How teaching is like farming

On a friend’s recommendation, I am currently reading Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow.  In one part of the novel, the narrator is talking about the thoughts of the farmers in his small town, around the 1950’s.  Farming was changing greatly at those times, according to Berry, and many smaller farms were dying as the field was taken over by gigantic agribusinesses that paid more attention to equipment and debt management than to the love of the land.  The narrator says,

They kept on [farming] because they had no choice, or because that was what they had always done and was the way the knew themselves, or because they liked it.  Or for all of those reasons.  And as long as they farmed they worried about farming and what was to become of it.  This worry was maybe the main theme of conversation in my [barber] shop for a long time.  The older men and some of the younger ones returned to it as if dutifully.  But it wasn’t a duty.  It was just a continuation of the pondering and the wondering and the fear and the great sorrow that had been in each of their minds as they went about their often lonely work.

When I read that, I thought, “Wow.  It’s just like teaching.”  Teachers talk about education a lot, and many of our conversations show that we worry about education and what is to become of it.  We ponder and wonder and have fear and great sorrow when we look at the high-stakes standardized tests that are the measuring stick of our value and worth as teachers.  Or when we look at our students who want to do things quickly and with as little effort as possible and who are not willing to stay in the struggle of learning.  Or when we look at our standards and wonder why some (like the reading, understanding, and appreciation of poetry) have been dropped while others (like creating a multi-media presentation) have been added.

Despite being around students all day, teaching can be a lonely job, like farming.  I find myself responsible for the growth and development of young minds, but outside forces are altering the ways in which I can do that.  Agencies are emphasizing things I don’t think are important and de-emphasizing things I think are crucial.  I continue teaching because I like it, but I don’t know what is to become of education.

Perhaps eventually, the pendulum will swing the other way.  Just as some people have turned back to homegrown vegetables and local produce and backyard chickens even in the midst of large farming businesses, maybe someday people will return to the basics of education and leave the testing trend behind.

I just wonder if I’ll still be teaching long enough to reap those benefits.

(Excerpt taken from Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry, copyright 2000 by Wendell Berry, published by Counterpoint Press, Berkeley, CA)

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