The Last Word
A Matter of Trust BY ALAN DONALDSON
In the more than 20 years I have been a teacher —approaching 19 years at Cathedral—much in the world has changed. Marriage equality is here to stay and has the backing of the courts. “Twitter” now refers to something beyond the chatter of birds (…or does it?). Newly-elected representatives to the House are making politically and historically relevant news via the content and the use of their Instagram accounts. The world inside the Close has changed, too—dramatically. The scaffolding on the Cathedral tower is down. Playgrounds have moved. Technology inside the school that at one time would have amazed is now the norm. During my first year at Cathedral, as an associate teacher in the kindergarten (I was “shared” between the two classes back then), I was in charge of a brand-new digital (digital!) camera. The pictures were saved on a 3.5" floppy disk. They were about 33K each. (For comparison, one photo from a phone nowadays contains about 300 times the data). The building itself has undergone its most dramatic transformation in its history—a new kindergarten center, new classrooms, new hallways, and of course the most recent additions of the Library and Media Center and Innovation Lab. (20 years ago, what would we have made of a “Innovation Lab”? Would we have thought it was some sort of hatchery?) Teaching is different, too: students submit work on Google Drive, meet with teachers oneon-one to discuss their work during EXCEL, and compose thoughtful and persuasive emails as to why their busy evenings warrant an extension on their homework. But with all of this change, inside the classrooms and out, the central element of life in the classroom remains the same. Teaching and learning at its core is inherently social. Both thrive when based on relationships built on trust. When I taught in the kindergarten
classroom, this meant helping my students understand that I would still welcome them and love them even after being projectile-vomited on. In 2nd grade, students had to know that I understood how desperately they wanted to please the adults in their lives and that having a water fight in the bathroom was only a momentary lapse of reason. The 4th graders needed both a platform for their ideas—to be not just heard but respected—as well as a growing understanding from the adults of just how important their friends were becoming. And, in the Upper School, as I have been learning as quickly as I can (as both a parent and a teacher), the kids need me to know that, while it is a simple fact that I am now the most embarrassing and least cool human on the planet, I should not take this personally. It is just the way it is. And yet, at the same time, they also need me and the rest of the adults in their lives to see through this ruse—to respect how much they want to do well even while challenging them to do better, and to realize that they, too, need to know they will still be loved, even if they show contempt now and then for appearances’ sake (or, if the latest stomach bug requires, projectile vomit). To be “progressive” as an educator means to me that everything is on the table—all content, classroom structures, teaching techniques are up for negotiation. But the heart of the matter is not. What remains “traditional” about this place, and I believe always will, is that teachers always will, and always must, connect through a deep sense of trust with their students. Heart, brain, and stomach contents included. s Alan Donaldson has taught at Cathedral for almost two decades. He received his B.A. from Middlebury and his master’s in education from Hunter College. He speaks fluent Mandarin.
What remains “traditional” about this place … is that teachers always will, and always must, connect through a deep sense of trust with their students. Cathedral
S P R I N G 2019