I intentionally let the World Cafe Events and results lay fallow to provide reflective space so new ideas could emerge. What surprised me was it was not what was said explicitly, but what went unsaid—no reference to the importance of subject matter in learning and teaching was made. I considered this and arrived at possible explanations.
First, perhaps the group saw the area of expert subject knowledge as unimportant. This is the most unlikely assumption. There were educators in the conversations and I imagine they think this is important. Teachers train to deliver material in specific subject areas. I have a Physical Education major and a French minor. I chose those areas and, while I no longer actively teach either subject on a regular basis, I enjoy both and feel they contribute positively to my teaching. I cannot generalize my experiences or conclusions to the work of all teachers, but one still could see it as important to teachers, as professionals.
Second, it could be, in education, life-long learning is a given; by definition educators are life-long learners. This is also hard to generalize, but I can speak from personal experience. Currently, I teach Science, Social Studies, and English Language Arts in a multi-grade junior high classroom. I consciously chose to shift from earlier subject area training. To be personally successful and for student success, I actively and purposefully upgrade. There is evidence teachers serve as models of life-long learning for students when they engage in life-long learning themselves. A question here is, “What does life-long learning mean in this context? Is it different from other professions and work settings?” Defining life-long learning is hard to do. so my conclusions are, at best, specific to me and my experience.
Third, and I think the most likely explanation is based on the adage, “Students care how much you know as a teacher, if they know how much you care about them as people.” The ethic of care in education might be more important than it is given credit for. The World Cafe group acknowledged that mastery was based on meaningful and purposeful learning that prepared and motivated students to learn. Those observations suggest subject matter is important but, at the same time, a real focus on qualities such as communication, compassion, reciprocity, community, affirmation, mutualism, etc. require greater attention. It is easy to dismiss these characteristics as soft, but educational luminaries, Nel Noddings, Deb Meier, and Parker Palmer, have pointed out these are challenging and critical aspects of teaching and learning. Mike Seymour devoted the book Educating for Humanity to building healthy, vibrant, and truly democratic communities in schools. These purported ‘soft’ qualities build positive environments with relational trust and commitment only found in true community (a link to an article by Anthony Bryk) and suggests we should know students, their parents, and our colleagues. Engaging in and building caring, compassionate, and supportive relationships is hard work, but worthwhile. Why do we avoid this effort?
My reflections led to a hypothesis that teachers are expert in chosen subject matter and, when given choice, do continuously work at life-long learning. This means deep, mufti-layered, nuanced learning as opposed to superficial simple attendance to the latest fad. To make real differences, adults should care enough about students individually and collectively to reach and grow beyond themselves. This carries a responsibility with it that educators need to learn about students, their needs, and their environments outside school walls. That is relational and commits teachers, by the nature of a variety of choices, to be learners and co-creators of knowledge with students, families, and community.