My First “No” for the Tribe

I was on fire. I thought for sure (at any moment) I was going to spontaneously combust. Less than 24 hours removed from my first trip to Honduras, less than 48 hours removed from holding malnourished kids in my arms and less than 72 hours removed from committing myself to building a microfinance institution in Honduras, I stood before my students in silence, staring at my syllabus and rocking my body ever so slightly back and forth.

My mind was racing with existential poking questions: How can I be here? There’s too much to do there? What am I doing here? I cannot be here. Not now. Not after everything I’ve seen. Why are we in this classroom? What is the purpose of this? These lectures. These readings. These models. Grades, exams, papers. Any of it. How is any of this going to help? Don’t we have a moral obligation to do something? Anything? Whatever that is, this is not it. Is it?

It took years for me to build this syllabus – selecting the readings, writing up the lectures, designing the tests and sequencing the assignments. Countless hours dedicated to carefully tying it all together so that after leaving this room, they would be conversant in the current debates surrounding economic development. So that after leaving this room they could speak and present and write and demonstrate their mastery of the material – this so-far-removed-from-reality-and-not-helping-anyone material.

I raised my eyes to look at them. I stood up straight before them. I gripped the top of the syllabus with my hands and ripped it. I split it in two. I tore it right down the middle in a purposively dramatic slow-motion die-syllabus-die manner. And as it fluttered to the floor I said “We’re building a microfinance institution.”

They gasped. Literally gasped.

The class ended up being a complete mess.

I got the worse student-evaluations of my teaching career.

Deservedly so.

I was flying by the seat of my pants.

There was no precedent for what we were doing. I needed students willing to approach learning as play: grab a peg and try nestling it in that opening. Does it fit? Nope? No worries, toss it aside and grab another. Does that one fit? Nope? No worries, toss it aside and grab another and then another and then another. Keep trying until one of them fits. Children do this over and over again with no anxiety and no judgment. Sooner or later they’ll grab the peg that fits. Or, maybe, they wont. And, if they don’t, they’ll just gleefully crawl away and find something else to learn. Because to them the world is brand-new and learning is a great big smiling-wide, judgement-free, just-trying-things-out adventure.

Asking my students to return to a childlike approach to learning (really a remembering) was not a crowd-pleaser. Most of my students were beyond frustrated with me. However, there was one team that was giving me hints of play-like learning in one form or another. I didn’t have to ask them to do anything. They were just doing it – finding things out that I did not know we needed, making connections with other microfinance institutions and bringing in guest speakers from those microfinance institutions to class. And, looking ahead to the fall semester, I knew they were going to make up the core of my first La Ceiba class.

Well, all of them except for one of them.

Elizabeth (not her real name) was an excellent student. Truly excellent. Almost perfect. Her first semester at Mary Wash was my first semester. She was in one of my first classes at Mary Wash and enrolled in multiple classes of mine thereafter. She always earned an A. However, in this class, she was struggling with the lack of structure. During group meetings, she sat on the outside and stopped asking questions or offering suggestions for possible paths forward. She was disengaged.

When registration for fall classes began, I met with every member of Elizabeth’s team and asked them to join La Ceiba. I also met with Elizabeth. I told her about the indoor air pollution project my students and I ran last semester. I told her how we had no syllabus in that class. I told her how my students and I learned together. I told her how in Honduras my students were on their own and how they had to get comfortable exercising extreme autonomy. I told her how I noticed her struggling with that kind of freedom in this class. I told her that I understood. I told her how this kind of class was not for everyone. I told her how looking ahead to next fall’s class I needed students who were all in. No hesitation. All in. And, then I told her “Elizabeth, I’m sorry but I’m not going to invite you to join La Ceiba”.

Elizabeth’s face turned a beet red. I don’t remember what she said. I don’t think she said anything at all. We stared at each other for a few moments and in those moments, I watched an incredible student-teacher relationship burn to the ground. That was it for us. It was done. Done.

That was my first “No” for La Ceiba. Over the years, I would go on to say “No” to a number of students. It didn’t get any easier. But I got better at it. In truth, I did not know for sure about any of this. All I had to go on was the experience of observing students of all kinds navigate the experience that was La Ceiba. Sometimes I thought students had it and they didn’t. Sometimes I thought they didn’t but they did. But one thing was for sure – teaching a class like La Ceiba was an emotionally raw, close-to-the-bone educational experience for all involved.


I’m writing a book on my pedagogy called Rewild School, blogpost-by-blogpost. This is one of those blogposts. You can learn more by visiting Rewild School.

Thanks. – shawn


Photo by Adam Evertsson