Monday, July 4, 2011

Inspiration Mondays: The Measure of Things

Just because something is easy to measure doesn't mean it's important. - Seth Godin
I was a teacher. I became a teacher because it felt like it was something I was good at that could get me a job. I taught all ages, but concentrated on the elementary grades. I started my career in London, England, and then taught in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

I met many, many children while I was a teacher. I don't think I met a child I didn't like... eventually! (There were certainly a few that weren't my favourite people right away.) I still meet children every day in my current line of work, but I don't develop the relationships I used to as a teacher. So, why did I leave the profession?

I left because I couldn't keep measuring children.

Tests, tests, tests, levels, standards, inspections, ticking boxes, submitting plans, marking, marking, marking... No, I couldn't do it. That's not all it was - we had lots of fun, I had great days, great moments. I loved watching the lightbulbs switch on in their minds, when they worked out things for themselves, the great pleasure of owning your own knowledge. There just weren't enough of those days for me.

And then, there were the unmeasurables.

These were the kids that weren't great a reading, who took lots and lots and lots of coaching to spell words correctly, who daydreamed during math lessons. They were at the bottom of the heap, the lowest reading levels, the same kinds of math sheets... over and over, they failed.

But darn it, what else was there to them?

Ken was of my favourites. I know, you're not supposed to have favourites, but you can't help yourself sometimes. He wasn't a great reader. It was believed he was dyslexic, but you know, I think he just wasn't into words at all. It wasn't his language. He didn't understand how stories had a beginning, middle and end... But ask him anything about animals and he could tell you. He had stacks of books about animals, and he couldn't read a word in them, but he could point to an Amur leopard and tell you how endangered they were. He knew that giraffe's tongues are purple and that you call them stick insects, not stick bugs, because they're not technically bugs. And he could draw. And paint. In fact, he painted this bear and gave it to me as a Christmas gift that year.

He would lose his books and his lunch money. I don't think I ever heard him read me a sentence on his own. He didn't like playing football (soccer) with the other boys... at least, he didn't until he was allowed to play goalie. But he was great a congratulating his classmates for their achievements. We thought his concentration was no good until he happily stepped in to play another kid's instrument during the end of year concert as well as his. He knew both parts. Alright, it was a rainstick, but try playing that at the same time as a triangle. Try it. It's hard.

My own family has members that are unmeasurable. They have talents that don't register on the standardized tests - cooking, driving, sense of direction, mechanics... but where would we be without them?

Someone asked me once to complete the sentence: The world needs more _____ and less ______. And I said, "The world needs more plumbers and less lawyers." Think about it. How easy is it to find a good plumber?

The idea of unmeasurable knowledge has been stuck in my mind for the past few weeks because I often think about the marketability of my talents. I have a degree in education, but if I stray out of that, what can I do? What have I been measured for, and what value is there in the the things I can do that you can't measure? Am I useful if I know I can tell a story? Relate to people? Knit a sweater? Carry a tune?

I want to believe that the world will change one day to value people like Ken. I want to know that the world will not just look at scores and certificates and bachelor degrees to understand the true measure of a person. I don't know if that will happen, but I want it. Badly.

Ken would be eighteen this year. I hope he's found a place that understands him and values him. Cheers to you, kiddo. You still inspire me to look for the talent in each and every person I meet.


  1. oh this is an amazing post. I taught for many years as well and left because in the end I'd had enough of the administration. I never stopped loving those kids and I wonder about many of them. What happened to all those unmeasurable kids? I hope they are all thriving despite the system.

  2. Thanks for coming by, Sarah! I suspect our experience is not unique, but I wonder why things continue the way they are if there are so many that feel the same?

  3. Great post today. I was a teacher for a while too - teaching English in Japan and the Czech Republic. English conversation wasn't the best thing my kids could do, but, wow, did I see some amazing artists, singers, gardeners, athletes, etc.