According to turn-of-the-20th-century Dutch-German-French ethnographer Arnold van Gennep, a rite of passage is a celebration of the passage which occurs when an individual leaves one group to enter another. And so it is that May and June are rite-of-passage-laden for the US and other countries whose school calendar serves up graduations during those months.
Van Gennep described rites of passage as having three phases: separation, transition (liminality), and incorporation
In the first phase, people withdraw from their current status and prepare to move from one place or status to another. It comprises symbolic behavior signifying the detachment of the individual or group ... from an earlier fixed point in the social structure. It is that strange moment in which one foot is firmly planted in completing the task at hand—be it final exams for high-schoolers or end-of-the-year talent shows for elementary school children—and the other foot is almost at ground zero of the next phase. So where do teachers come in?
In strict observance of Van Gennep’s rite of passage definition, it is the graduating students who are going through a rite of passage because they are leaving one group to enter another; we can argue, however, that teachers—despite not moving on to a different physical space, like a new school or even a new classroom—are going through a rite of passage by also moving on to another group. As their current group of students moves on and a new groups of students arrives, a mutual rite of passage takes place. Teachers’ separation rites may be pre last-day-of-school advice to students, making summer vacation plans, and a need to both expedite and prolong the parting moment.
The transition phase is the period between states and graduation is such an example. As a student receives their diploma, they have walked away from their previous life toward a new one, but will still have time in between that moment and beginning their next academic endeavor or job. Teachers also “graduate” with their students. They have seen the time and energy invested into each student come to fruition.
For younger students the in-between period includes getting used to saying their new grade or for older ones it may include shopping for college-dorm furnishings. For teachers, it is developing new lesson plans, exploring new opportunities to strengthen their teaching outcomes—from new books and the implementation of classroom audio to new classroom seating arrangements and decorations—and chatting with teachers whose students they will inherit in a few months.
“In the third phase (incorporation),” stated Van Gennep, “the passage is completed by the ritual subject.” Assuming their new identity, both teachers and students re-enter society with their new status. So students have a new group and grade, while teachers also have a new group and new year of teaching to face.
As academic rites of passage touch lives, may we cherish each phase to its fullest.
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