Samuel J. Tanner 5 minute read


It's a funny thing to watch children grow. Solomon is five now. Samson three. They change so quickly. They develop.

I remember having conversations with veteran teachers when I first started teaching 9th grade English.

"9th graders change so much by the end of the year," they'd tell me. "They grow up."

I taught 9th grader for years. It's true. They come in as children in September and they leave as something else in June. Not quite adults. Something else. But they do change. I had the (mis?)fortune of watching three classes of freshmen move their way through high school. The fourteen year-olds in 9th grade English were so different than the eighteen year-olds that walked across the stage, took their dipolomas, and sped away towards adulthood. Better or worse? Who is to say?

I don't like applying the word development to people. It's such a linear, limiting way to imagine how we move through life. To me, the words assumes we are always getting smarter, stronger, better, whatever. I'm not so sure existence is that straightforward. Time is a construct.

I played Nintendo's Tetris the other day. I had the (mis?)fortune of receiving a Retropie in the mail for Christmas from my friend in Minnesota. Misfortune? I'm playing with the word. Having a little fun. But there's two sides to my Retropie. What is a Retropie? Well, every game that I remember from my childhood is stored in a little computer. Hours of my life. Nintendo, Super Nintendo, Sega, Playstation. Good Lord. Hundreds of my parents' dollars are contained in this little box. Great fun, right? A killer of time as well. I spent too many hours this break eating cookies and playing Final Fantasy Two. My tummy is large and my mind has atrophied. Developed? Undeveloped.

Anyway, I was playing Tetris last week. I was a Tetris savant when I was seventeen. My high score was untouchable. In fact, people used to come to my dorm room at The University of Minnesota to watch me play the game. I was a star in Pioneer Hall for the dorkiest of reasons.

"I just don't understand how you do that," my friend Josh would say as I used a long piece to score another Tetris on level 19. "The blocks are moving so fast."

I shrugged. Who am I to explain genius?

I'm not as good at Tetris as I used to be. Yes, I still made the Kremlin lift off into orbit after each game. Yes, Tetris still listed me as a master on the high score list. But I used to get 600,000 points. I couldn't break 400,000 last week. I'm 38. I'm worse at Tetris. Development be damned.

I taught Educational Psychology last fall. The course is a little outside of my expertise, but I'm a good teacher. I did a decent job leading college students through the material. Learned a lot myself. Most of the theories of teaching and learning in the field of Educational Psychology accept a linear view of how people develop. Theories of child development by folks such as Piaget, Vygotsky, and Bronfenbrenner dominated the textbook and, to my experience, dominate how most people view learning. Even the teachers with the most radical politics or innovative views on pedagogy seem to accept developmental models of experience. Adults should nurture children so they develop. Get better and stronger. "Success."

Is the job of schools to nurture students towards "success?" I use quotation marks because I think this is one of the major complexities of school. What is "success" in school? Good grades? Going to college? Producing compliant workers? Producing revolutionary thinkers? Producing social activists? Generating knowledge? Transmitting it? What's the teacher's job? Talk about schizophrenic work. So many competing views and so many different stakeholders. Parents want something. Administrators something else. Educational capitalists like the founders of Pearson or Avid something else. And politicians have their views as well. Teachers have their investments and so do their students. Who are we trying to honor in the classroom? So many competing ideologies and views of experience. Schooling in a democracy is a headache. Oi vey.

I don't think there's one definition of "success" in school and, honestly, I think it's impossible to measure whether or not students are "achieving" "success" in a linear way. It often takes me years to process the things that learn. They show up in my practice long after any test a teacher might give me to measure my learning. I've never felt that grades or a teacher's perception have accurately captured the complexity of me and, well, my development. People are far more complex than the measurements we might impose on them. The notions of success.

I worried about Solomon's speech when he was a toddler. He didn't start talking until he was two.

"Is this normal?" I kept asking people.

As though they could answer. Folks tried to assauge me by giving books or advice from their own experience. Now Solomon is five and the kid won't stop asking questions. Who am I to impose my version of normal on Solomon? Samson too. Solomon and Samson are unique beings. And they are changing and growing. They will be whatever they will be. My job is to accept and nurture them, I think. Not to impose my normal. Don't get me wrong. I'll mentor, teach, and love them. They'll have rules. I'm no hippy. But I have to keep an open mind about what they are and what they might turn into. And I have to accept the chaotic, nonlinear way that people are. We are creative geniuses. All of us. It's my job to provide a relatively safe and loving context for them for now. That's about all. Who am I to know or measure their development? Their success?