Mr. Henry hands out his lesson plan in a book

Local author wants kids to be allowed to learn from their mistakes and successes

Don M. Burrows

Peter Henry is a teacher who also happens to be a human.

As such, he brings his own human experiences into the classroom ‘ the looming threat of failure, the experimentation of life, the big questions that no one can ever seem to answer.

But you don’t have to be one of Henry’s students ‘ he’s teaching community college courses to American Indians in Minneapolis ‘ to learn from him.

His new book, “Becoming Mr. Henry,” chronicles his life from the 1960s to the present, and touches on the changes in his own life and how they relate to the contemporary challenges facing teachers today.

“Kids make mistakes,” he remarks in connection with failed zero-tolerance policies that kick students out of school for a single infraction. These policies end up creating more problems than they solve, he said.

“Everyone makes mistakes, actually, and the question is, What do we do when we turn out someone who’s made a mistake,” he said. That student who is kicked out of school becomes more of a burden on society, he claimed.

As the son of two college professors, Henry was instilled with a love of learning at a young age. And he understands what the advocates of mandatory testing do not: That learning should be an edifying experience, something sought and embraced and cherished in itself, not a means to an end.

This acknowledgement of students as people is, at its heart, a philosophy of teaching itself. As such, Henry understands that students often learn more from one another than from their teachers; that it’s the questions, not the answers, that make students learn.

“Growing up, I feel like my teachers, and also my parents, but especially my teachers, helped me to see a larger world,” Henry said. “Somebody helped make that happen. And you get to a point where you want that for other kids, too.”

Henry’s book and its outlook are relevant because a lot of what is wrong with modern life ignores what true education should be. As he puts it, many people now turn to religion or self-help books because they grow weary of the crass materialism of modern American culture.

They seek something further, and yet, at the same time, the wheels of American machinery appear to be turning the classroom into an assembly line with the goal of spitting out students perfectly manufactured to fill the cogs of that materialistic society.

“Especially now, when the light of learning is held in such a low regard,” he continued, describing the teach-to-the-test mentality and the mindless adherence to authority that results from today’s public schooling.

Henry said this philosophy not only discourages students from developing their own ideas, but also that it actually is a “perversion” of the United States’ democratic ideals.

“(My parents) ingrained in us this idea that education is about figuring out who you are and what’s important in life,” he said.

While a person’s job or financial status can change instantaneously, he said, figuring out one’s “essential character” and the ideals one wants to live by are constants that can guide a person throughout his or her lifetime.

Like everyone else, Henry’s values about teaching reflect his values about democracy. There are some who want knowledge to be dictated, to be authoritatively spoon-fed and accepted without the questioning and exploration that have advanced our understanding over the ages. And there are others, like Henry, who understand that learning, like life, is done best through experimentation, through trial and error, and most especially, through failure ‘ not by filling in all the correct bubbles with a No. 2 pencil.

It’s this blend of recognized human frailty with the task of educating students that makes Henry’s approach compelling.

Let’s face it: Too often we expect teachers to present an ideal rather than a reality. We think if we tell students that sex and drugs aren’t often a part of the human experience that they’ll believe it and transcend their humanity.

That’s why a good book on teaching must be a biography. Henry doesn’t apologize for his mistakes or for those of his students. He just expects them, and all of us, to learn from them.