To My Students: What I Want For You – Part 1 (from 12-16-12)

Dear Students,

I am your teacher – for a time. We will spend a year, maybe three if I loop with you, together. You may remember my class fondly for many years. You may remember my class as a torture chamber you need to recover from once you escape. You may forget you were ever in my class the minute you leave on the last day of school.

But that is not what I want for you.

It may appear that I want you to be merely obedient, well behaved, and hard working because it will make my life easier. But that is not the case. I cannot speak for all teachers, but if I’d wanted an easy life, I would have chosen a different career path.

So if I don’t want merely want good behavior and hard work, what do I want?

I do indeed want you to understand the importance of following rules. Many, if not most, rules are a contract between members of society that make life run more smoothly. When people break those rules by driving on the wrong side of the road, by stealing, by committing violence – by disrupting class – they are hurting other people. They are hurting the community. And so mindful obedience for the good of all, and for your own good, is necessary. What you do, or don’t do, affects everyone around you. When you blurt out or have incessant side-conversations, you make it harder for me to teach, and harder for you and your classmates to learn. It’s really a question of simple manners. Manners, by the way, will get you a long way in life.

When I think of rule-following, I think of the self discipline required of members of a band. I attended our school’s band and chorus concert last week, and what struck me was how self disciplined the members of both bands and the chorus were. They were quiet when they needed to be; they listened to and watched the conductor; they worked as a team. In a way, they weren’t thinking about rules, I suspect, but of the music they were trying to create.

I don’t want you to just follow rules because you will get in trouble if you don’t. I want you to follow rules because you are learning to be considerate of other people. I want you to go beyond rules, the way those of you in the concert did, to create something great in our class. Following rules isn’t a chore if you know you are creating something great together.

Maybe you don’t personally see anything great going on and couldn’t care less about what we do in class. Well, other people do see the value in what we are doing, and so for them I ask you to try to follow some rules.

But on the other hand…

I also want you to understand the dangers of blind obedience and conformity. Some rules are not for the good of the many, but for the good of the privileged few. Some rules, some ideas, need to be vigorously resisted, as apartheid was, and slavery and segregation and fascism. If rules are not truly for the good of all, then they must be resisted, in word and in deed, and with reason and logic on your side.

But choosing to resist rules is not always right. “I don’t want to follow the rules because I want to do whatever I want,” is not reason or even a reason. It is a temper tantrum.

And to resist getting an education is, if I may say so, the height of ignorance. Education is the first thing tyrants and dictators try to eliminate in order to control people. Education is the surest way to take control of your destiny, get out of poverty, find a calling in life and follow it. In parts of the world where children are denied education, they long for what you get for free everyday. I don’t have time to go into the full story of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl shot in the head for protesting the fact that girls are not allowed to be educated in the Swat Valley, though I may later. Suffice it to say, she was resisting rules for the right reasons. 

And so I want you to understand and think about the need to follow rules, but also the need for dissent from the truly unjust rules. History classes you take are full of examples of this tension. Stories you read in English are full of nuanced and thoughtful explorations of this theme. Pay attention to history and stories to help you decide when to follow and when to resist– how to live your life.

So I want you to follow the rules – sort of. What I want even more is for you to see so much value in what we have to experience and create together that rules become a moot point. I will hold you to rules if I have to– but that isn’t really what I want. I want you to be interested, to be engaged, to be considerate because you understand the importance of what we are doing.

Which leads me to the next thing I want for you– but that can wait until next time.

Mr. Finkle