Just as the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano signal the start of spring, high school students visiting their elementary school teacher marks the start of the school year. Their first year in high school they come back en masse to reassure themselves you’re still there.

Several years ago, in early September, I was talking to an agitated former student. He was a bright and enthusiastic math student who flourished in a math program that emphasized high order thinking skills. He was excited by the challenge of a high school math program full of creative collaborative problem solving.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t what his high school math teacher had in mind. Rather than exploring advanced concepts he was handed worksheets with hundreds of simple computation questions and told to quietly and independently solve them. This continued every day the first week of school. My student was beside himself with frustration.

He was also annoyed with me. Why, he railed, had we spent all that time and effort solving collaborative problems? Clearly, none of that mattered. “Real math” was computational math, done independently, and he wasn’t ready for that. I tried to explain, but my pedagogical rationales fell on deaf ears.

That student, and his frustration, exemplifies for me the tension I often feel between learning and school. I try to foster a love of learning and develop high order thinking skills in students. I encourage students to care most about the learning that’s taking happening right now, and not to focus on the grades. I believe that numbers or letters can only hint at the learning that takes place, and at times I act as if grades and the formal structures of school don’t matter. In truth, of course, they matter a lot.

There’s a part of being an educator that’s a somewhat fanciful. It’s built on platitudes like “I touch the future, I teach“. There’s a belief that, by being an educator, we are in some way remaking our world into a better place. That through our professional efforts we create a more perfect world.

As educators, however, we must also prepare our students for the “real world”, the one we are trying to change. These two goals can sometimes conflict with each other. No matter how much we wish it, our students do not and will not live in a world that gives them exactly what they need. As a Zen teacher once told me, “The world is not about you”.

If we open our eyes as we teach, we know this is true. We tell students that grades don’t matter, but they do. When my son applied to university no one cared what an intelligent, compassionate, hard-working and sensitive person he is. They only cared what his marks were. Grades matter.

We tell students that they are valued and what they think matters. School, however, requires them to accept the authority of others. Students cannot choose to sit down when the national anthem is played no matter how they might feel about their country or government. Adolescent girls may not agree with school dress codes, but they must still follow them, no matter how valued and eloquent their arguments are. Rules matter.

I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. Whether I agree with the speed limit or not, if I break it I must accept the consequences. There are limits to our personal agency we must accept in order to live together. The world is not about me. Our students must understand this if they are going to pursue their hopes and dreams.

While I empathized with my former student and his math “situation”, I was also glad. He’d seen what might be, and was now experiencing what is. He was learning that the world isn’t always what we want it to be, and that upset him. That frustration at the imperfection of the world drives progress and motivates people to raise their voices and demand a better world.

We don’t live in the perfect future we envision for our students. Our world is imperfect and filled with flawed people. Part of my role as an educator is to help students navigate this reality. I want them to have the skills to be successful and follow their path, while still allowing them to dream of how things might be.

Feet on the ground, but head in the clouds.