Prior to working as a teacher at a Hillsdale College-affiliated BCSI school, I held several different jobs in traditional public education. Working with students from Pre-K through 12th grade, I served as an ESL paraprofessional, library aide, and preschool recess monitor, among other roles. I had the privilege to observe many experienced, compassionate educators and learned much that I use in my classroom today about managing and connecting with students. I also worked with some wonderful students who faced real adversity, both academic and otherwise. I remember them fondly to this day. My experience working these jobs was a huge blessing to me.
While I held these positions, though, I was always baffled that I received so little instruction on what exactly I was supposed to do. In some roles, the job of support staff was more clear due to the nature of the position (don’t let kids kick each other at recess), but no one ever told me what my 12th grade immigrant students needed to know to graduate, or what sorts of books would be best to read aloud in elementary library, or perhaps most significantly, what I should teach a 5th grader who spoke no English to get him to read. Although I did receive some feedback and encouragement from my supervisors, they were not overly concerned with what I taught or to what level the students mastered material. They just wanted me to show up and teach something. I was surprised that no one seemed more concerned that what I did would actually help the students learn.
Although I did receive some feedback and encouragement from my supervisors, they were not overly concerned with what I taught or to what level the students mastered material. They just wanted me to show up and teach something.
One of the things that first struck me about classical education first struck me is its strong, and seemingly revolutionary, claim that learning matters. At a classical school, students are not just passing through classes without having to prove that they have mastery of particular material. They must complete a specific curriculum, carefully chosen and honed in its teaching. As a result of these lessons, the students must be able to read and compose well. They must understand the way that numbers work and articulate their functions. They must know the stories and ideas that have shaped our civilization well enough to share them with someone else. The education is rigorous because mastery matters. Classical education expects students to learn the material.
But even now, as I teach this curriculum, I can’t help thinking of students I’ve taught, old and new, those who were so disadvantaged in one way or another, and ask myself, would this curriculum be too much for them? Does it matter what their achievement is, as long as they try? Can a curriculum of this sort truly be taught in a public school? Can it truly be for everyone?
Students can not come to a classical school and go through the motions of learning without learning.
Our school serves every student that walks through our doors. And certainly not all students boast the exact same level of mastery of the curriculum we teach. But, all students do master curriculum. Students can not come to a classical school and go through the motions of learning without learning. The curriculum and the teachers do not allow it. Students must engage. They must acquire actual knowledge and skill, because the teachers and the curriculum demand it of them and care that they learn their lessons. We, the teachers, are not speaking lessons at them in hopes that something sticks. We are doing whatever we can to train the students to be students: to be open to new information, absorb it, interact with it, and think about it. The rigor of classical education is not difficulty for difficulty’s sake or some effort to ensure perfect SAT scores for our students. The rigor is that students actually must learn, day in and day out, ongoing the laborious process of acquiring new thoughts, which requires humility, perseverance, and self-government from teacher and student alike.
So, classical education is for everyone. Everyone can learn. And everyone can master material. We are after that learning. Not the score. Not the number. Not the diploma. But learning.
I certainly gained much as an educator working at traditional public school schools, and I want to hope I taught the students something worth knowing. But as a classical school teacher, I have the confidence that I’m teaching good things to my students and that my students are truly benefiting from it.