Envisioning the people we want our students to be

by Mr. Sheehy

In discussing education in America recently a friend of mine posited that we have lost the framework where we craft certain kinds of people. The idea for him was that we no longer look at what we are doing and ask, “What kind of people are we trying to shape?” I’d partially defend public education by claiming that we sort of do this–we often say we want to foster intelligent and capable citizens–but I do admit that from my room that vision of the kind of people we want our students to be gets lost amidst standards and benchmarks and learning targets.

Yet when I think it through, it seems like the big picture goal matters most. I’ve worked through this idea before–like that post I wrote about Tony Dungy and Lance Armstrong a few months back, where I lauded Dungy’s separation of goals and purposes. Our purpose is the big picture thing–why we’re here, what we’re ultimately trying to do. Our goals hopefully fall underneath and assist that purpose.

As a teacher, what kind of people am I trying to foster, to shape? When I ask that question, my poem-of-the-day and book-a-quarter assignments make perfect sense, because I’m trying to shape people who are not afraid of something beautiful or something challenging, people who have read a few of the great books and a few of the great poems of our culture. Yet when I look at the goals of my curriculum, the assignments’ sense garbles. I end up creating strange tasks to go along with the assignments to meet those benchmarks. Sometimes, I am convinced, those tasks actually knock me off my big, purpose-path. Thus, I admit, I sometimes have abandoned such assignments because they do not help me to meet the goals which I am obligated to achieve.

That means I created the assignment because it accomplished my purpose, but I abandoned it because it did not help me to accomplish my goals.

With parenting I have no such restrictions, and I thoroughly appreciate the authority our culture has (thus far) allowed me to retain. Of course I am no bigger an expert at parenting than I am at teaching, and if there is a dominant, recurring feeling I have regarding my professional expertise in the classroom, it is inadequacy; yet with parenting, despite my feeling of inadequacy, I am able to picture what it is I want my children to be and shepherd them in that direction without the interference of others’ goals.

What I want them to be is people of character. Yes, I’d like them to be educated and I hope they enjoy reading and the life of the mind and imagination, but those are not the purpose. The purpose is to guide them so they can become people of selfless and generous character, people who consider others’ interests above their own, people who recognize and appreciate truth and beauty. In short, people who love the Lord their God with all their heart, all their soul, all their mind, and all their strength , and people who love their neighbors as themselves.

Yet even with this idea it helps to have a picture of what it is I hope for, and this is where other people’s kids can play a nice role. I have friends whose kids are the kinds of people I hope my kids can be, character wise. Seeing them helps to encourage me and solidifies me in the nobility of our purpose.

Then today I read an article on Chad Arnold’s blog that brought this to the forefront. Chad’s story is maddeningly sad, and I encourage you to read about it in a pair of AP articles here and here. After his liver transplant he began writing about his struggles on a blog called Come Too Far. Yesterday he relinquished the writing duties to Annie, his 10-year old niece, who shared some of her thoughts since Ryan–her uncle and Chad’s brother–died:

There are some things in the world that we just don’t understand, like how God has, and will, live for eternity, and how we can live forever, too, with God. It’s hard to understand, but we will someday and it may not be today or tomorrow but someday it will happen. Like the Bible says, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.” (John 10:28) I know that this life is like a grain of sand on the beach, and all the other sand on the beach is like all of eternity. What I’d like to say is, “The perished have not perished, only gone from this world.” I know it sounds kind of weird but it’s true.

The impact of Annie’s words are strong and varied for me after following Chad’s story for a few months, but one tangential thought dominated my response: here is the kind of person I want my children to be. Ten-year old Annie and the compassion and faith and maturity that she expresses in her writing is precisely what I hope for for my children. It’s a glimpse of the purpose under which my wife and I are crafting our goals.

I haven’t sorted out all my thinking on this topic in a way I’d like to; I have been hoarding a pile of related thoughts for at least a month waiting until I had the time to write a draft of my thinking, but reading Annie’s account moved me enough that I wanted to share a few of the strands that have been hanging out of my ears.

The notecard, by the way, is a note our six-year old wrote inside the place card she’d made for one of her uncles over Thanksgiving weekend.

Thanks for reading.