empowers us to see the world through a different lens – through the eyes of our students.
Except, it doesn’t, actually.
When artists first started utilising linear perspective in their paintings in the 15th century, they did so to create an illusion of distance and depth. Perspective in art is a trick of the mind – enabling us to ‘see’ three dimensions on a flat surface.
And when we ‘see’ the world through the eyes of our students, this too is an illusion – a trick of the mind. Whilst we can, and should, try as hard as we can to understand the lives of our students, we are constrained by biological and physical realities. We can never really know what it is like inside their worlds.
However, when we accept this paradox – being obliged to strive for something we can never achieve: true perspective – we invite an enhanced level of respect for the individuality of each of our students and remain more present to their reality.
Each student sees their world through the lens of their unique life journey – their unique perspective. But whilst we can never truly ‘take’ their perspective, and they can never truly ‘share’ it, in classrooms characterised by safety, respect, trust and individualised connection, we can come pretty close. Close enough, that we no longer need tricks of the mind.
On the one hand, pattern recognition is perhaps the greatest and most finely tuned skill of the human brain. We learn language by identifying specific patterns of sounds repeatedly occurring in similar contexts. The face of a friend or relative easily stands out to us as we scan a crowded room. And within a second of hearing that famous ‘F with a G on top‘ chord, we know we’re about to hear A Hard Day’s Night.
On the other hand, our heavy reliance on pattern recognition also causes problems. Visual illusions, implicit discrimination and racism, the allure of gambling, and conspiracy theories are all perceptual quirks that trace back to our pattern recognition system.
And we need to be particularly careful when we see familiar patterns in a child’s character or behaviour that causes us to perceive them as a certain ‘type’ of kid (sporty, musical, resilient, nerdy, naughty, etc). As tempting as it can be, the moment we begin ‘typing’ students is the moment we start blurring the beauty (and sometimes pain) of their individuality – we start devaluing their unique story.
In a speech in 1923, the famous Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung, noted that: every individual is an exception to the rule.
It’s when we take time, as educators, to stand back and really look at the face of each of our students that we know that Jung was right. There are, in fact, no ‘types‘ of students.
Sometimes educators fall into the trap of viewing their ‘class’ as a unified being. It’s not. There are no ‘good’ classes and ‘bad’ classes. A class actually consists of many entirely unique individuals who tend to be roughly the same age, at the same place, with a similar purpose in mind.
But behind the face of each of these young individuals is a lifetime of stories that we, as educators, can never fully appreciate.
If we use some major Australian and international research studies to help us think about the composition of a ‘class’ statistically, we might recognise that, in the course of the year, a typical ‘class’ of 25 Year 8 students looks something like this:
- 4 students are experiencing a diagnosable mental health condition (only 1 of these will seek professional help);
- 2 students are self-harming;
- 2 students will seriously consider a suicide attempt;
- 2 students will be experiencing some form of family breakdown at home;
- 5 students are unsure of their sexuality and 3 will end up being LGBTI;
- 5 students don’t make friends easily at school;
- 7 students feel that they “don’t belong at school”.
…and many of our students are happy and engaged.
But it is these kinds of statistics that help remind us that our job is not to teach science or geography or Grade 5, and it’s not to teach our ‘class’. Our job is to compassionately guide, nurture and teach each unique child.
[Sources: PISA 2015, Australian Human Rights Commission, Beyond Blue]