Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything. How to sleep. How to eat. How to work. How to wear clothes. -Tevye, Fiddler on the Roof
I recently saw Fiddler on the Roof at one of our local high schools. The production amazed me; it was much better than the 1988 version I performed in high school. I took my son and as we spoke about the themes of the show on the way home, a few things struck me.
First, The show starts with the song Tradition. This song establishes everyone’s roles and the part they have to play in the community. It clearly defines the rules and perspective: “Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years,” and “And because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”
Immediately after Tradition, we meet Tevye’s five daughters and his wife, Golde, waiting for the matchmaker who is about to fulfill her traditional role in assisting the girls’ parents in arranging the eldest daughter’s, Tzeitel’s, marriage. Of course Tzeitel bristles at the thought of the arranged marriage; this being complemented with the arrival of Motel, the poor tailor, Tzeitel’s true love interest. Love, however, has no bearing on the choice of spouse, but this is about to change. The three eldest daughters will each choose for themselves a husband, each moving further and further away from established traditions until the thrid daughter elopes and marries outside of her “kind” and completely outside of her traditions.
The play sets two dichotomies against each other: Tradition and Change. These parallel education today. The play has multiple connecting points of application throughout, but the central themes of tradition and change are the most salient.
Our very traditional educational system has poignant illustrations in two of Tevye’s lines in Tradition (one modified slightly) : “Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years,” and “And because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what [he is expected] to do.” Now, however, we find that we are off balance and many of us are seeking to discern our new roles in light of traditional, not necessarily wrong, expectations. We are still expected to educate our kids and prepare them for their uncertain futures; that hasn’t changed. The traditional ways of doing so must. Unfortunately, our concept of “school” is defined within the traditional boundaries of school where education is dispensed by a highly qualified expert during specific times of the day and year to arbitrarily sorted groups of disengaged learners craving relevance.
We’ve been arranging these educational marriages for so long that it has become our traditional definition of education. To conceptualize education any other way seems “unheard of” and “impossible” as Tevye sang on more than one occasion as two of his daughters presented him with husbands of their choosing. Like Tevye, attempts to change the tradition are often met with stalwart opposition in the name of upholding tradition. The Tradition refrain winds its way through the course of the play like many themes in education. As Tzeitel begs to be released from the artificial betrothment bargain Tevye has made Lazar Wolf, we beg to be released from the artificial structure of seat time equating to learning. Anyone who may choose to respond here can probably list myriad traditions that stand in the way, but ultimately under the current educational tradition we arrange for our students educational spouses they neither love nor care about.
We simply must examine our traditional practices and determine how much has changed since their inception. Whatever doesn’t fit or has become outdated, we must cast off in order to adopt new ways. Those, too, may become traditional, and we must constantly examine and adjust our practices for relevant alignment so our purpose doesn’t become as “shaky as a fiddler on the roof.”
What educational traditions are we holding on to that are getting in the way of change?
Passion. Called to the profession. Inspired by another teacher. Making a difference.
Those are the top reasons the book study participants gave today when I asked them to tell their story and frame it within the question of why they got into education. Empathy, chapter 7, in A Whole New Mind contains a portfolio section called Empathize on the Job. In activity #2 How Did I Get Here? Dan Pink writes “Sometimes you work near people for years but have little idea about the path that brought them alongside you.” So today I asked. We, at the request of the group, modified the activity and had each person tell his/her own story to the whole group. I took notes on one side of a notecard and listened for themes in each person’s story. The dominant ones are at the top of this post. The word passion came out of every story directly, simply, plainly, and unflinchingly. This, from a group that ranges in experience from only a few years to 20+.
I wasn’t surprised about passion, being influenced by another teacher, or making a difference. Those seem to be very common bonds among educators. The other, called to the profession, surprised me a little. Many in the room spoke about being called to the profession, having it in their blood, or simply knowing from an early age they were supposed to be in education. More than one took a circuitous path, some resisting, but we all ended up here. It seems to be somewhat anachronistic, especially in today’s postmodern technological realm, to respond to a call.
This identification of purpose or meaning (Chapter 9) resonates and grounds people, making them unshakable stalwarts. Passion permeates what they do, who they are. Not all educators reside here, but the ones who do simply radiate and attract kids (and adults) to themselves. It’s not out of ego or grandiosity; it’s their quality. The same thing happens when the sunrise stops us or a piece of poetry gives us pause. We cannot really quantify it, but we can see its results. Kids, other staff, parents, even you know who these people are.
The ones who answer their calling are not limited to education, but few other vocations so poignantly intertwine people and purpose, message and meaning, wisdom and wonder. Can we teach kids to answer a call regardless of vocation? I’m not sure, but we can prepare them to be ready, receptive, and reflective. The purpose of education starts there.