The most important thing school can teach you is…

By Caitlin Kelly

Loved this story in Intelligent Life magazine, which asked seven thinkers and writers what they consider the most essential subject to learn in school.

Still very much an experiental learner
Still very much an experiental learner

Their answers: music, emotional intelligence, cultural literacy, history (backwards), basic geography, open-air dawdling, physics.

Of open-air dawdling, Deb Wilenski answered:

I have worked in the wild outdoors with young children and educators for more than ten years. I work in classrooms too, but there is no better place for dawdling than the woods. Free from the props and expectations of The Curriculum, children become explorers, philosophers, inventors, illustrators, poets, scientists, professionals of every kind.

If I were in charge of education, I would build open-air dawdling into the curriculum, giving every child time, slow time, to explore their own burning questions. The best subject is the one you can’t leave alone.

You need to why this shadow is here...
You need to why this shadow is here…

Here’s Jessica Lahey on cultural literacy:

Consequently, every subject depends on cultural literacy. The underlying warp of the class could be Latin, literature, writing or law, but the weft is all connection, linking new content to the strands of knowledge the students already possess. Words that are utterly forgettable in their dry state of denotation can be retained given connotation and a bit of context. Characters and plot lines that might otherwise slip through holes in attention become memorable when safely tethered by literary allusion.

Before we read Chapter 15 of “Great Expectations”, I tell the story of Cain and Abel. Cain’s jealousy, murderous anger and subsequent exile prepare my students to meet Orlick, the morose journeyman with no liking for Pip. When they read “he would slouch out, like Cain or the Wandering Jew,” they have a nuanced understanding of Orlick, and see why Pip senses that he may become fuel for his ire.

I attended private school Grades 4-9, and am grateful I did, even as I also learned to loathe arbitrary rules, (aren’t they all?!), crummy boarding school food and sharing a bedroom with four strangers.

Slieve League, County Donegal, Ireland -- the world ready for me to explore!
Slieve League, County Donegal, Ireland — the world ready for me to explore!

I still vividly recall our terrifying fifth grade teacher who had us use carbon paper to trace the maps of various countries so we would learn what they looked like and our eighth grade teacher — whose last name rhymed, appropriately enough, with the words gruff, tough and rough — who had us ploughing through The Scarlet Letter, a dictionary necessary for almost every single sentence.

What did I learn that’s most useful to me, decades later?

To question and challenge authority. It’s not a subject taught in any classroom, but it’s a crucial life skill, certainly for a woman, a feminist and, as a journalist, someone paid to ask questions

To trust my judgement. Even as a child, much to some teachers’ frustration, I knew what mattered most to me and fought for my principles.

To see the world as a place worth exploring, as often and widely as possible. Reading work from other cultures, traveling, listening to the stories of people who’d ventured out and come back, whetted my lifelong appetite for more of the same.

To understand that someone expecting excellence of me will bring out my best. I’m a high-octane girl and need a lot of intellectual stimulation and challenge. I’m much happier feeling scared of a difficult assignment from which I’ll learn and grow than bored silly by something mundane and simple.

To write quickly and confidently. Our private school had an annual essay contest, in which Grades 4, 5 and 6 would compete against one another, Grades 7 and 8, Grades 9, 10 and 11 and Grades 12 and 13, (this was Ontario, Canada.) I won the contest in Grade 8, giving me, even then, the confidence I could do this writing thing, well and under pressure. It’s what I’ve been doing for a living for a long time.

This odd little plant was outside our Donegal cottage
This odd little plant was outside our Donegal cottage

To savor nature. Our school grounds had enormous chestnut trees and every fall I’d marvel at the ground littered with their thick, spongy, spiky green casings — and the glossy brown nuts inside them. We’d walk the block every morning, scuffing through leaves or snow. Being alone outdoors also offered a blessed respite from constant company, in class, at meals, in the common room or in our bedrooms.

Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater
Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater

I later studied English literature for four years at University of Toronto, Canada’s highest-ranked, but also learned that I don’t enjoy sitting still for hours being lectured to, no matter how much I love to learn new material. I much preferred my training at the New York School of Interior Design, two decades later, also because choosing color or knowing what materials work best in certain situations has proven a more useful tool day-to-day than the nuances of 16th-century drama.

I don’t envy today’s teachers — competing with (or at best making great use of) technology but also “teaching to the test”.

I fear that some of life’s most important skills, from financial literacy to civics to how our bodies work and how to keep them healthy, have little to no place in most classrooms. We learn them much later, if we’re lucky.

What did you learn in your early years of formal education you still find most useful today?

Why?

Which teacher(s) changed your life?

By Caitlin Kelly

I went back to my Toronto high school, (the same one Margaret Atwood attended), yesterday to guest lecture about what it’s like to write for a living. But if it hadn’t been for the powerful encouragement of my English teachers there — Mr. Bullen and Mr. Bickell, one who has since died and one retired — would I even have become a writer?

Or felt as confident of my choice?

From my earliest years, I was winning awards for my writing, a clue that this might be a good choice for me vocationally. We look to teachers, for better or worse, for adult appraisals of our talents and skills. A cruel or indifferent teacher can crush us, (and often does), pushing us away from a life we might have enjoyed or thrived in had we simply ignored them.

Our teachers, from early childhood on, leave powerful and lasting impressions on who we are and what we might become.

English: Teachers from the Exploratorium's Tea...
English: Teachers from the Exploratorium’s Teacher Institute examine the “String Thing” they built. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like you, I suspect, I can still name my grade school teachers and some of their quirks, like Miss Dalton, ferocious and Irish, who taught us to memorize the shape of countries by tracing their borders with carbon paper or Miss Brough, (rhymes with rough!), who had us use dictionaries in Grade Eight to read The Scarlet Letter. Every fresh paragraph meant flipping it open to find a new word — but she taught us never to fear the unfamiliar.

My ninth-grade English teacher, in my most turbulent and unhappy year at private school, left the most lasting impression of all. She was tall, strikingly beautiful, with long, thick black hair and single. Unlike most our ancient, widowed or never-married staff, she offered a vision of someone we might like to become.

I was a mess then: angry, lonely, in trouble all time. Yet she was kind to me and treated me with the same attention as the better–behaved students in her class, for which I was miserably grateful.

In high school, bullied, I was difficult again. This time it was Ana, (we could — daringly — first-name her!), our Yugoslav art teacher, who added joy, beauty and humor to our tedious suburban Toronto days.

I ran into her years later and she introduced me, affectionately, to a fellow teacher’s wife: “This is Caitlin. She was always pain in ass.” True.

But she loved me anyway and, like Ms. Z.,  had still welcomed me into her classroom, her compassion and calm a needed refuge for me.

English: A special education teacher assists o...
English: A special education teacher assists one of her students. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In their classrooms, I was allowed to be all of me: smart, sassy, funny, difficult. There were consequences, but there was also badly-needed comfort, acceptance and encouragement of a messy, creative complicated girl.

Great teachers see the pilot lights that flicker within us, that of our possibility and potential, sometimes long before we even know it’s there. They help us ignite the flame of our passion — for biology or German or computers or watercolors — that may light and warm us, possibly for decades to come.

A great teacher can also help us grow (up) emotionally and intellectually, can show us a different, perhaps more useful or social or interesting way of being or thinking or behaving than what we see inside our own families or amongst our peers.

My husband, Jose, is a photo editor at The New York Times, and helped them win a Pulitzer prize for photos taken on 9/11. He’s photographed the Olympics, three Presidents, war, Superbowls.

He was once, though, a minister’s son in Santa Fe, modestly expecting, and expected to become a teacher, as had many of his relatives.

But in tenth grade a teacher saw some photos he had taken for the high school yearbook. Mrs. Frank told him he had talent and should consider pursuing it as a career; when some of his basketball photos ended up in the local paper, that was it.

Career chosen!

I’ve done a fair bit of teaching — at the undergraduate college level, and to adults. I love it. It’s such a thrill when students “get it.”

Here’s a powerful and moving video about a teacher in Los Angeles — faced with suicide attempts by fifth-graders — determined to help her young students feel good about themselves.

Which teacher most affected you and your later life?

How and why?

As a teacher — which I know many of you are — how do you feel about your power to affect your students?