November 20, 2015
Caring for our Students through the Work we Assign
When I was young, I worked on my grandfather’s farm from February until the harvest in the fall.
One day during our lunch break, my grandfather began reminiscing about the “good old days”.
Whenever grandpa told a story, we listened, partially because he didn’t tell very many stories. It also owed to the fact that his dry sense of humor usually left you laughing, if you listened well.
Grandpa related a story from growing up during the Great Depression and how, to help get people back to work, certain jobs were created. One particular job that Grandpa could remember was the moving of dirt. Each morning, when Grandpa and the other men arrived on the job site, they were handed their shovels and work gloves and sent to the task of moving a pile of dirt and gravel from one side of a work site to the other. By the end of the day, if the men worked hard, the job would be complete. Then they would sign out and go home, just as the second shift arrived.
After some time on the job, the men were getting the hang of their work and found some shortcuts, helping them to complete their task more efficiently. It was, nonetheless, hard and time-consuming work. The men did it, because it was, after all, work. They also did the work under the assumption that it was accomplishing something of value—maybe for construction of a new road…
One day, my grandpa returned to the job site after his shift had gone home. He had forgotten his hat and wanted to pick it up. When he arrived, he saw something very confusing. The very pile of dirt that his team had spent the morning and early afternoon moving from one place to the another was being moved back to the point from which it had come. He shook his head and probably grumbled something savory.
Grandpa still went to work the next day, but not out of a desire to move dirt, not out of a sense of purpose. He simply went for the money that he needed.
As his story continued, it became clear that my cousin and I were supposed to learn something from listening. The two of us had been complaining about hoeing the bean patch that morning, and Grandpa appeared to be making a point. When we asked him what that point was, he told us.
He said, “The work I give you boys has a purpose. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t give it to you. I’m not interested in wasting your time or mine. Hoeing the beans keeps the weeds out and puts oxygen in the soil.”
He waited and looked at our faces for understanding. Then he continued. “The work that I had on that worksite looked like it had a purpose, but at the end of the day, we were just moving dirt around for money. Then, the next day, we moved it again. If I did that to you, you would have a good reason to complain, but this work in the dirt is getting something important done.”
We told Grandpa that we understood, and he smiled and said, “By the way, I have a pile of dirt out behind the greenhouse. If you want to move it, you can.”
I still don’t know if he was joking. We never went to see.
This memory came back as I read the following word from Philippians this morning.
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.”
As teachers or anyone else in a position of assigning work for that matter, we remember that the people doing the work we assign need to be able to trust in the meaning and purpose of the work we give. If its purpose is hard to see or questionable, we run the risk of losing trust.
One way of showing care and compassion for our students is by showing them the value in the work they do, by sharing the short, medium, and long-term vision. We show it by connecting what they are doing now to what they can do with it later. Flippant phrases like, “It is to help you learn how to think” carry little value.
Both the story and the verse challenged me to look again at the material I teach, the units I create, the homework and study guides that I provide. Am I being careful to care for my students? Am I showing this to them by looking to their interests in humility? Am I valuing them, their work, and their time? Am I valuing them by giving them work with true value?
How about you?