Q & A With Justin Minkel, Part 2

In Part 1 of our conversation, Justin Minkel replied to questions I posed about teachers’ pedagogical beliefs and political associations. Below why looking for solutions can often go astray, a little book that made a big difference, and his most embarrassing and proudest moments. (In mid-February, he’ll post my responses to his questions.)

Justin, I recently read Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. I kept thinking that many of his points about spiritual struggles also apply to struggles in our profession.

For example, to paraphrase a couple of statements:

  • We often cure a small fault by adopting a greater one.
  • Errors come in opposites and we spend a lot of time thinking about how to avoid the worse, instead of keeping our eyes on the goal and finding a path between the errors.

And to quote Lewis directly: “Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness.”

1) Can you think of examples, either in your classroom or in the larger picture that illustrate Lewis’ observations?  

“We often cure a small fault by adopting a greater one.”

This is clear in education policy, especially with NCLB. We had a genuine problem in our profession—too little attention paid to data and accountability. But the “solution” adopted by the Bush administration did so much more damage than anyone thought possible, by adopting a confusion of student achievement with scores on low-quality standardized tests and the baffling assumption that punishment and shame will lead schools to improve. A presidency later, we’re still feeling the effects.

“Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness.”

My mom is a play therapist who works with children who throw rocks at other kids, kick and bite their teachers, and scream obscenities in class. Her view of these children reflects the Buddhist concept of human nature, which is the opposite of the idea of “original sin”—she believes that all children are good at their core, and that while their behavior might be hurtful or cruel, these actions don’t reach down to the core of their spirit or soul. A common Buddhist concept is that while negative life experiences—abuse, neglect, trauma—might heap garbage on our inner goodness, it’s possible to scrape that garbage away and get down the purity at the core.

I became a teacher because of volunteering in high school with young children at a battered women’s shelter. I saw that kids who would act out the abuse they had witnessed would change within a day or two of being in a stable and nurturing environment. Kids who had punched the dolls in the play room the first day would gently comb their hair by the second or third.

My mom imparted her belief about innate goodness to me, and I have never seen a student as a fundamentally “bad,” “mean,” or “lazy” person. If I haven’t yet connected with a student and seen that goodness, I just haven’t figured her or him out yet, but I trust it will happen at some point in the year, and it always does.  

2) What have you read, that although ostensibly unrelated to education, has influenced your thinking about education?

The Little Prince by Antoine de St. Exupery. I love the prince’s description of the way that one flower among an entire field becomes precious to us. It’s not that the flower is any better or more exceptional than all the other flowers in the field, but it becomes exceptional to us through that alchemy of time and friendship.

We hear a lot about why teachers leave our profession, but not enough about why we stay. It has a lot to do with that gradual magic by which 25 strangers become 25 individual human beings, irreplaceable in our lives, in a single year. 

Finally, Justin, for the fun of it:

1) What’s your most embarrassing moment as a teacher,

My first year, I struggled to teach math. One day I was up there at the chalkboard looking out at these 32 confused faces, and my mind and voice just froze up. My mentor teacher had to step in and take over the lesson.

I asked her later that day, “Just please tell me I’ll get better.” She looked me in the eyes and said with calm assurance, “You will get better.” That was all I needed to hear.

2) What’s your proudest?

I was reading one day with a student who had started 2nd grade on a kindergarten reading level. She suffered severe abuse in 1st grade, lived in poverty, and her mom was not literate. On that day, I realized she had made tremendous progress since the last time I read with her just a couple of weeks earlier.

I asked her how she was progressing so fast, and she said, “Well, you know those books you gave me? Now when my mom and sister and I are watching TV at night, they say, ‘Melinda, read to us!’ So we turn off the TV and I do.”

Those moments when you have made a child’s life better not just within the school walls, but in her home and life outside them, tend to linger. We teach not to beat China’s PISA scores or to secure America’s future GDP, but to make our students’ lives better. When we succeed, the meaning and joy that permeate our work make themselves known.

Thanks, Justing, very much. I hope readers comment with their own answers. Know, friend, that I’m busy noodling your questions and will send my answers soon. 

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