It’s harvest time now in the Midwest. Driving across central Indiana and Illinois last weekend, I noticed all the harvesters in the fields, the golden pyramids of corn in the grain carts, the dust that swirled around the car from combines close to the highway. I wasn’t the one driving, so I had some time to gaze into those fields and reflect on some valuable lessons taught to me by my students—specifically, by my FFA students.
I live in a farming community and have taught in the same (at one time, mostly) rural district since the early 1980s. I grew up in the town where John Deere’s headquarters are still located and where J. I. Case, Minneapolis-Moline, and Allis-Chalmers all had manufacturing plants. Moline, Illinois: The Plow City, it was called.
But I was not a farm kid myself. I was pretty ignorant, when I first started teaching in Indiana, not of the importance of farming, but of the realities of farm life.
I learned some important lessons early on.
That very first year I was teaching 8th grade English, and in early May, I assigned a research paper to my students. Our school library was pitifully small; the only non-fiction sources on the shelves were encyclopedias and magazines like Good Housekeeping and US News and World Report. Not likely we’d find information on the various topics I’d asked students to choose from. So I did the logical thing: I required kids to go to the public library. In some cases, that meant as much as 40 miles round trip on a week night.
A dad set me straight right away. His son delivered a handwritten note the very next day (This was pre-email, pre-telephones in the classroom, and certainly pre-cell phones): “Mrs. Powley, This is planting season. My son is needed in the fields. He will not be going to the library after school.”
In my city life experience, going to the library was routine. It had never occurred to me that a family wouldn’t just drop everything at any time and take their son or daughter to town. I can’t remember now if we changed the boy’s topic or if I found resources for him myself or whether I waived the library requirement—but I sure learned something about flexibility from this experience. More than that, I learned how important it was to know and understand my students and their lives outside my classroom. Had I known more about the community I was in, I would have done what I did the next year: I still required the students to go to the public library—but I moved the assignment to March.
Another year, my teacher was a student who didn’t seem to take my senior composition class very seriously. He was frequently late with assignments and often tardy to my first-hour class. One day, after I’d repeatedly tried to shame him into caring about what I had to offer, he came bursting into the classroom half an hour into the lesson. He slipped into his seat and tried to avoid creating a ruckus, but he was out of breath and his shoes were all muddy. I was on the verge of chastising him once again when he blurted out, “The cows got out!” Suddenly, pronoun antecedents didn’t seem so important, and I learned something about humility. This boy was carrying a man-sized load on his family’s farm. No wonder he was behind all the time. In this case, the office excused his tardy–and I approved.
In another class, another year, yet another student talked to me—talked to the class, really, in an oral report on the pioneers of the West—about the way the soil compacted wherever the wagon trains rolled. The traces of their travel remained, showed up decades later in fields where crop growth lagged in just those places the wheels had turned over and over again. The same is true today when heavy machinery packs the earth—in forests, in fields, and even in sand. In this case, the lesson for me was about variety. Not always doing the same thing I’d done the year before and the year before that. Plowing fresh ground and rotating crops means richer conditions and better yield. The same was true of my lessons, my units, the books we read, the papers we wrote. I stayed fresh and my classes were more engaging for it.
In any community, there are mores and considerations that teachers need to understand in order to serve their students. That doesn’t mean we surrender our authority or give over our instruction, but rather, that we work in harmony with the people we serve. That’s one reason why parent-teacher conferences are important. We learn more about the families in our communities—who they are, what they do, what they hope for and expect from their children and from us. And parents learn about us—who we are, what matters to us, what we have to offer and what we expect from our students. Successful teachers develop partnerships with their students’ parents.
It’s why coaching a sport or sponsoring a club matters. It’s why attending school events registers positively with students and parents. We show we care about our kids and care about community when we show up, give of our time, engage. We build rapport. When we understand the community, we know when to be flexible, when to show some humility, and when it’s time to try something new.
All of these lessons, a rich harvest, taken from the fields and learned over time in my American classroom.