Teaching is…a metaphor

Teaching is transforming old constructs.

When I started my college education, I did not expect everything I believed to be challenged. Some of those beliefs I have held on to steadfastly, while others have transformed and although some in my life would tell me I have been “brainwashed” by “liberal institutions” like the media and the university I attended, I know the transformations occurred because I was asked to look at and think critically of the social constructs that have shaped our lives and the ways in which Americans interact with each other.

This metaphor and the image that brought it to my mind is the reason I decided to become a teacher. One of the many responsibilities of teaching, as I have progressively learned over this past quarter, is to competently create and navigate a classroom and school community that is increasing diverse, with a myriad of strengths and weaknesses. Connecting my teacher education to my previous undergraduate education, and having the perspective that is a result of my life’s experiences, I can acknowledge that students are individuals with individual experiences, but also the products of greater forces at work: race, gender, government institutions that are inherently biased.

Margaret Buchmann calls teaching an act of taking up moral obligation to students, families, and communities. If we accept this as true, then it is our moral obligation to help students think critically about the social constructs that shape our daily lives and even for some, our fates. Why are certain people portrayed a certain way in movies and television? Why, when at the toy store, are certain toys advertised for boys and others advertised for girls? Are there certain people who are over represented in American prisons than in the larger population? If we decide these things are unjust, how do we go about fixing them? 

I am also reminded of Sir Ken Robinson’s idea of “Changing Paradigms” and his arguments for the “transformation” of the schooling structure. Indeed, I at first intended my metaphor to say “rebuilding,” but decided “transforming” would make more sense. “Rebuilding” sounds like tearing down and then putting up the same structure. It would not be enough to just analyze or “tear down” these social constructs. We would also need to help create citizens who leave our schools and make it their work to “transform” these unjust constructs into ideals of equity, social justice, and understanding.

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“Rethinking our classrooms requires teachers to be activists, requires us to defend our right to engage students in a rich curriculum that promotes academic achievement and social justice.”

Rethinking Our Classrooms, Volume 2

It’s Sunday and I’m excited to go to class tomorrow night. Yep, that’s right, I’m totally excited for SCHOOL. I usually am, but maybe it’s because class was cancelled last Monday that I’m a little over-the-top pumped. Or maybe I’m just really excited to finally discuss tracking and standardized testing and see what the group facilitating the discussion has in store for the rest of us.

It’s been a couple of weeks since I completed the readings for the tracking/standardized testing discussion, so I just went back and reviewed them, looking over the notes I’d left for myself in the margins. Next to the above quote, which I had emphatically underlined, I had written in the margin, “LOVE.” I’m reading it over and over again, like a mantra, and I’ve decided it’ll be my mission statement. The quote is intended as an introduction to the section, “Rethinking Assessment” so that’s exactly what I’ve been doing, both unconsciously and plain ol’ forcing myself to sit here and write it out.

I was tracked. I took many standardized tests, whether they were chapter tests given by my teachers or state tests proctored by those same teachers. I was tracked on honors/AP classes and I always did fairly well on those tests. In short, the system worked for me. And I didn’t question it because, well, I was a beneficiary of it and also, no one else questioned it. Not my fellow classmates, not my teachers. Even in fourth grade, I can remember being part of a “reading group,” and it was clear which one was the “able” reading group and which one was the “remedial” reading group. I don’t think there was ever any cruelty displayed to the students in the “remedial” reading group, it was simply generally acknowledged and accepted that they were “not that smart.” It never occurred to me as a child to question whether this was fair, or just, or even basically kind to think of other people this way. But I did it, and I wasn’t the only one. We knew, even then, there were the kids who would do well in fourth grade, in tenth grade, in college, and become respected professionals with a say in the world, with power. And we knew there were the kids who would, in some way, shape, or form, answer to us. I didn’t hate it then because I didn’t know how to. But I know how to now and I am capable of pointing to this system and saying that it cheats way too many of our students out of a fair and exceptional education.

I’ve heard the argument before that arguing against tracking implies a derogatory view of vocational schooling and careers. I give this argument some credence, because there certainly is an existing viewpoint that being a doctor is more respectable than being a vehicle mechanic. However, I have to ask: When our schools and teachers explicitly and implicitly tell some students they are smarter than others, doesn’t it create that viewpoint that doctors are more respectable than vehicle mechanics? Aren’t we creating that divide between our students by segregating the “able” from the “remedial” and then presenting one group with engaging, challenging, hands-on curriculum while spoon-feeding the other work that may suit their “ability level” but certainly not their intellectual capacity? 

I realize it’ll take more than public schools untracking their classrooms. Colleges and universities and their admittance policies also have to change so we can stop pressuring all of our students to adhere to a shallow version of intellectual ability and capacity and educational success.

There are more important things than doing well on a test. Being able to communicate with people from diverse backgrounds with respect, kindness, and empathy and engage in critical discussions seems to be one of those important things. I don’t think you can measure that on a multiple-choice test.

 

Caring Enough to “Transform” the System (modified from Journal #5)

I’ve been thinking about how “good teaching manifests itself as caring” and passion and caring drives a teacher to provide the best education she can, and I have been thinking about this as an ethical commitment inherent in the teaching profession, as I think Buchmann would argue (Prof. Van Galen). Sir Ken Robinson and Seth Godin have gotten me questioning whether caring about our students is enough when we have to do the caring within the industrialized schooling we are familiar with. While it is relatively innovative for the entire teaching profession to take up the moral obligation and commit themselves to justifiable work, we can take the innovation even further and challenge the factory-like system itself. Compulsory education must be one of the few structures that still looks the same as it did since its inception. It clearly does not work for far too many students and Sir Ken and Godin make good points about why but it makes me wonder why it worked for some, why did it work for me?

I thrived in the school environment described by Godin–I was a “competent” student in the “competencies” as Godin defines the word. I am reliable in my punctuality, and I work well with deadlines. I rarely, really never, questioned teachers because they were authority figures. I never questioned them, even when I thought they were questionable as the authority figures I thought they were supposed to be. I won’t lie, I am slightly embarrassed to admit these things about myself (never have I ever been embarrassed about my dutiful punctuality!) because I wish I could say I was the challenger of status quo back then the way I want to be from this point on, as a teacher.

Now I am thinking that I need to channel the passion and caring, the moral obligation, and create a new competency as an educator–challenge and change the way schooling is structured so it does not benefit a few, but benefits all. So how do we do this? Is it enough to have an entire community of teachers arguing for a change in the structure when everyone else is stuck “sharpening the same pencil we’ve already got” (Godin)? How can we convince people for change when the structure already in place worked for some people, but especially for the people who have the power to carry out change? The answer I have right now is that change is going to take more than this generation. We will have to be the teacher Godin argues for by taking on a “new teacher role”: “What we do need is someone to persuade us that we want to learn those things, and someone to push us or encourage us or create a space where we want to learn to do them better (67). We will have to help our students connect their talents with who they are, and change the structure from the inside, out so that it is not the outside-in, Industrial Revolution-model Sir Ken argues kills the creativity in our students. Our students, could, I think, be “inculcated,” Godin calls it, with the passion and caring of their teachers and connect it to the innovative structural changes we need to truly educate everyone, not just a few. We could take the structural changes we need in the entire system and apply it to our classrooms, and share the responsibility of change with our students. But could this work, could there be the repercussions we envision? Do we continue our work in the hopes that future generations, the graduates of our inside-out classrooms will become the voice that “transforms education into something else” (Sir Ken)?

Ideas are forming, and I have to admit I am hearing those whispers of hesitancy Godin urges us to fight. The whispers are not telling me these changes are unnecessary–they are necessary–but whispers of whether I can handle the responsibility of this new competency, this obligation to effectively transform our schools for our students. This takes me back to a blog entry where I stated my need to have a professional community of peers. I need these peers because taking up this challenge is incredibly daunting and I would be lying if I said I weren’t a little…terrified. Also, what use is it to transform a single classroom when we need to transform all of them?

Poverty

The Beegle reading was a perspective of the issue of poverty I had not really been confronted with or considered before. In my experience as a student studying any topics concerning how institutions are structurally biased, poverty was inextricable from issues of race. Any discussions about poverty were built into discussions of race and the discussion was usually about how disproportionate numbers of minorities, particularly Blacks and Latinos, live in poverty.

While Beegle acknowledges this fact, she also made the argument that white is the only race that you can attach “trash” to and remain culturally acceptable. At first, I had an adverse reaction to this quote because I felt, and still to a certain degree feel that there is hesitancy to acknowledge that the privilege of being white encompasses more than economic privilege. However, the more I dwelled on it and especially after the group facilitation of this topic, I think I am taking more of Beegle’s argument to heart than I did before.

In order to eradicate systematic, inherited poverty, we have to stop making assumptions that white people who are poor are poor by choice. People in poverty, regardless of race, have to fight the same systemic issues in order to successfully meet their basic needs.

Education is almost universally acknowledged as being “the great equalizer.” The people within the institution, then, should make sure that we are, at the very least, the one place where being poor is not a barrier to success.

C18 as a Professional Community (an excerpt from Journal #3)

One of the joys and challenges of our UWB program is that we are already starting to set standards for ourselves as to what kind of teachers we will be. We have to uphold these standards for ourselves and I think we are beginning to expect that the rest of our cohort will be doing the same for themselves. Beyond our cohort, we should be able to hold our future co-teachers to similar standards and the moral, ethical obligations we hold inherent in teaching. We should be able to rely on each other for support the way I know my dad relied on his fellow Airmen during his time in service, the way my brother relies on his fellow firefighters and the way my artist boyfriend relies on his artist friends. This is not just friendship, it’s a mutual understanding of the work, the struggle, and the deeper call to participate in that particular field. If we are going to take up work like the work Lisa Delpit advocates, then I want to know that my work is being supported in the classroom next door and the teacher there and the teachers across the country have similar feelings of moral obligation to our students and to each other. Simultaneously, we have to share our success and failures and works-in-progress with each other and make our profession–the hours, the effort–more visible to the public. If we demand that the public treats us better and change popular opinion about our stature as a “real” career, then perhaps we should begin behaving like one as a whole.

I once attended a lecture given by Geoffrey Canada, and I remember specifically his opinions on one of the first steps we should take to improve schools in America–treat our teachers like the professionals we expect them to be. We do not expect doctors and computer scientists to run the same gamut year in and year out. We expect them to be innovative and try new things and take (acceptable) risks. And they get paid a corresponding salary. Why shouldn’t this be extended to teaching? We would never allow doctors to practice medicine or lawyers prosecute criminals without the appropriate credentials and experience; why should we allow teachers teach without proving dedication to this “role orientation” described by Buchmann:

“role-oriented teachers…placed themselves within a larger picture in which colleagues, the curriculum, and accountability figured in some fashion. They looked outwards rather than inward…[T]hey felt bound by obligations; the personal element in their responses was framed by a sense of the collective” (536).

It seems that while our work is easily ignored, we are highly susceptible to quick criticism and judgement. It seems unfair to me that people can freely insult what I do, think that my career choice is due to some personal failure, yet expect me to achieve the results promised to them by politicians and/or other well-meaning member of the education discussion, without paying me for the time and energy required by innovation. And it is easy for them to do this because the effects of our work are not immediate and definitely not immediately measurable. It is not life or death or life and imprisonment, but we are the difference between a thoughtful life and an unfulfilling life. Maybe this is overreaching, the bright-eyed optimism of a preservice teacher to think teachers have this kind of power and efficacy in an individual’s life. But if us teachers as a community want our profession to receive the respect we know it deserves, we should work to elevate its status by agreeing with each other that competency is a requirement, just like any other profession.

The more time I spend with this cohort in this specific program, the more complex my feelings and understanding of the profession become and I am asking questions just as fast as the information is coming in. Although I think that is one of the best benefits of having this cohort, I have to wonder how much push-back and hesitancy we are going to receive when we are out there as certified, practicing teachers. But I do feel encouraged that coming out of this cohort, I will not be the only advocate.