Teaching and the Work of Imagination

May 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

My parents live on a golf course connected to a gigantic Marriott. It’s one of those resorts that is more like a tiny, opulent city than a hotel. It has two golf courses, actually, and on weekends, music from the resort roams its way a few hundred yards to my parents’ back porch.

Across from the resort is a shopping complex known as “Desert Ridge Marketplace.” It has everything that you’d come to expect from a modern American super-sized strip mall: TGI Friday’s, Staples, Target, JoAnn’s, Barnes & Noble, movie theaters, Verizon, and probably a few dozen places to get a burger or burrito. The complex probably draws thousands of people a day and earn millions of dollars.

My parents moved to that neighborhood when I was a junior in high school. When they arrived, the area now filled by the resort and the marketplace were vacant. They were flat, dusty tracts that attracted no attention, an afterthought on the margins of Phoenix. There was only an isolated golf course. When I first saw my parents’ new home, it seemed too remote, too far from action and fun. Between my junior year of high school and the end of college, however, developers transformed the land into a nerve center of commerce. In fact, in addition to the shopping venues, the Desert Ridge center now includes a number of healthcare facilities, an apartment complex, and homes.

As I think about this, and as I think about similar projects, it occurs to me that real estate development, or land development, has paralles with teaching. The average person looks at vacant land and sees emptiness. Developers look at land and see possibility — perhaps a hotel, a restaurant, or maybe a gorgeous worship space or a theater. Where I live, magnificent golf courses are woven into the mountainous desert lanscape, a feat not only of engineering but of imagination.

And developers know it’s hard work. They know the land might need improvements, a few stray buildings might have to be torn down or the area rezoned. They know that construction will require thousands of hours of negotiation, the drafting of contracts, haggling with lawyers and city officials and the provision of millions of dollars. Delays will ensue. Costs will increase. Conflicts will rise.

But they do it anyway. They believe. They dream of what could be, and then, one day, it’s done.

The connection with teaching hit me the other day as I spoke with a colleague about education. Students come to us in various stages of development. They arrive with a diversity of capacities, talents and liabilities. They might be great at math but bad at writing. They might hate art or be bored by religion. They might love sports but not physics; they might run for student government or decide to pursue piano. But no matter what they’re like, teachers have to see students for what they could be, not only for what they are. If I have a student who is maybe a bit surly and reserved, I cannot assume that’s how he or she will always be. I have to teach to other versions of that student, to someone who one day might lead a company or run a school. I cannot see my students as one-dimensional or anchor their identity in first impressions. I, all teachers, have to see students like a developer sees the natural environment — as filled with possibility, as ripe for transformation. And teachers have to commit to this knowing there will be struggle, resistance, and a few false starts.

To be a teacher is to imagine a future on another’s behalf. To be a teacher is to believe that a student can reach the best version of himself even when he might say, “No, the work is too hard. Let me remain as I arrived.” A teacher co-imagines a new reality, a new self, into being.

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