Phoning It In

Every school I've attended has had a teacher with a special kind of reputation. The kind that makes upperclassmen say: "You have to take their class." The kind that is described as amazing, or brilliant, or life-changing, or just different. Sometimes people also say: "It's the hardest class I've ever taken," or, "I've never had to work so hard," or "I hated it when I took it but it was so good for me."

You can probably think of who that teacher was for you.

David Labaree has such a reputation in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford. I'm in his course on the History of School Reform. He's retiring next year. When I visited Stanford on Admit Day, literally every current student I spoke to told me I had to take his class -- but they also warned me that it was a lot of work. A lot of reading. A lot of writing. A lot of thinking.

Today was the first day of class, and I was anxious and a little nervous. I finished most of the reading (almost 150 pages) and felt okay about where I was at in terms of comprehension, but had nothing to measure my understanding against or compare it to. You never really know what to expect on the first day of class. 

I wish every teacher started their first day of class like he did.

After he had finished going over the syllabus -- and outlining the thousands of pages of reading we have ahead of us and the many papers we will have to write -- as well as the structure and the purpose of the course, but before he started his lecture on the history of American school reform, he spent just a few minutes giving us some general advice about graduate school. He's been at Stanford since 2003; he must know a thing or two about this.

The first thing he said was: “Don’t be the hardest working student in your cohort.”

Most of my cohort is in his class. We all laughed. He meant it.

He continued with a few more gems, some written on a slide, others off the cuff:

“This is a voluntary education experience not a job.”

“You have to play the game and you have to do enough and you don’t want to be embarrassed -- but you have to make it yours.”

“Allocate your time based on your interests.”

“It’s ok to phone it in sometimes.”

“Focus your energy where it seems most beneficial.”

“If all you do is read all the time, you’re wasting your time here.”

“Enjoy your time here.”

I think we all took a collective sigh of relief. I also think most of us already knew and believed most of what he was saying, but we needed the external affirmation, especially from someone with Professor Labaree's stature. Maybe I just needed the external affirmation. I've basically had two weeks of moments, big and small, that have affirmed I'm where I am supposed to be. This was one of them.

School isn't about grades anymore. It's not even really about academics. It's about trying new things and meeting new people and debating and questioning and squeezing the most out of an extraordinary opportunity in an extraordinary place.

It's also -- and this is a pretty significant departure from my undergraduate experience -- about planning for what comes next. It's about designing an academic experience that will prepare us to do the things we want to do. It's practical but also adventurous. I've never felt as motivated about academics because academics are (finally) directly connected to my purpose and goals.

I wish school was always like this.