November 14th, 2017

A classroom in permaculture

Tuesdays are interesting this year. Six hours of teaching in a row (in two-hour sessions, no less) are something you approach with caution. Especially when your students are the enthusiastic-but-rambunctious variety. I am now home between my cat and a cup of tea; I've just considered sitting at the piano and singing a little, before my vocal folds politely asked me where the fuck that ridiculous idea came from. (Not that I shout at students--I don't, and neither should anybody who values their sanity and their efficiency--but keeping your voice slightly raised six hours in a row to allow people to hear you over the constant brouhaha doesn't do wonders for your throat)

Today I tasked my students with walking around the classroom to interview each other about texts they'd read. As I watched them and tried to keep them from getting unfocused, squealing or doodling on the whiteboard instead of working, I wondered what other people might think, walking into this classroom. In those moments when the noise goes up and I'm painfully aware that some students are taking the exercise as an excuse to check their mobile phones, I like to think I'm organising a controlled mess for their greater benefit, but in reality, I just hope it's not a plain mess, full stop. I suspect many teachers have secret nightmares about being 'that' teacher, the one that hasn't mastered the subtle art of controlling a classroom and everybody makes fun of behind their back.

Then it occured to me that for a very long time, we've viewed classrooms in the same way we viewed agriculture. Everything has to be neatly tilled, organised in rows, carefully weeded. Never mind if you're slowly killing the soil beneath. Never mind if you're coming to rely on expedients, pesticides, herbicides and fertiliser, for short-term results that will leave the field more barren than it was before. It looks pretty and ordered and it brings reliable, measurable results, and that's all that counts.

In many way, the same goes in a traditional classroom. Everyone is neatly ordered in rows. You weed out bad behaviour by applying punishment without regard for individual situations. You carefully water your students with lessons, and in case of exam emergency, you apply a liberal dose of fertiliser in the form of intensive, exam-focused cramming. It won't produce any long-term results, but your students will get good grades and that's all you want: a nice, steady, measurable result you can boast. Some students thrive in it, too. A little like those bright smooth tomatoes that taste like paper thrive in traditional agriculture. Yes, my analogy is getting out of control. You can't stop me.

And then there is permaculture: plant seeds, let everything grow wild, drop hedgehog food every now and then until they notice the slugs, try to achieve a nice ecosystem that will take care of itself until you only have to reap the fruit of your absence of work. You probably won't get steady results: aubergines this year, peppers the next. You'll probably mess up a significant number of times, because every field is different. You may have to take out the weeds every now and then if they get out of control, sow new seeds, bring water or straw, make compost. There's still work to do, and lots of figuring out, and a fair share of luck on any given day. But you'll get results, and more importantly, they will last. You won't leave a barren soil after you've sold all your beautiful straight carrots. Your field will take care of itself.

Teaching may have a lot in common with permaculture after all. Not the bit about your garden growing into a bountiful Eden by itself while you watch from afar like a benevolent god. I mean, maybe I'll do that in a decade or so (I wish). For now I'm talking about the figuring out bit. Sowing ideas and hoping they'll germinate. Trying to control all the energy that is there and steer it in a productive direction. Getting insanely frustrated on some days, and being ridiculously proud when my students do something without my help, the way your gardening enthusiast friends are when they show you the three misshapen cherry tomatoes they managed to grow all by themselves for the first time. Realising that a good ecosystem doesn't need a gardener and that all the energy and intelligence was already there before I came around; I'm just here to make sure that the weeds don't take over (and by weeds, I mean tiredness, lack of focus and those blasted mobile phones everyone gets trapped by when they're not looking), and cheer when they present me with a bit of knowledge I didn't put in there.

Of course, just like farmers sometimes work in fields already contaminated by chemicals, we have to make do with an age-old system that would be more convenient to navigate if we taught the old-fashioned way. A classroom in permaculture can be exhausting. I understand while some university professors still insist on the good old lecture, while everybody silently takes notes. It's like taking a holiday. Those of us who want to attempt new ideas have to cope with a system that wasn't made for us. Thirty students in a classroom--that's two minutes you can give to any one student in a given period. The same number of hours teachers have always taught, with twice the work managing your lessons. Spending half of the year telling students that what really counts is learning new things, and the other half giving them bad marks for failing to achieve the standards for their age group, even when they've made tremendous progress. Having to cope with unrealistic end-of-the-year goals, and ending up taking the good old fertiliser (aka cramming) out of the cupboard because that's the only thing that will pass them.

I'm still getting my misshapen but priceless cherry tomatoes more often than not. It's worth every bit of the hard work.

Now excuse me while I go pour myself a drink. It was a great day, but God. Six hours.