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Sarah Starrenburg

The day I stopped teaching the curriculum and started teaching my students

Once upon a time I was assigned a certain curriculum to teach to a completed overcrowded classroom of 15 year olds (42 of them) for 8 weeks.

It was, and I am not exaggerating in the slightest, the most boring curriculum in the world. Every single student hated it. Even the really good, attentive, never-stepped-out-of-line students.

But not only that. Every single teacher who currently or previously had to teach this curriculum hated it just as much.

Yet the school made it a mandatory for every single Year 10 student to complete. No exceptions.

All the while, the curriculum didn’t actually count towards anything for them. They got no credit towards their Junior Certificate.

Meanwhile, it was enough work to possibly fill four forty minutes classes facilitated at a brisk pace – yet we were supposed to stretch it out over 16.

To top it off, it was rote learning of facts that possibly 1% of the general population will ever have cause to use in their daily lives.

It is fair to say that NO-ONE wanted to be in that class. Me included.

And as I watched the morale of the class and the motivation of the students deteriorate as the true banality and pointlessness of our collective going-through-the-motions sunk in, I had a rare moment of rebellion.

I looked at this group of students subjected to this Kafka-esque experiment in box-ticking, and decided that this was, quite simply, ridiculous. If we were going to spend 80 minutes together a week, then we were going to achieve something.

I presented them with my plan. We go hard at the assigned curriculum for the next couple of lessons. Complete the activities, run the tests…tick the boxes. We do what we’ve been asked to do. And then we make the rest of the remaining lessons about them. Or rather, about their passions.

I knew that a decent proportion of the teenagers in front of me were planning to leave at the end of the year. I knew the rest of them were currently having to make decisions about their senior years and what they wanted to do with their lives when they still weren’t even sure who they were or what they were good at.  Why not, I asked them, spend some time trying to figure that out?

Instead of wasting time on something we all hate, why not, rather, spend it trying to explore what it is you love? And maybe, just maybe, trying to work out how to turn that into a way to make a living?

They were in.

So together we launched our plan. Suddenly, the energy levels and enthusiasm soared as we worked towards our subversive mission! We got the work done in record time and with great results, due to a turnaround in engagement levels as we could all see a new light at the end of our tunnel of mind-sucking boredom.

And before you knew it, we were free!! And then the fun started. Drawing from Mark Cullen’s book, Permission to Shine: Becoming the person who can live out your dreams, we began exploring 7 key elements about their dreams for the future: Calling, Creativity, Confidence, Competence, Continual Growth, Character, and Community.

We talked dreams, and gifts, and hard work, and goals. We talked success and character; initiative and humility. We journalled and discussed and ran around the room and, for the first time that term, laughed. In contrast with everything up to the that point, they now weren’t being asked to just do something anyone could do in the same way that anyone else could do it. Now, they had to bring their actual selves to the table. And I finally started getting to know the real people sitting in front of me.

I’m not going to say those remaining classes changed anyone’s lives. As far as I know, they didn’t. I’m not aware of any world-changing dreams that got started because of my encouragement. Though there were some smart, talented kids in that class. They’ll be finishing up uni degrees and apprenticeships and getting start-ups off the ground right about now, so look out…

But the point of all this…is this. I learnt, in that class, with that group of 15 year olds, that everybody loses when we lose sight of the big picture, and forget that whatever we are doing, it’s likely meant to be about people. Not process. Not ticking boxes.

The point of that school, and honestly what the very committed and hardworking leadership were investing their lives into, was equipping those students for the most successful life possible. But somehow that had gotten lost.

Remembering the real point – remembering the people who are the point of whatever it is we are doing with this life, this day, this forty minutes in front of us…whether that’s through administering internet systems, or selling couches, or taking photos, or whatever…

That’s when, I really believe, we’re mostly likely to find ourselves living our own dreams…and mostly likely to empower others in theirs.

**

image credit linder6580

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