At the Ghost Fair: Wealth and Education

The Ghost Fair: Abandoned Expo 2000 World’s Fair site in Hannover, Germany

Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.

Philippians 4:11-13

When class ends, we pour out into the hall. Back at school, our students get only five minutes to take themselves to the next destination, wherever on campus it may be, whether from gym to library or back again, madly squeezing stops to lockers, water fountains and rest rooms into the truncated passing periods. Five minutes to pick up late homework, ask a girl out, print a paper, settle plans for after school, change for PE class. Five minutes. We, their teachers, get fifteen minutes today.

We also get coffee and tiny muffins, we realize with glee, coming back together from the hotel conference rooms of various sizes, where we’ve just been learning about topics ranging from “magical maths” to social networking safety for students. Ten representatives from BFA’s three campuses, we’ve come to Hannover this weekend to attend the conference of the Association of German International Schools, a gathering that includes some 250 teachers from all over the world.

Balancing the muffins on our saucers, we stand around tall tables in an anteroom full of commerce. Booths and tables, decorated with various educational products, line the walls. A few sell books, with stands displaying brightly-colored, multilingual material for students of all ages. Most of the exhibitors, however, peddle technology. There are Smartboards, student multitouch tablets, systems databases, online courses, online essay revision services, and hundreds of e-textbooks. It’s full of promise, and for a while we watch, pondering what we could do with it all.

It’s only later that I realize my fascination with all the products lies in the reminder that education is a lucrative business. The displays give us multiple points of access–flashy ones–to make learning available, accessible and fun for a digital generation of learners. I’m tempted to scoff hypocritically, forgetting about the iPad on which I’ve been taking notes all day, but I realize it’s not so simple. None of these machines are innately awful, and a great deal of them are quite useful. I remind myself that expensive, technology-rich private schools also contain teachers who love their students, students in pursuit of truth and meaning just like ours.

Still, I have never associated teaching with money. First in a chronically underfunded public school district, and now in a missionary school that operates without paying salaries, I have become a teacher who believes that money, while useful for buying important things like food and shelter, is by no means paramount to the learning experience.

I have known more public school teachers than I can count who remained in jobs paying them far less than their experience and education would earn them elsewhere, committed to their students’ success even in the most difficult contexts. Here at Black Forest Academy, we consistently see the fruits of having a staff who not only aren’t earning a traditional salary, but feel strongly enough about our work that we spend non-school time seeking the support of others for our ministry. In both cases, the budgets for curriculum and technology are far less critical than the commitment of teachers to the welfare and nurture of their students.

I don’t want to oversimplify. I know from experience that public education in the United States faces unbelievable deficits that threaten thousands of teaching jobs every year. Education has real costs, and cutting those costs has real consequences. But I remember returning to my classroom in Seattle in September of 2009, just months after being laid off due to budget cuts, and finding three new computers, a new media center, and replacements of the projector and document camera I’d had for only two years. I couldn’t help wondering then, as I do now, if we should have spent those resources on keeping the teachers who were investing the most in our students. For most kids, a committed teacher is more useful than cutting-edge technology to the journey of growing into mature, thinking adults.

Throughout the weekend we learned, from our colleagues in major German cities, of laptops for all students, of Smartboards in every classroom and commissioned screenwriters for filmmaking classes. I could feel envious, but I find it impossible to look up in the socioeconomic hierarchy of education without also looking down, thinking of Central Asia, where many schools lack buildings and several villages share materials and even a teacher.

We leave the conference on Sunday morning, walking through the site of Expo 2000, the World’s Fair held on the outskirts of Hannover. The campus, once resplendent with international displays of innovation, is abandoned now, a ghost fair grown over with weeds and graffiti. I think about how much this place cost to build for its heyday of 90 days, now more than a decade ago, and it strikes me as chilling metaphor for the temporary nature of so many of our investments.

The best days of class lately–of reading plays around picnic tables, declaiming our paraphrases of the Declaration of Independence, reflecting on nature and transcendentalism under autumn-blazing trees–could have happened anywhere, without even electricity, let alone iPads for each student. I’m thankful for the resources that teachers today have, ones that save us time and energy and allow for communication unheard of fifty years ago. Still, I’m even more thankful for the two schools that have helped me become a teacher that can navigate, but doesn’t require, the latest materials to create a positive space for learning and growth. Blessed by a community committed to serving Christ and our students, surrounded by colleagues who care deeply for what they do, how wealthy I am.

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2 thoughts on “At the Ghost Fair: Wealth and Education

  1. You are a kindred spirit! What’s needed for fruitful ministry? A Bible, maybe a few chairs. Like you, I don’t want to oversimplify, but seeing spiritual health in Rwanda and Asia, I well know that much we deem necessary is not only superfluous, but runs the risk of being a mighty distraction from the things that matter most.

    See you soon!

  2. I enjoyed and appreciated your post very much! Good thoughts to ponder here this morning with my cup of coffee and granola. Thanks for your insightful words.

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