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Learning at its Best

I Want to Play

I wonder how many public school teachers out there hit that place where they realize that the best teaching isn’t teaching. It’s a canvas or a novel or a mural or whatever. God, I love teaching. Seriously. But sometimes I wonder if it’s the best venue. I wonder if what I really love is mentoring and writing. I wonder if maybe I’m wasting too much time in a system so hell-bent on test prep when what I want to do is tell a story or paint a picture or meet one-on-one with someone whose life is falling apart.

Track with me. I promise. I’m getting to a point. Maybe.

I met with a kid named Johnny from fifth grade through early college. LIfe got busy for both of us, but we never quit thinking and praying for each other and meeting whenever we could. I’ve watched him graduate college and own a home and live out a dream that he was barely able to articulate back when he was a travieso in the fifth grade.

He sent me a message on Facebook that led me to tears.

In this note, he wrote, “I miss you and also wanted to say thank you for making a huge effect in my life. I greatly appreciate everything you have done for me. You’re a one of a kind person and I just wanted to take this time to tell you that. People wait until someone dies to say, ‘thanks for what you did.’ I want to tell you right now: THANK YOU!  May god (I’m not sure he can be a proper noun yet) bless you and your beautiful family. Thanks for always being there for me when times were hard and you stuck with me through it all. I love you man and I hope we can hang soon. I haven’t forgotten about the stranger who made such a major impact in my.”

I could have written him that same letter . . . but I was too scared, I guess. And here’s the thing: his sentiments can’t be measured in a test. And neither can the fact that he saved me from suburbia. I re-read that message over and over again with tears in my eyes. I can’t say that I’ve had the same impact on my students and here’s why:

We played.

Every week.

We shot baskets late enough that he wasn’t able to finish his homework. We played nine-ball and eight ball at the Y. We went skiing with a large group. We laughed. We read books together. And through that play, we shared our lives. We both had a chance to be vulnerable. We both grew. I am a different man because of his story and he is a different man because of me.

I can’t do that as a teacher. I have to wear a tie. I have to go by Mr. Spencer. I have to be professional. I have to graph data. I’m in charge. I have to teach linear equations. I can have an impact, but it is impact minus play and as such it is anemic at best.

I used to eat carne asada at his home. He ate tater tot casserole at my home. We knew each other on a relational level. I was never Mr. Spencer. I was always John. The awkward, jeans and t-shirt, intellectual guy who wanted so badly for him to succeed – not just academically, but in life. And he was always Johnny, that kid who trusted me enough to share his life with me and who radically transformed my life.

I think professional educators have a hard time believing in mentoring because we are told to be distant. There are so many liabilities – mostly to  avoid being sued. And maybe that’s for the best. But I know this much: the greatest impact I ever had as a teacher was when I wasn’t a teacher. I’m not sure what to do with that, either.

Johnny and I played and as a result, neither of us is the same.

I’m not sure what the vision of education should be in the future. But I know this much: it has to be a relationship and that relationship has to include play.

About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


9 thoughts on “I Want to Play

  1. Very touching. Thank you for sharing. So sad about the litigation situation, especially in the US.

    Posted by homeschoolingpenny | March 23, 2012, 3:42 am
  2. what I’ve found to
    to deliberately not teach.. but rather mentor alongside… and be mentored alongside.

    connections and transparency.. a better currency.

    thank you John..

    Posted by monika hardy | March 23, 2012, 8:25 am
  3. What you said here sounds so right, John. I have great times with my students when we’re goofing around and sharing stories. Play is the key, we just need to find ways to make it fit our “school” situation. Our students are way too young for all this test prep, compete with world fear. Why can’t our kids just be kids?

    Posted by Alfonso Gonzalez (@educatoral) | March 23, 2012, 9:30 am
  4. I agree with Alfonso. Why can’t our kids just be kids? Why isn’t it enough for them to be happy human beings? When I read this part of your piece, ” God, I love teaching. Seriously. But sometimes I wonder if it’s the best venue. I wonder if what I really love is mentoring and writing.” I thought, “Yes! I could have written that exact thing!” I love teaching, but what I really love is forming positive relationships with students, helping them see their strengths, and growing along with them. I don’t really want to be the one in charge because that power structure is false anyway. And it only works if we can trick students into believing it, which means tricking them into giving up control of their own lives, and that’s not what I’m in the business of teaching to do.

    Posted by jaimerwood | March 23, 2012, 11:55 am
  5. It’s good that you shared this, John – it’s not impossible to have a profession or school system that is more tater-tot-casserole and less linear-ties.

    What do your kids think of play at school? Are they ready to play like Johnny was, or do they feel like school places limitation on them like those you describe feeling yourself?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 24, 2012, 9:02 am
  6. Great post. Play and being in relationship with one another. These aren’t captured on the standardized test but make all the difference in real people’s lives. We all have to keep finding opportunities to build play into our role. I really like that in our school we are called “guides” follwed by our first name. I know I’m much more comfortable in a guiding role.

    Posted by kaseyerrico | March 24, 2012, 5:43 pm
  7. Oh John, your posts just keep getting better and better. This is super beautiful and moving to me. Thank you for this.

    I just came from the International Democratic Education Conference in Puerto Rico, where someone in the audience memorably said, “I love to learn, I just hate being taught.”

    Your post adds a wonderful piece here.


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | March 28, 2012, 1:51 pm
  8. John, I, too, enjoy reading your posts. You establish relationships with your students and treat them with the respect and humanity too many do not. I always tell my own students that we are all discovering our humanity all the time, if we know how to look, and listen, and observe to ourselves as well as to how others react to us. These are the traits and skills I work to develop in my own middle school humanities class.

    Chad, though, posits a really important question and one that we all might bring to our students: How do our students feel? What do they think about play in school? Given their indoctrination into a system that often (not always) bleeds play and curiosity and creativity out of this very human act of learning…given that the joy and pleasure of finding things out is rarely an end in and of itself…I have to wonder if, in the stupefaction so induced, they wouldn’t see play as something inimical to learning rather than natural.

    I hear students wonder why learning in my class is so different. Many of them don’t “get it” at first. Years later, like John, I hear from students who finally see it. They might be at the end of their high school years, they might be in college, or they might be lawyers or in foreign service…but they get back to me. And they understand. It is these connections that justify what I, what we, do.

    I use the Touchstones Discussion project in my 7th and 8th grade classes and one of the most powerful reading selections we use is “The Parable of the Greedy Sons”, which is a tale from Persia. In the story a farmer tries to teach his lazy and greedy sons about hard work and the rewards of such labor. The sons don’t figure it out until years after their father’s death. At the end, the parable posits the analogy that “The teacher, like the farmer, is faced with students who are lazy, greedy, and impatient. He has to get them to do something he knows is good for them, but whose true purpose is hidden from them because they are so young.”

    In the end, that analogy…that story is indicative of the way I’ve always tried to understand what it is we do. As well, it guides me in that, much like John, treating students as humans in the becoming (Hell! Aren’t we all?) rather than vessels and repositories of and for static knowledge is, in the end, the most important goal I have for myself and thus, for my students.

    For all those here who ask themselves the same questions John asks (and they are important, vital questions for any teacher to ask), I’d like to suggest the work of William Glasser. His books THE QUALITY SCHOOL and THE QUALITY SCHOOL TEACHER have had a far greater impact on my methods than any class I ever took in college or since. Glasser urges teachers to employ “Choice Theory” in the classroom (his psychological theory of human action). He argues that humans are driven by 5 basic needs: Love/belonging, power, freedom, fun, survival (I use the mnemonic “Little People Find Fun in School”). If we can create classrooms and lessons that meet these basic needs, we can transform our classrooms into something that I think would very much include the relational aspect that John so clearly identifies…something that might very well be the kinds of classrooms we need to create a future we all can believe in.

    Now…to find some easter eggs.

    Posted by Garreth Heidt | April 8, 2012, 9:01 am

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