I have been asked to clarify my use of “teacher as farmer”. It is simple and captures the best image I can conjure of what is common amongst great teachers in the post-industrial age model of education. I think it is a more accurate image than teacher as sage, preacher, supplier, guide, coach, or mentor. It would be completely familiar to progressive educators and students of at least the last 100 years.
This is hard for our current generation of teacher; we place our value in our role as the source of knowledge. We have to let go that image; knowledge exists irrespective of the teacher.
What does a good farmer do? He creates the conditions of optimal growth. She sets out a fence line, the boundary within which nurtured growth can best take place. She breaks some of the most intractable hard pan to allow seeds the space to take root. He digs a few really big rocks out of the field. And then the job of the farmer is twofold: to provide nutrients to the growing plants, and to do some judicious pruning and weeding. The plants do the rest.
I think if educators will collaboratively explore this simple metaphor, we will find deep meaning in it. I think if we pursue that deep meaning each day in the classroom our students will “grow” stronger, happier, and more productively.
Since I first wrote this post I have added two trains of thought. One, prompted by reader Bruce Wellman, is that perhaps the picture should be that of an orchard rather than annual crops. After all, are we not farming for the long run? Don’t we hope that our students will continue to grow, long after we interact with them for a semester or a year? I appreciate the nuance of this, and recognize how my initial metaphor was grounded in that sense that “I” only get a set of students for one “growing season”.
The second is that our teacher training programs largely fail to prepare our teachers to take on this role. We still largely train teachers to be purveyors of knowledge, and we cement that role through a fatal emphasis on high stakes testing in many of our schools. We look to teacher colleges to prepare the next generation of teacher to inspire our students to peak learning; few educators would argue that we are being successful in this.
How might we develop a professional growth pathway for teacher-as-farmer? What skills must we hone? What habits would be broken? What discomfort and risk is involved? Who are the farmers in your school that already teach this way and how might you adopt some of their best practices?