First, Do no Harm

“First, do no harm,” or, “Above all, do no harm,” while not actually a part of the Hippocratic Oath, as I (and, apparently, many other people) had assumed, is still a well-known and often-quoted medical principle. It could equally well serve as a pedagogical principle: I am thinking of putting it up in my classroom, perhaps so that the saying faces me as I stand in front of my class. Primum non nocere, as it goes in Latin, is not an easy promise to keep, either in medicine or in education. It is so easy to cause real harm while not intending to, even while operating with what feel like the very best of intentions.

Part of the difficulty, of course, is that we have other commitments: to teach the state standards, to maintain an orderly classroom, to preserve at least a possibility of higher test scores. How we do in fulfilling these commitments is closely tied to our sense of having “done our job”, and our sense of security in our job. On the other hand, we want much more than this. We want students to leave our class with good memories, and with something that they can use in their lives. We would like to inspire them, encourage them, open new horizons for them.

My greatest longing as a teacher is to give my students an experience that is life-affirming and life-enhancing, not life-draining. Still, after four full years in the classroom, I often face a class with the dispiriting sense that I am no closer to having a clue how to make this happen.

It’s not that I feel that I have done no good. Last week, while working quietly in my classroom in preparation for the upcoming school year, I had two former students reach out to me via social media on two successive days. Both of them dropped out of high school just last spring. Both of them simply wanted to let me know how they are doing. One wrote to tell me that he is getting vocational training as a cement mason, and enjoying it. He will soon be a father. The other told me of his progress on the Rubik’s cube and related puzzles, and thanked me for encouraging his interest. He also wrote some really nice things about me as a teacher.

Instances like this are encouraging to me, albeit in a complex way. In the helping professions, we tend to view success in terms of more measurable impacts on the lives of those we serve. By that standard, it would have been more impressive if the two young men had decided, because of me, not to drop out of high school. I clearly had a positive impact on both of them, but it was more through being a decent human being. My relation to them is, perhaps, a good example of primum non nocere.

I am, however, coming to appreciate more and more the value of this basic human decency, this common courtesy and consideration. Indeed, I am beginning to wonder if it might be, after all, a sufficiently worthy legacy for anyone. This is because I have been pondering the centrality of our selfhood, and self-concept, to the endeavor to make our lives productive and meaningful. How do we, in turn, affect other people’s self-concept? That is what determines whether we do harm, or even, perhaps, do great good.

This is where it is so heartbreakingly easy to fail our students. Simply failing to build a scaffold strong enough to support their climb to success is enough to make them feel like failures; simply leaving them open to the ridicule of their peers is enough to further damage their self-concept, even if we would never dream of ridiculing them ourselves. They come to us with self-concepts already so strained and fragile that they can crumble at the least sign of difficulty in our lesson. Yes, it is easy to complain about this fragility in the teachers’ lounge, and opine that what we are really failing to teach is “toughness”. But I can’t think that it is that simple.

Every year, I become increasingly aware that between teacher and student there is a fragile, unwritten contract that can be broken in a moment, but is not easily repaired. The student says, in effect, “I will leave open the possibility of learning from you, as long as you can assure me that what we are doing is worth my time, and that my efforts will be rewarded with success within a reasonable time frame.” I admire (envy?) the teachers who can keep this contract intact with all their students, all year long. I still lose too many, despite my considerable good will.

If I am ever going to change this, as I must, if only for my own sanity and survival in the teaching profession, it will require not getting mired either in self-accusation, or in excuses. It won’t help to conclude that I am simply incompetent, or that it is just the nature of the subject (geometry) that I teach. I have to focus on what I can control.

In that spirit, I spent the first two weeks of my (unpaid) August prep time carefully scripting lessons for the first few weeks of school, determined that this year I would finally get all my ducks in a row. I would teach classroom procedures flawlessly and faithfully from day one, and lay a solid foundation of basic math skills and vocabulary that I could build on all year. I scripted and scripted, and, as I worked, the 46 minutes that I have with my students every day seemed to shrink and shrink, cutting out all activities but a hurried cycle of presentation and practice. My three-week basic math review unit was packed to the gills with only the barest essentials, and, even so, it was taking on the shape of a soul-killing juggernaut at the start of the year. Forget a “honeymoon period”–I began to wonder if my unwritten contract with students would make it out of September. In addition, I had progressively, if reluctantly, eliminated every creative or exploratory activity that could make the start of the year fun for me.

At the end of the second week I had a sudden, powerful impulse to trash the whole plan and experiment with a democratic classroom and problem-based learning (PBL). In a wild swing back to my radical heart, I asked myself what good it would do me to spend years becoming an expert at teaching in a way that I don’t even like. I envisioned handing my students a copy of the state standards on the first day, and asking them, “Where do we go from here?” I imagined letting them play with shape patterns, and gambling everything on the chance of igniting their curiosity. I wrote up a radical credo on what kind of student I actually wanted to produce in my classroom, and why it had to start with democracy.

And then, of course, I woke up the next morning terrified. I could see my classes descending into hopeless chaos and anarchy, while I floundered helplessly through a succession of increasingly desperate attempts to gain their interest, until I aborted the experiment much too late to save either the school year, or my self-respect.

So, here I am. I’m not very good at halfway measures, or gradual adjustments. My heart wants to be a facilitator, conducting a symphony of vigorous, vibrant, self-directed student exploration that somehow still manages to cover the state standards and lead my students to triumphant results on standardized testing day. My head appraises my chances of pulling this off as slightly less than my chances of winning the state lottery (slim, seeing that I don’t play).

What will it take for me to “do no harm?” A few things are immediately clear. First, no matter what pedagogical approach I am using, there is no reason for me to depart from my conviction that education is not a doing-to, but a being-with. Simply being with my students in the middle of the school experience, however flawed, makes it more human. Second, even if I cannot avoid some degree of doing-to, some “edumacating”, I can at least ask their permission. And I can apologize, when that is due. I can be honest about my true aims, and even, to a degree, about my fears. I can confess my dilemmas, and openly acknowledge the drawbacks and limitations of my system, and of the school system. And I can share with them my hopes, my dreams for the classroom we could be, and my desire to experiment, to grow, and to learn. With that out on the table, I can express my determination to give them a voice in everything that I can, and to respect their voice. I can follow that up by making it my priority to seek out their individual voices on a regular basis.

Is it time to take the plunge and teach from my heart, come what may? Certainly not without making sure that my administrator is on board, and giving my students full disclosure and a choice. Even then, there is certainly an argument that full implementation of a democratic classroom and inquiry-based learning should wait until I am able to do a lot more research and collaboration with experienced educators in my subject area. Retreating to safety, however, is not an option. The mandate, “Do no harm,” compels me to question every practice that drains the vitality from my students, and thus, ultimately, every way of teaching that does not bring my own vitality to the fullest expression.

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