As I stepped off the boat to report for my first day of “field work” in a rural area of northern Madagascar I felt as if I had entered a different world. In a sea of people, frantically clutching my backpack, I anxiously looked for my guide as I hopelessly tried to communicate with those around me. At that moment, I felt that I had never been so lost or confused in my entire life; that was until, I stepped into a middle school classroom. Luckily, as an anthropologist, I had learned the importance of mistakes, relationships and curiosity. These three fundamentals still underlie who I am as an educator today.
The first key to being successful as an anthropologist is accepting the fact that you are going to make mistakes. There is no exact script for learning about a new language and culture, and it is simply impossible to learn these things without making mistakes. In addition, learning is participatory, because the only way that you can learn is by simply throwing yourself into the culture and making mistakes. These fundamental beliefs cut to the heart of my educational philosophy. In my classroom, there is no script to be followed and no children held back by the belief that they either “get it right” or “get it wrong.” I believe that learning needs to be participatory and that my job as an educator is to help students build their own intellectual structures. Furthermore, I see learning as a process similar to design in that there are phases of ideation, experimentation and evolution. While I utilize curriculum as a framework for guiding student inquiry, I operate under the belief that in learning there is not a step-by-step progression from one fact to the next. As such, my classroom is a place where mistakes are honored as learning experiences and each student is able to learn at their own pace.
Secondly, as an anthropologist, I learned very quickly that you can not simply arrive in a new place and instantly get started on your research. Anthropological research and teaching are based first and foremost on relationships. Without relationships, you can throw out all of your big theoretical questions or your entire curriculum. For me as an educator, my strength is my ability to recognize the importance of relationships and build them as well. My students recognize me as a coach, someone that is there to support them in their learning, as well as in their life. My classroom is a place where students are challenged, supported and encouraged. It is a place founded on respect, for I believe that students learn best when they feel safe and understood. I lead my classroom and all of my endeavors with empathy and compassion. These values also translate to my leadership roles within the school, where I am recognized as a compassionate and effective leader. When working with students, as well as my co-workers, I feel that empathy, compassion and relationships are the keys to success.
Finally, anthropology and education are both driven in their essence by big questions. The anthropologist does not step off into a new culture to tell them how to live; instead he/she asks big probing questions to learn about how they live. This metaphor drives the way I teach. As both an educator and learner myself I believe in the ability of big questions to drive our innate desire to learn. My classroom is a place driven by curiosity, where I provide the stimulus for learning with “big” questions and then set off with my students to explore those questions. Utilizing technology, I guide inquiry through flexible, open-ended questions that require creativity, autonomy, and persistence from my students. My view of education echoes the words of Seymour Papert when he said, “Education has very little to do with explanation, it has to do with engagement, with falling in love with the material.” I allow my students to “fall in love” with the material by exposing them to a variety of ideas, but also giving them the space to use their own interests and curiosities to drive their learning. In practice, this makes my classroom a laboratory of ideas. This idea of the classroom as laboratory is also reflected in how I view myself as a learner. To me, education is constantly evolving and I am always curious about how I can improve myself as an educator and make learning more engaging for my students. As such, I am constantly reading and thinking about the big questions in education as well as reflecting on my own practices.
In closing, the importance of my training as an anthropologist cannot be understated in its impact on my philosophy of teaching. It is by always being mindful of the importance of mistakes, never doubting the significance of relationships, and always remaining curious that I am able to succeed as a teacher. Of course while striving to succeed as an educator, I never forget that in both anthropology and education you always need to be ready for an adventure.