Our Job is to Teach Ourselves out of a Job

My family and I are going through a pretty challenging situation right now. I’ve learned to stay upbeat, be empathetic, and roll with the punches, and the past seven months have brought me a deeper understanding of my role as a parent and educator. While I could tell the narrative of the latest impasse here so as to add colour to why and how I have arrived to certain conclusions, there are many people worse off than we are, so I try to remain humble and respectful by refraining. Moreover, beyond the words below, I have come to realise that we are often so consumed with our own trials we don’t leave space for empathy, and that disconnects us as a community. I have, however, so much to be grateful for as, through these tough times, I see my children mature, become more resilient, and develop previously unimaginable levels of independence and autonomy.

I read somewhere that a parent’s job was to parent their way out of a job. Parents are supposed to equip their children as best they can to thrive, make decisions that are emotionally and physically healthful, and solve problems as best they can with the resources they have. I am not sure if there is an umbrella word that captures what most parents want to inculcate in their children, but responsibility (toward ourselves, others, and the world) is arguably worth considering; certainly happiness, though the wish for future happiness may come at the cost of present happiness. Most of us want our children not to need us as much, in the positive, independent sense of the idea. This doesn’t mean that we won’t always be there in times of need—or just anytime—but the children should be well-equipped to make their way in the world and succeed on their own and alongside their own friends and families. 

Most of us will only begin to know if we have been successful as parents once our children leave the home. Until they do, parenting in its cohabitational form is a work in progress. What success means will be different for every family of course (e.g. a great career, a loving relationship, significant charitable work), but the outcome only takes form the moment our children are no longer under our direct care. Hopefully, we will still have a significant role in our progenies’ lives later on and they may still have a lesson or two to learn from us as adults, but the relationship changes inexorably once our sons and daughters live on their own. Hence, if our children are successful, thriving, and independent, we have parented our way out of parenting (at least insofar as how we parented when our kids lived at home).

And so it’s the same for school.

While I hesitate to throw the word Truth around, I come close to claiming that there is one truth about school: as educators, our job is to prepare our students for life after they leave school, understanding that the learning that takes place today is a step toward the rest of life and not an end it itself. This means we need to reconsider the role of learning in education, why we learn, for what purpose, and how we apply and can transfer learning*. Sure, we need to prepare our children for the present, not just the future, but since the experiences of the present affect how we interact with experiences in the future, we are cultivating skills today to thrive and succeed in life after school. It’s not about whether students meet the learning objectives of that lesson plan, it’s how that lesson plan meets the learning objectives of life. Much like parenting, school should provide what the children need as individuals at that precise time, to guide them to learn what they need now to cope with the now, the later, and after they leave school. Every moment before children leave the parental household or school, it should all be assessment for learning. Schools will only know if they’ve been successful after graduation—and each will define success according to how the unique ambitions and dispositions of each student aligns with the purpose and vision of the school.

As educators, we need to teach ourselves out of a job (in relation to individual students) so that each child is equipped to leave school with the knowledge, skills, and competencies to make mindful and positive decisions and have healthful, caring relationships in life.

I observe how my son Nico is dealing with our current situation. He is showing he is adaptable and brave. He takes control and is rarely phased. I have seen him be assertive in ways that many adults often aren’t because he realises that, to paraphrase Nico, he doesn’t have time to mess around (we can tackle patience later). Alexia is also developing independence. She is advocating for herself, better organised and energetically proactive. She is facing her own fears: this is a child who was so shy she panicked when ordering food in restaurant at the beginning of the year, and who now calls hotel reception to ask for another blanket. Both children are coming into their own and, while the situation in which we are living is catalysing their maturity, I hope that Charlotte and I have been playing a small part in opening the channels that encouraged this growth. Their maturity is part of a complex system that involves genetics, physiology, past experiences, school, friends, relationships… an infinite number of parts, one of which is parenting**. We can’t control how our kids will turn out, but we can open and close channels through our parenting approach to prepare them for life after they leave our homes.

So how can schools prepare students for when they walk out those doors? Maybe educators provide a curriculum with open-ended questions that offer scaffolded choice in outcomes to demonstrate learning and hold those outcomes accountable to the impact for which they they are designed. Maybe educators spend more time focusing on socio-emotional wellbeing to give students the strength and toolbox to cope with what life will throw at them. Maybe educators and students together create authentic projects to develop skills that increase the ability to influence, skills around presentations, marketing, negotiations. After all, our personal and professional lives sometimes feel like they’re nothing but a series of presentations, marketing, and negotiations.

Education is littered with heartwarming stories of former students reunited with the teachers who hand an impact on their lives. These are tropes about long-lasting relationships and the power of contributing to another’s life for the better. The message is always the same, “teacher, you have touched my life and I remember you years later because you have had such a positive influence in my life. Thank you.” The former student no longer needs the teacher in the same way because the teacher has taught herself out of a job†. She has prepared that young man or woman for life after school. She has given that child the tools to overcome adversity and seize opportunities that served her well when she left school. It is for that, the former student thanks her. There are countless examples of these touching stories. 

Gary Stager proclaims that “if you want a child to learn, throw away half the curriculum, any half.” The crises we are experiencing are making it impossible to cover the curriculum as it existed in its previous forms. Should this panic us? Should we be concerned that we won’t have time to go into the layered intricacies of the Gustav Stresemann’s chancellorship or the specificities of reduced adverb clauses? Not that these aren’t fascinating and useful investigations, but given that any of us will at most ever understand an infinitesimally small portion of the entirety of human knowledge, maybe we can afford to re-think the curriculum. There will always be something we haven’t covered. 

It may serve us better to think about how we can guide each student at the right time, with the right amount challenge in that moment to make sure they are prepared to face the challenges and seize the opportunities that lay ahead, after school. This is what we do as parents. We parent our way out of cohabitational parenting toward new relationships where we parent from afar when our children move out. All we can do as parents is do our best to prepare our sons and daughters. The same goes in schools: as educators, we should endeavour to prepare our students to face the challenges and seize the opportunities that await when they leave school. We should rethink what we are teaching by asking why we are teaching this and how will it serve them later on. This will lead to a period of confusion, of disorientation and conflict, which is okay… these are the building blocks of our own learning. 

When I witness the independence and resilience Nico and Alexia are displaying, my parenting style changes, there is less scaffolding. I realise that it is my job to open some channels and close others. The results of our 18 years in a home together will only become apparent when they’re on their own—and even then, who knows how all the different experiences they had played a part in their development anyway? The same applies to teaching. Let’s focus on why we have school and what school’s ultimate purpose is in the scheme of an entire life.

*Is it even learning if it cannot be transferred to other contexts? 

** Seymour Sarason writes that learning is a process that takes place within a social context that brings together a dialectic where personal motivations and attitudes interact with cognitive and emotional responses, none of which is ever non-existent.

†Thomas Murray writes that the secret to getting kids to open up to learning is to feel safe and cared for by an adult (teacher) who is personal and authentic

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