COMMENTARY: Is there really a set of arts that can equip young people to lead successful lives in the world they are entering? If there are such arts, are they necessarily connected with a particular philosophy of education or view of the world? These questions govern the discussions of the 100 or so Tecolote Group participants (teachers) who willfully and gratefully become students for four Saturdays during the school year at St. John’s College in Santa Fe.
”The Tecolote Group believes great books make great teachers. In collaboration with teachers and education administrators in New Mexico, the Tecolote Group provides occasions for learning through organized discussion of important books and texts,” the Group’s webpage states.
“The Tecolote Group was developed to address a persistent shortcoming in modern American educational practices and was formed to support teachers who do not want to see their roles reduced to being test proctors and disciplinarians.”
This year, the Group has read Dorothy Sayers, Aristotle, Glenn Gray, Matthew Crawford, W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington to consider the purpose and function of the liberal arts in education. In February, the Group will apply these thoughts and ideas to determine the worthiness of the purpose of the Common Core State Standards.
As these statewide educators statewide become students, they reflect on the many benefits of Tecolote. The responses to giving up their Saturdays to grapple with difficult readings make “you feel great that these people are teaching our youth” in the words of Steve VanLuchene, St. John’s tutor and founder and director of Tecolote. Many teachers discuss their enjoyment at becoming students again and facing the uncertainty on Saturday of not knowing what they will face in class. They believe this feeling helps them empathize and become better at planning and meeting students where they are.
In addition, they appreciate the fact that they are valued and validated for their work. They sit in rooms with fellow practitioners and tutors who listen to their ideas, challenge them, build on them, or qualify them through the Socratic method. This method helps teachers set aside measurements of “achievement and effectiveness” and “go home with a renewed passion for the pursuit of knowledge.”
“By struggling with a text in the way that my students struggle with texts I teach, through reflection I can see how they are responding to the process and its outcome,” explains one teacher. Others state they receive an intellectual boost, a stronger trust in student participation, a tool that helps “students of all abilities dig in and reach conclusions about a text” by focusing on “open questions and conversation.”
Over the next couple of weeks, the Tecolote Group will read its final work, which considers the philosophy of the Common Core, and determine whether it is meeting its stated mission. Teachers have already stated concerns that teaching is being reduced to a checklist of tasks like posted standards and clearly stated objectives. They fear that evaluation is causing education to no longer be a pursuit of ideas and the opportunity to connect them but a prescribed set of behaviors that connect the dots in such a way that teaching is reduced to a set of tasks.
These Saturday conversations suggest that teaching and education expand when teachers can become students who question and seek to make meaning from texts. Most participants do not merely state they will use the Socratic method; they realize that part of the art of quality teaching is being a student who can again ask questions with uncertain answers worth exploring.
Douglas Wine earned his Ed.D. in educational leadership from UNM and studied students’ perceptions of the effects of teachers’ classroom behaviors. He is a graduate of St. John’s College Graduate Institute and has been involved with Tecolote over the past five years. He is currently principal of Moriarty High School.