57. Teacher or Psychotherapist?

I have sometimes been told that an elementary school teacher’s job is to enable children to read, write, and compute, and to enhance children’s database. I’ve been told that teaching children to relate to each other and dealing with children’s various emotional issues is a job for another kind of professional – that teachers do not have the right or the proper training to do that job.
It ain’t that simple, folks. There are two roads I could travel with this argument, and I think I’ll take both. The first is that it’s very hard to work with children and not care about the people they are. I’ve seen teachers who seemed “good” at it, and I’ve never envied or emulated them. I’ve heard people say, “I didn’t like my fifth grade teacher, but that teacher made me learn.” I think there may be a degree of truth in the statement; adversity teaches. But artificial adversity does not do the best teaching.
I think this road leads to a dead end. If I stay on this road, I’ll convince people who agree with me that we agree with each other, but the people who really need convincing will be standing at that dead end, pointing angrily to teachers’ job descriptions. “What right do you have to act as my child’s psychotherapist? If I decide that my child needs therapy, I will pay someone to do that job. Your job is to teach.”
The other road does connect with the highway. Emotional health enables children to learn. Children’s difficulties with emotional and social issues get in the way of skill development and knowledge acquisition. This is true for all children – not just those who are emotionally ill. For the child who has self-confidence and relates well with other children, the challenges of a good school curriculum are adventures.
One of the best teaching experiences I’ve had was a three-day field trip on Cape Cod. With the help of many parents, I took twenty-four second- and third-grade children to a house on Cape Cod (one of the parents owned the house), and explored the natural environment of the Cape. We brought books, paper, and pencils. Children searched for the plants, animals, rocks, and stars on their Scavenger Hunt worksheets, used their guidebooks, used maps to navigate on their way to sites, calculated distances, estimated – applied the skills they had developed and practiced in class. I could go on and on about the academic gains.
Children also got to know each other better. When there were problems, we worked them out. There were times when we could gather together and sing , tell stories, read books, and there were times when two people could sit quietly and talk with each other, accompanied by the sound of an American woodcock. That field trip stands out in my mind as what teaching ought to be. Not that teachers ought to take their classes to Cape Cod and spend twenty-four hours a day with them. But the curriculum, for those three days, was the lives of the children, and the lesson plan was to enrich those lives.

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