Intentional Teaching, Against the Odds


Dr. Stuart Grauer is a teacher, the founding Head of School at The Grauer School, and Founder of The Small Schools Coalition.

“When we are born, we cry that we are come To this great stage of fools.” (King Lear, Act 4 Scene 6)

No sooner had our plane lifted off, on our expedition to London, thinking we might escape the apocalyptic news cycle for a few days and then return home fresh, back to a fresh year on the quad, the sparkle of the English literature seminar, the springy movement of teens on the green …

No sooner had we arrived in London then did Erin Langen, our theatre teacher, foist upon us all in the guise of Shakespearean wit and inspiration, at the Olde Globe theater, open air and much as it was first performed in 1608:

Original 1608 Olde Globe Playbill for “King Lear”

“King Lear,” miserable tragedy of betrayal and hopelessness that we can only hope to act our way out of. Thick tale of a humorless man getting old, making terrible judgments in a world where almost everyone but a kind daughter and a loyal minister, who both die wretchedly, will exploit him mercilessly and relentlessly — did I mention, for over three hours?

A professor at University of Warwick has published a paper called, “King Lear and the Collapse of Civilisation.” All this, in three plus hours of olde English rattled out across the fabled yard — the Olde Globe on the south bank of the River Thames.

So, we’re here in London with 18 students, preparing for the week’s finale, the performance of “The Tragedy…”. I haven’t been to England in over 30 years, but everything looks to me to be about the same — except the faces.

The demographics are now wildly non-traditional for a country that was mono-cultural and ethnically homogeneous for a thousand years. Over the week, it struck me repeatedly that our kids don’t seem to care a thing about the shape and color of faces, or about who you are born to be. They care about who you choose to be.

Likewise, these students don’t seem too fazed by all the terrible news that streams, no, pounds into every corner of my inbox …it’s not showing up much on Instagram and Snapchat feeds where they get their news: the curated lives of hundreds of online “friends” as they unfold.

We take our places in the pit, groundlings — no gentleman’s boxes for us.

Act 1: Cornwall says to Regan, “Lock the doors, my lord. It’s a wild night.” For many of us, it’s been two weeks of reading about back to back, record-destruction hurricanes down south in the U.S., a third on the way, and the news of the global warming they deliver. It’s good to get away — from news, from online forums, from America — to spend a week travelling with kids.

It’s the hottest year on record, but it’s drizzling here. Of course. This all has somehow become a political issue as well as a scientific one, and so school leaders are sort of expected to ignore the obvious question: Is global warming taking us down? “They’ll have me whipped for speaking true, thou’lt have me whipped for lying, and sometimes I am whipped for holding my peace,” says the fool (Act 1, Scene 4).

Dr. Stuart Grauer congratulates Kevin McNally, who played King Lear, after the performance at Shakespeare’s Globe, London, 2017.

Are we healthy or in decay, and are any of our information and news sources “real” and not fake? That’s not for us to answer in schools, in classrooms. In the warmth of the classroom, am I supposed to teach my students the terrible stuff or shield them from it? Can they understand it, can they handle it? “Is man no more than this?” Lear asks of Edgar (Act 3, Scene 4), the biggest question in the very long play.

“’Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind” says Edgar posing as a madman, while Gloucester, eyes freshly gouged out of his head, roves madly about the heath (Act 4 Scene 1). They removed the heath a long time ago, put in an airport, and called it Heathrow, where we landed.

Back home in the news, madmen appeared to be leading the blind. The “realpolitik” leader of the free world, a hotel magnate who lost the general election by three million votes, is feuding with the North Korean leader, Kim, a fellow not much older than my daughter who executed his uncle to get into office, believes he is an infallible “supreme commander,” and has never met another head of state. (Backstory: Kim went to an international school in the village of Gümligen, Bern, Switzerland, about ten years after I actually taught there myself. I would have had him as my student, but rather than stay in Bern where I may have saved the free world through transformational teaching, I moved closer to the surf.)

The computer code to our major financial institutions, federal electoral college, and probably our nuclear codes are not just subject to hacking, but obviously subject to hacking. For now, though, just those two leaders control their country nuclear “gold codes”, evidently. They have a combined total of seven years in government service. The North Korean leader has never met another world leader. They wrestle in brinksmanship and mutual assured destruction in a surrealistic theater, and we enter the Old Globe in London to witness half the characters in King Lear performing exactly this.

Get thee glass eyes,

And like a scurvy politician seem

To see the things thou dost not. (Act 4 Scene 5)

“The probability of global catastrophe is very high,” The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists assures us, and they have moved the “doomsday clock” to 2 ½ minutes to midnight.

Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples,

agonizes Lear as the climactic storm rages around him.

Almost every science teacher in America can see the news: Atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide appear to be at their highest levels in 650,000 years. Information like this inevitably comes drifting into class and assembly, the faculty room. We can see the truth like clots of misty London rains floating through the soccer field lights, and press on. Football, I mean. Half the coral reefs in the world have died, and 80 percent of the forests — with no end in sight. Plant and animal species (land and marine) are going extinct at record levels. Meanwhile, human population soars toward earth’s carrying capacity. Have you seen a population projection lately? What are teachers supposed to do with this?

Love not such nights as these. The wrathful skies,” The Earl of Kent warns King Lear (Act 3 Scene 2).

… Such sheets of fire, such bursts of horrid thunder, Such groans of roaring wind and rain, I never

Remember to have heard.

Sea levels are rising. Icebergs the size of states are breaking off in Antarctica. Hurricane Irma last week was a storm bigger than any I’d ever heard of in my years of seamanship studies.

Lear replies:

I am a man

[Read: “Don’t blame me.”]

More sinn’d against than sinning.

[Read: “I’m not in control of the situation!”]

No one is in control.

“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport.”

Or so says Lear (Act 4 Scene 1), helpless against both unquenchable human greed and the will of God and nature.

There are 168,978 people who are refugees, asylum seekers or stateless people here in England.

Worldwide, 65+ million people (and growing fast) have left their homes with no prospect of ever returning. The UN projects that this will grow to 500 million by the time my daughter is my age. What will become of their traditions, their dialects, their schools, their stories, and their teachings? Will more of their sacred sites be bombed? Will any be spared?

And now the play launches: “King Lear” is dividing up his estate between two daughters. It’s more than he can handle at his age. He’s assumed his family is his ultimate security, and they almost immediately betray him.

In Lear, everyone is either in disguise so they might be trusted, or in disguise because they cannot be trusted. Trust is a royal myth. Today, at the highest levels in governments, ancient bonds and native traditions that sustained us for millennia are ignored as archaic if not scorned. Lear (Act 2 Scene 4) recalls the ancient values:

Thou better know’st

The offices of nature, bond of childhood,
Effects of courtesy, dues of gratitude

But the people in Lear do not know’st childhood bonds and gratitude at all! Likewise, in our history books, completely re-written by each national state, the ancient wisdom is basically a footnote to expansion and greed; the old, tribal ways are a source of national embarrassment. Gloucester says,

So distribution should undo excess,

And each man may have enough (Act 4 Scene 1)

But there is no distribution like that happening at all in Lear, I don’t even know why Shakespeare says it, nor is it what we are reading about back home today. The prospect of home ownership is dying or dead for many “average” people in America. Cultures and languages (and dialects) are being lost at record levels as people move to cities at record levels and have/have not income gaps are growing fast.

In education, the smart money’s in giant schools that standardize their lessons for corporate sponsorships. Students have become “cost units.” This can’t be the “distribution” Shakespeare has in mind.

Flash: I heard about a curriculum for teaching “play” that just came out: “Experts” believe they must explain to children how to do it, like reintroducing an animal to the wild. “We’ll set thee to school to an ant to teach thee there’s no laboring i’ th’ winter,” explains the Fool to Lear (Act 2 Scene 4).

Will our children learn to manage the out of doors, the seasons? Is play an artificial thing now, just another construct we cram like conjugating verbs? Oh, inscrutable play!

A 2016 survey by the American College Health Association of undergraduate students at over 50 colleges and universities found that some 60 percent had experienced an episode of debilitating anxiety.

Suicide is on the rise around the world, especially among youths. Wade Davis (“The Wayfinders”) describes “this thin veil of atmosphere that allows life to exist on earth” in rich detail.

The leader of the free world is playing golf.

Maybe golf’s not a bad option. The national and international political will to address any of these world-shaking findings, facts, opinions is not there. School leaders and teachers are “holding our peace”. The will is not there.

All this is just information streaming into our schools almost every day with barely a filter. We don’t write it, we just receive it. I know we can neither ignore it nor control it.

Dr. Stuart Grauer, London 2017.

What is the role of educational leadership in an arena of betrayal and hopelessness? I know cynicism has been shown to be a neuro-degenerative. King Lear is raving on stage, about to die, crazy of heartbreak. The role of educational leadership is optimism.

NASA reports that 4.3 billion years ago Mars was a water planet. Our own water planet is over four billion years old, and mankind is hardly a permanent fixture! Man’s “history” on the planet, going back somewhere between 40,000 and 200,000 years into that four billion, is a blip on the screen. Wonder of wonders, our school, this trip to London, and this play all got inside that blip! The water all froze for a while and only a few people managed to squeeze through that evolutionary keyhole, evidently finding shelter around Southern Africa until most of the water melted again, around 10,000 years ago, ending the ice age. They are still melting. My descendants managed to get through it, delivering me precisely to a time where you could ride long, peeling waves in in Southern California and then take a hot shower!

Big Question: Is it on school leaders to do something about the biggest global questions, or do we wait to be told what to do by school districts, or by the federal Department of who might put the questions on the standardized achievement tests? Or, do we just stay in the classroom reading about the hopeless King Lear, nose to the grindstone?

Biggest and most avoided education question in all the world: If we learned that global collapse was imminent, what would our school be like then? I can’t get a single person to consider this question! The most important question I can think of is taken as a joke.

What if these “apocalyptic” problems really are intractable, with no solutions, ever? — because I can’t see solutions. Maybe I’ve just been watching too much of King Lear.

Alright then:

Answer (to the biggest education question in the world): Today’s teachers are becoming the recipients of every imaginable pathology and mean reality. “The past dozen years,” writes Sarah D. Sparks in Education Week, “have given education researchers unwelcome opportunities to study schools in the wake of disaster.”

It is the fundamental role of the school to sustain and advance community, connection, and humanity. Schools above all other places are called upon now to be communities of wisdom, gatherings of caring and connected people. We are called to pass those values along to our students with intentionality, not just against all odds, but especially when we are going against all odds, and especially when families are falling apart and dying out on the stormy heath.

The paleoanthropologist Andre Leroi-Gourhan sets the best course: “I should like to think that prehistoric man’s first invention, the first condition for his survival, was a sense of humor.” And his final condition for survival. “Jesters do oft prove prophets,” taught Shakespeare (Act 5 Scene 3). Like the jester, the teachers we need find the “still unspoiled and innocent” aspects of our students. In all weather, the teachers we need keep a faithful and light heart — so ultimately their students can, too.

Old Lear was a catastrophizer. But like the Fool who balances him, real teachers remain open to possibility and the miracle eyes of their students — We are not trapped into a way of seeing things, inside four walls, or into a single theory or prediction. In every class on any day, we stay connected, and we treasure that connection in the openness it brings. This is why we show up.

In the end, the distressing, traumatic Lear script isn’t the thing, the “play” is the thing, the play-fullness, the way Shakespeareans actors play with the boundaries to connect themselves with the audience — us! They ham up terrible and unthinkable loss by reaching out to us barefaced, across the fourth wall. It’s not that all this betrayal is good and comfy, it’s just that this life is a big and crazy process we can all share as long as we’re in it.

In schools, curriculum will not sustain us, nor will a long catalog of programs. Social media will not sustain us either, for that is a world of theatrical identities and shifty, unstable relationships. It is the quality and authenticity of our natural relationships that will sustain us. Human trust is the measure of our earnings and diplomas, no matter what happens. This is the essential teaching.

In King Lear, in the end, almost all the leaders die, and their evil rivals die, too, miserably. However, a full-hearted next generation is on hand to take over, and they are the good guys: The dead Cordelia’s husband France, the dead Gloucester’s son Edgar, the dead Gonerils’ husband Albany. All slip across the fourth wall, to the real world of the Globe and us, and form the next generation of leaders.

Today, as they exit the Globe and weave in bands through the streets of London like a single force of nature, I think almost all our students are moving through the fourth wall, even the half of them that don’t understand this convoluted, Spitfire play at all.

Great schools and tribes are sanctuaries for generosity, trust, and optimism, even in a wild, harsh world outside of our control. And a great day is another play. “The Tragedy of King Lear” just happens to be a very long and difficult one. It’s the coldest script I’ve ever seen, and we watch it in the rain as the actors fill it with unconditional warmth.

Dr. Stuart Grauer is a teacher, the founding Head of School at The Grauer School, and Founder of The Small Schools Coalition. He consults with schools worldwide and been awarded the University of San Diego Career Achievement Award, plus various international educational exchange fellowships including a Fulbright. Stuart is one of the nation’s top authorities on small schools education. His work has been covered in The New York Times, Discovery Channel, and frequently in the local press in his home town of Encinitas, California, where he has been named “Peacemaker of the Year.” A regular essayist for Community Works Journal, Stuart’s new book, Real Teachers, is available from CWI Bookstore.

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