Not What, But Who: Remaining Grounded as a Teacher of Students

Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not.

Sandra Cisneros, “Eleven”

The field experience students complete as part of my foundations of education course has this semester blended well with their reading Chris Emdin’s For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Y’all Too.

As we have discussed both during class sessions, students have been drawn to witnessing and reading as well as thinking about how teachers view and respond to their students.

Although these students have virtually no background in formal education, they have been very perceptive about the inordinate, and distracting, pressures on teachers to cover the curriculum (standards) and prepare students for testing—notably while observing and tutoring at a local majority-minority elementary school.

High student/teacher ratios have also been identified as making good classroom practice nearly impossible.

Running through our discussions has been a concern about how teachers treat students (often more harshly than my students anticipated or endorsed) and about the pervasive deficit perspective throughout the school.

Observing and tutoring in special needs classes and among Latinx students needing to acquire English have intensified how my students have responded to their field placement and their recognition of the myriad factors that impact negatively formal education.

Often unspoken, but what teachers and students share in far too many schools is a “no excuses” imperative that demands teachers perform well (even miraculously) despite being placed in circumstances that work against their efforts and that demands students somehow leave the pressures and inequities of their lives in order to excel at academics being imposed on them.

Teresa Watanabe’s Can a child who starts kindergarten with few reading or math skills catch up? is a snapshot of what my students have witnessed and what Emdin’s work challenges.

Responding to that article, Stephen Krashen, Professor Emeritus at the University of Southern California, has identified the problem that my students have observed:

But there is no evidence that tougher standards lead to more learning, and no evidence showing that the Common Core standards are better at preparing children for college and career than other standards or than no standards….

Forcing young children to study flashcards in the car and spell words during family outings in order to “master” 100 words is turning kindergarten into kindergrind.  Children who develop a love of reading will master thousands of words, without suffering.

Although political leaders and the public often view the authoritarian classroom where teachers are charged with keeping order and demanding that students learn standards and content about which they have no choice or input as the solution, it is now far past time to recognize that this is the problem with formal schooling.

Of course, what we teach is important at every level of education, and that what is becoming even more important for our democracy as we are confronted with a new post-truth media and politics.

That what needs to be the sort of truth that empowers a free people.

That what also needs to include a clear focus on the civility of learning and wrestling with ideas since our post-truth media and politics are increasing and justifying the demanding and nasty tone that is already a problem in many schools.

However, the what must remain secondary to the who—who we teach is what makes teaching an essential calling grounded in the dignity of both teachers and their students.

And the what can never be well taught or learned unless we attend to the conditions of teaching/learning and living among our teachers and students.

The authoritarian classroom, deficit thinking, “no excuses” ideologies and practices—these are corrosive elements for teaching, learning, and democracy as well as liberty.

The very long era of standardized testing and the more recent and relatively shorter era of accountability and standards have inflicted immeasurable harm on teachers and students.

And even as educator autonomy and professionalism become daily further eroded, we are morally obligated to call for and remain grounded in our role as teachers of students.

The who of teaching and learning must always come before the what.

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One thought on “Not What, But Who: Remaining Grounded as a Teacher of Students

  1. The “what” of education will never become a part of a student’s outlook without a willingness to take it in. The more we know about individual learning and group dynamics, the more we will understand how to “educate.” I appreciate your stance because it emphasizes just that. Perhaps a better systemic approach would be to identify and remove the barriers from students apprehending the subject matter. I’m not sure our present state and national governmental bodies understand that. The opposition to “Common Core” is even misguided. It’s as if those making policy want to load up “required” learning even more, rather than focus on what makes “education” effective.

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