The best teachers aren’t dependent on the latest list of standards or bag of buzzwords or slew of resources when it comes to answering the central questions of their career.
What am I producing, year in and year out?
What do I make?
What, in a single sentence, is the Everest I drive toward with my professional effort?
If I could get an answer to that Everest question from every teacher in the world and then boil all of those millions of sentences down into a single aim for all the world’s teachers, I think it would be that we work and sweat and bleed and endure toward the long-term flourishing of our students.
The long-term flourishing we’re after has two aspects — personal and societal.
The personal flourishing we want for our students seems best summarized by Marty Seligman’s PERMA framework. We want our students, throughout their lives, to experience Positive emotion, Engagement, supportive Relationships, Meaningful work, and Achievement. These are the five factors in a flourishing life, according to Seligman’s appropriately titled Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being [audiobook]. It’s worth noting how much richer and more durable PERMA is than mere circumstantial happiness. My dad used to always tell me, “Dave, I just want you to be happy in life.” But in my adult years he and I have talked about how happiness alone isn’t what he was talking about. Really, he meant PERMA.
It used to be that the personal flourishing pieces were all I saw when I conceptualized long-term flourishing — but there’s a major piece missing. PERMA doesn’t pass the Hitler Test — meaning that if Hitler could have experienced Positive emotion, Engagement, supportive Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement in his life, then PERMA isn’t a worthy goal all by itself. PERMA in itself can’t live as the sole goal of education; it needs a counterbalance.
The societal flourishing component, then, is about a life that contributes to, rather than detracts from, society. This means things like
- Maintaining gainful employment,
- Reproducing responsibly,
- Maintaining a stable family,
- Refraining from criminal activity,
- Participating in civic life (e.g., voting, volunteering), and
- Managing personal finances (e.g., using debt responsibly).
There will be times in all of our students’ lives when some or all of these pieces may fall apart, but what we hope for and teach toward is the increased likelihood that our students will lead lives that ultimately figure as additive to society rather than subtractive.
What I love about aiming our teaching at something like these two components of long-term flourishing is that, even though they will never be a buzzy, “flip the project-based twenty-first century student-directed authentic choice-driven classroom” thing, they’ll always be the true aims of an education, just like they always have been. If we could all get on the same page about these ultimate targets, if we could all remind one another that these are what we hoped for when we got into teaching, these are what the parents of our students dreamed of when they first sent their kids to school, these are why society pours treasure into systems of education, then I think we’d take less rides on the pendulum of educational fads.
Also, school would make a lot more sense to kids.