Hurricanes as Teachers

Hurricanes and other natural disasters reveal instincts that good public school teachers see everyday: Human beings driven by forces other than competition. Citizen rescues, donations given freely to victims stunned by unexpected need, the opening of private homes to strangers, concerned queries into the safety of a friend’s relative, ecumenical prayer and encouragement, the mobilization of a poorer nation’s military to provide assistance. To witness this remarkable outpouring of non-remunerative human support can be jarring.

But on any other week we are flooded, from every media source and act of policy, with a absurdly different logic. Billions of dollars are spent to convince us that financial incentives constitute the primary, if not sole, mechanism maintaining order and keeping us safe from one other. We are told, through countless carefully crafted messages, that lust for material accumulation, not empathy for our species, is requisite for distributing resources most fairly. These messages, of course, tap into a few valid desires: our hopes for individual distinction, the need to honor human achievement, or an instinct to protect self or kin from individuals posing danger. But such reliance on only a minuscule part of what drives human beings to act, give, love, or sacrifice has created a pervasive, unavoidable, and highly distorted myth of motivation. Unfortunately, as the hurricane threat subsides, this myth will continue to gain strength and make it harder to hear each other once again.

Our best teachers listen to their students carefully and understand how broadly they are motivated to grow. These teachers intuit what anyone endangered in a hurricane figures out immediately. Namely, that service to others is a gift, not a commodity. These teachers know that learning is most meaningful and enduring when it occurs distinct from grades or performance on standardized comparative/competitive tests. What the best teachers love most is watching students, often alongside each other, inspired by something much deeper. They treasure opportunities to witness how original students can be in and through cooperation.

The teachers I find most heroic teach about the past through the arts and humanities. They recognize lessons worth knowing and preserving — norms and traditions that preceded this relatively recent and unexamined rise of globalized capital, tech-aided anonymity, politically sanctioned greed, and the distortions of instantaneous mass media. Notably, these teachers tend to defend passionately the inclusion of Ethnic Studies in the curriculum for all students. They do so, not just because these long-neglected narratives deserve honor in their own right, but because inquiry into the experiences of people facing and resisting seemingly insurmountable oppression is precisely what all of us need right now. These studies, introducing stories of indigenous practices and support for collective struggle, present the most hopeful content for anyone who needs to know what we are capable of when hurricanes hit.

The focus today is, appropriately, squarely on the heroes waist-deep in the streets of Houston. As the flooding recedes, we should keep remembering what motivated them. It feels relevant, however, that this latest disaster coincides with the first week of classes for so many of the teachers I admire most. They too are wading into troubled waters. They too have a lot to teach us. That’s what they do.