When we say there aren’t enough teachers, we recruit and hire them, but when we say there aren’t enough competent teachers we’re talking about finding something that can’t be cooked up on short order. It requires a generation or two to create competent teachers. When regenerating a forest, seeds must fall, sprout and grow. Leaves must fall and accumulate inch-by-inch to create a topsoil thick and rich enough for the next generation to take root. This is not so different from an education system.
Old-growth forests are accumulated biological histories so it’s hard to know how they start and how they develop, but in some rare cases land is reduced to ground zero as is the case of volcanic eruptions. Some thirty years Mount St. Helens in Washington State collapsed on itself and erupted violently enough to wipe out every identifiable living thing in a gigantic swath of destruction. It became an ecological lesson on how once destroyed, nature is not something easily regenerated.
The first plants have to colonize bare ground and must survive without soil. Lichen can live on rocks and are called pioneer species because they scrape out the first foothold for other species to follow. Then shrubs give shelter for the seedlings of taller trees to germinate which eventually top the low growth to form forest cover. This process can take centuries.
With Mount St. Helens, scientists believed that regrowth could be sped up with the introduction of outside species, but evidence shows that “biological legacies” in the form of fallen trees, buried seeds and surviving amphibians were instrumental as restarters of green cover.
Ecology is not simply a metaphor for human systems. Natural cycles of devastation and regeneration help us to understand how culture and education are also fragile ecological systems that are sustained by more than superficial elements. A human knowledge base depends on resources, parents, communities and a consensual commitment to learning. The life source of this cycle centers on the quality of the teacher. There will always be books and repositories of knowledge, but in the case of survivors of the Khmer Rouge, it was only a handful of tenacious artists that could pass on centuries of cultural knowledge on the verge of disappearing. They were biological legacies, resilient as lichen and as important as the last genetic evidence in a seed bank.
A healthy education system is like an old growth forest that is fertile from the deepest roots to the highest forest canopy and one that can provide homes for the widest variety of species. In contrast, plantations are easily started and appear green from a satellite image, but monocropping will eventually leach the soil of its nutrients, only to export its wealth away without natural regeneration.
To see the future, we can take a look at our schools and make a quick assessment. What do the students and classrooms look like? Is it a virgin forest full of life or a factory for agricultural products? What do the teachers look like? Do they look more interested in sowing seeds and cultivating growth or more concerned about production rates and output? The reason why this difference is important is because the real and significant difference is something we will see in 20, 50 or 100 years.