At the end of 2015, I read Amanda Ripley’s study of public education, “The Smartest Kids in the World.” One anecdote that has stuck with me was her interview with Finnish teachers.
Finland, if you don’t know, is often held up as the gold standard of public education. It’s what many ed reformers point to as a system the U.S. should emulate. Their courses are rigorous, test scores are near the top of the international pack, and their students are relatively well-adjusted.
So it surprised me when I read that Finnish teachers try to not know much about their students. It compromises rigor, said the source, to know a student’s home and personal life because it becomes harder to be objective in assigning and assessing work.
That teacher is absolutely right. When I know about my students, it’s harder to be objective with them in general. See, that’s the sticky wicket about being a human being–when you start to connect with another human being, objectivity tends to flee rather quickly.
Stueve and I occasionally lament our positions as advisers, because we tend to have different relationships with those students on our staffs. We still fall in the category of benevolent dictators, but the sheer volume of time we spend with our staffs, compared to students who just take our introductory classes, is exponentially larger. We know more about our staffs, they know more about us. We connect. And in connection, there is just as much opportunity for pain as there is for joy. And as much as we love celebrating achievements and milestones with our students, the pain at times is visceral.
But often after pain comes the redemption–oh, the redemption–and it is poignant. And it is just as rewarding for me to see a student emerge from embers of a torched life and start to rebuild as it is for me to see them succeed at any curriculum.
So while I agree with the Finnish teacher about the risks that accompany knowing students on a personal level, I disagree that a balance cannot be achieved. I still hold my students to a standard. They still must meet benchmarks. But occasionally a little compassion can go a long way, even in education, even in a world where experts privilege “no-nonsense” objectivity and rigor over humanity.
I pick humanity every time. Why else would I have become a teacher?