Verboden!: Autonomy and Critical Thinking in Education

We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone

“Another Brick in the Wall – Part 2,” Pink Floyd (Roger Waters)

Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.

“The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” Audre Lorde

During my 18 years as a public high school English teacher, I taught as an outsider—but for many of those years, I found solace in a colleague, Ed Welchel, who taught history.

Among students, parents, faculty, and administration, Ed and I were considered good, even very good teachers, but we also were viewed with skepticism, particularly the farther up the authority chain you went (parents and administrators, especially).

The high school where we taught, although a rural public school, felt in many ways like a strict private school—very harsh discipline and dress codes, palpable conservative values.

Ed and I were as unlike that environment as two people could be.

After a particularly brutal faculty meeting that stressed the need to control our students, Ed and I began a chant we would share quietly as we passed in the hall: “Beat ’em down, beat ’em down.”

After I completed my doctorate in 1998, Ed soon finished the same program, and then left for another high school before moving on to higher education before I did.

That was fifteen-plus years ago, but it stands as relevant today since many are beginning to fret in earnest about why so many K-12 teachers leave the field.

It’s pretty damn obvious, I hate to say, but many teachers leave the profession because formal schooling is incredibly dehumanizing for students and teachers; in short, in schools, autonomy and critical thinking are verboden.

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Dark Sarcasms in the Classroom

Former career music educator and blogger at Education Week/Teacher, Nancy Flanagan asks: “Who is truly afraid of genuine leadership emerging from practitioners?”

Flanagan also confronts a key distinction about what “leadership” means by examining if teacher leaders are, as Audre Lourde would say, using the Master’s tools (implementing policy as required by administration as agents of accountability mandates) or being autonomous professionals.

More optimistically than I would conclude, Flanagan suggests, “Teachers may have lost a vision of reform led by authentic, unvarnished teacher thinking, instead of teacher compliance–but we haven’t relinquished the ideas of autonomy, mastery and self-determined purpose yet.

Educator and activist, Andre Perry turns a similar focus on how school climate impacts students, particularly marginalized populations of students. Perry stresses:

As researchers on positive school climate note, the “personality” of a school is an expression of how teachers, students, family members and community perceive the milieu.

In other words, a school doesn’t have to be mean to be good. Treating students with care and respect increases academic performance among students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, higher than if a school placed a singular single focus on academics.

This rejects, for example, the racist undertones driving the popularity of “no excuses” ideology, notably among charter schools serving poor, black, and brown students. But Perry also speaks to the wider norm of formal schooling.

Historically and especially over the past thirty years of high-stakes accountability, formal education is an Orwellian institution in which “critical thinking” is about completing a worksheet so you can score well on multiple-choice questions assessing critical thinking.

But don’t actually think or act critically if you are a student or a teacher.

Teacher Education and All that Is Wrong

Ed and I left K-12 education because of the harsh environment in schools toward students and because K-12 schools are no places for autonomous professionals.

I literally left after being docked pay for presenting at a professional conference.

However, much to our chagrin, teacher education in higher education is not oasis of professional autonomy, but the most embarrassing desert in higher education.

While colleagues in English often handed out 1-2 page syllabi, mine were 15-20 pages of standards, correlating assignments to those standards, and rubrics—despite my own published stance rejecting rubrics.

The professional life of a teacher educator is mostly about complying with accreditation and certification mandates in order to make sure teacher candidates comply with accreditation and certification mandates.

Again, autonomy and critical thinking are verboden!

For example, in the same foundations course I teach where we confront slut shaming and the inherent sexism of dress codes, within one week of my students being placed in a nearby elementary school to tutor, the principal asked me to remind the female students to dress appropriately.

As well, I always begin that course, and come back to this in most of my classes, with Sandra Cisneros’s “Eleven”—highlighting the dehumanizing norm of schooling that the story captures in the eleven-year-old Rachel’s lament: “Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not.”

But my foundations students are left with observing that reality in their field placements while also being denied the autonomy to do anything to change it.

And while I will not bore you with more examples, the situation above is no outlier; that is what teacher education is—a perpetual state of compliance to bureaucracy that is devoid of opportunities for professional autonomy and critical thinking.

When our candidates do reach the field, they invariably come to use with these observations:

  • “I can’t do anything you taught us in methods.”
  • “This is why people leave the field.”
  • “The administration treats teachers like students.”

All aspects of the field of education, then, are about compliance to the “bureaucratizing of the mind” about which Paulo Freire warned.

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Formal education remains a desert, and we—teachers and students—wander dutifully forward, toward the wavering mirage that somehow teaching and learning are powerful instruments for change.

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Education as change remains just that, however—a mirage.

In the halls of schools at every level, student and teacher autonomy and critical thinking are verboden.

 

Teacher Education and A Call to Activism

If such a thing existed, education as a profession and discipline would easily take Gold, Silver, and Bronze in the Low Self-Esteem Olympics.

Historically viewed as a woman’s profession—and thus a “second” salary—and as merely a professional discipline, education has labored under a secondary status in both the professional and academic worlds.

As a result, education chose early to be a scientific profession and discipline to counter the perception of softness—and thus, as Kliebard details, the heart and soul of education (child-centered commitments and social activism) were marginalized for the more conservative and “hard” elements (efficiency and core curriculum).

In the early decades of the twentieth century, then, a paradox developed: while many who demonized and championed education associated U.S. public schools with John Dewey, the reality was that very little progressivism was practiced but that standardized testing was established as the engine driving the education machine.

Throughout the twentieth century, IQ testing and then the SAT and similar gate-keeping standardized tests (such as the Iowa Test of Basic Skills) significantly influenced how students were labeled and then what courses students were assigned—and even if they had real access to higher education. By the early 1980s, a new era of hyper-accountability was established within which the locus of power shifted entirely to standards and high-stakes tests.

In short, teachers have been reduced to implementing the standards prescribed for them and to conducting test-prep—while the discipline of education has been almost entirely bureaucratized since education courses serve as vehicles for fulfilling certification and accreditation mandates.

In the Preface to Regenerating the Philosophy of Education (edited by Kincheloe and Hewitt, Peter Lang USA, 2011), Hewitt confesses:

Seriously. I never thought I would ever have to justify the moral importance of social foundations courses—particularly philosophy of education courses—in Ph.D. and Ed.D. programs to a committee of colleagues, all holding Ph.Ds. (p. ix)

What Hewitt and the volume are addressing, however, is the new reality about teacher education: education philosophy and foundations courses are disappearing (are gone) because more and more course work in education degrees has to fulfill demands of certification and accreditation.

No more Dewey, Greene, and Freire. But a relentless drumbeat of validity, reliability, teacher impact, and rubrics (my God, the rubrics).

Teacher educators, teacher candidates, and practitioners—all are now not in the business of investigating and building/re-building the profession and discipline of education, but are soldiers taking marching orders from bureaucrats and technocrats.

No more “What is the purpose of universal public education in a free society?” but instead “How do we raise test scores among poor and black/brown students?”

And as I have pointed out before, among those of us in teacher education—who work in higher education where many of us have tenure and are full professors“we have met the enemy and he is us.”

Teacher education has continued the most self-defeating aspects of being a low self-esteem profession and discipline by trying way too hard to prove we are like “hard” disciplines—scrambling to be like psychology while sacrificing our sociological roots, battering our majors and candidates with statistics and measurement while reducing educational philosophy to surveys at best and eliminating it entirely at worst.

And to drift a bit into irony, philosophy is extremely illustrative of the problem facing education. Gilles Deleuze explains:

We are in a generalized crisis in relation to all the environments of enclosure—prison, hospital, factory, school, family. The family is an “interior,” in crisis like all other interiors—scholarly, professional, etc. The administrations in charge never cease announcing supposedly necessary reforms [emphasis added]: to reform schools, to reform industries, hospitals, the armed forces, prisons….

In the disciplinary societies one was always starting again [emphasis added] (from school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory), while in the societies of control one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed services being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation. (pp. 3-4, 5)

Education, then, as bureaucratic and technocratic has characteristics of both societies of control and disciplinary societies—”always starting again” and “never finished with anything” as characteristics of the accountability paradigm driven by ever-new standards and ever-new high-stakes tests.

But for all the bluster about being “scientific” and the relentless mantra of “crisis,” bureaucratic and technocratic education has failed to examine the data and re-evaluate the process: after nearly a century of standardized testing and over three decades of accountability, most “problems” all of that has been fashioned to address remain the same: poverty and inequity, racism, sexism, and homophobia still plague society and the schools designed to serve and even change that society.

The short version is that bureaucratic and technocratic education has not worked—except to destroy the heart and soul of education as a profession and discipline.

At both the K-12 and higher education levels, the school year is beginning all across the U.S. We in teacher education are spending much if not most of our time as soldiers in the certification and accreditation wars—recalibrating syllabi to standards and rewriting our rubrics to meet those new standards as well.

We in teacher education are so busy complying to bureaucratic and technocratic mandates, and so-long beaten down by the demand that we avoid being political (and thus remain compliant and silent), that we are embodying the very caricature of what educators and education professors are, paradoxically, as we rush to prove our profession and discipline are “hard,” scientific: rarely scholarly, superficial, and simplistic. 

K-12 teachers are increasingly even less powerful than the profession has been forever; therefore, teacher education—where we are tenured and full professors—is the last best hope for reclaiming the heart and soul of universal public education from the bureaucrats and technocrats.

We must reclaim the coursework and the discipline—ripping off our low self-esteem and standing proudly with our philosophy, theory, history, and methodology.

As a profession, education is a human endeavor, guided by our hearts and anchored by our souls. Teaching daily is messy, unpredictable, and chaotic.

None of that is “soft,” or hedging accountability.

As a discipline, education is rich and still in a constant state of becoming.

I cannot stress enough that over a thirty-plus-year career as first a public school English teacher and now a teacher educator, I don’t need standards, I don’t need tests, and I damn well don’t need rubrics to teach.

I do need students, and I do need courses to teach.

But these are trivial matters, irrelevant, as long as teacher educators remain dedicated soldiers in the bureaucratic and technocratic education war.

Now, we do need defectors, conscientious objectors—teacher educators willing to resist, to speak up, and act out.

Especially those of us with tenure and who are full professors, we need not be the enemy—we can and should do better.

 

Imagining a Society where All Lives Matter

The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer.

James Baldwin, “A Report from Occupied Territory,” The Nation, July 11, 1966.

The U.S. suffers from “myths that deform” [1].

As George Carlin quipped, “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe it.”

At the core of that deforming American Dream is a cultural clinging to individual responsibility and its negative—a rejection of both community/collaboration and systemic forces.

In the U.S., so the story goes, you are successful or a failure because of your own individual traits, regardless of the power of inequities (racism, classism, sexism) to shape your life.

Also necessary for the American Dream and bootstrap narratives to endure, the U.S. has a love affair with outlier antidotes: One black man’s success proves no racism exists.

Idealism in the U.S. sustains offensive slogans such as All Lives Matter, but also feeds whitewashing of the ugliest parts of our history (know-nothing pundit Bill O’Reilly, for example, arguing that slaves building the White House were well fed).

This belief in individual responsibility has created a culture in the U.S. that allows and embraces a militarized police force, one that defaults to an excessive use of force.

Just as our idealism blinds us, we in the U.S. are simplistic thinkers. Instead of questioning why in the U.S. police kill hundreds of citizens each year (2014: 630 killed) while in German police routinely kill fewer than 10 citizens a year (2014: 7 killed), the urge to whitewash shouts that police kill more whites than black—disregarding that black and brown U.S. citizens are killed at much higher rates than whites.

Let’s then imagine what a society would be like where all lives do matter—even though we really don’t have to imagine.

If all lives mattered, we would expect that no citizens be killed by the police each year, and that no police officer would die in the line of duty.

Our default would be zero in each case, and instead of rushing to justify either, we would see both as failures of our free people. “We are better than this,” we would say, “and we shall do better.”

In this imaginary society, most of us would have never known Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice—now perversely immortalized as victims of a people who do not value some people’s lives as much as we rush to justify our violent culture, our militarized police, and our sacred guns.

In this imaginary world where all lives matter, there is “nothing to kill or die for”—but this is a type of idealism we refuse to pursue in the U.S.


[1] Paulo Freire’s Teachers as Cultural Workers.

Teaching, Writing as Activism?

To the extent that I become clearer about my choices and my dreams, which are substantively political and attributively pedagogical, and to the extent that I recognize that though an educator I am also a political agent, I can better understand why I fear and realize how far we still have to go to improve our democracy. I also understand that as we put into practice an education that critically provokes the learner’s consciousness, we are necessarily working against the myths that deform us. As we confront such myths, we also face the dominant power because those myths are nothing but the expression of this power, of its ideology.

Paulo Freire, Teachers as Cultural Workers

Thus, proponents of critical pedagogy understand that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces. Shaped by history and challenged by a wide range of interest groups, educational practice is a fuzzy concept as it takes place in numerous settings, is shaped by a plethora of often-invisible forces, and can operate even in the name of democracy and justice to be totalitarian and oppressive.

Joe Kincheloe, Critical Pedagogy Primer

Low self-esteem and doubt are evil, tiny demons, and both have plagued me lately with a question: Are teaching and writing activism?

In the past several months, from Ferguson to Bree Newsome’s removing the Confederate battle flag from statehouse grounds in South Carolina, the public in the U.S. has had to confront the power and tensions with activism.

The activism connected with race and racism across the nation also prompted for me a question about what exactly counts as activism as well as what are our moral obligations when faced with bigotry, racism, sexism, homophobia, and all forms of oppression.

To do nothing, to strike the “I’m not political” pose, we must admit, is itself a political act, one that tacitly reinforces the status quo of oppression and inequity.

To proclaim “I don’t see race” is to be complicit in the very racism those who claim not to see race pretend to be above.

Activism broadly is taking action for change, and despite the cultural pressure that teachers somehow stand above activism and politics, despite the perception that writing is not action, both teaching and writing are types of activism—although each of us who are teachers and writers has decisions about how that looks in our own careers and lives.

For me, the urge to teach and write is grounded in confronting a world that is incomplete, inadequate, and then calling for a world that could be.

More than a decade after I began teaching high school English, I discovered critical pedagogy and social reconstructionism during my doctoral program—and was able to place my muddled and naive efforts at teaching-as-activism into a purposeful context.

As a K-12 teacher, I always held tight to the autonomy of my classroom to do what was right by my students—usually against the grain of the school and the community, and often in ways that were threatening to my career.

The curriculum we offer our students and the pedagogy we practice are activism if we embrace that call.

Instead of the prescribed textbook and reading list, I augmented what my students read and pushed each year to change, to expand the required reading lists to include women and writers of color.

My first quarter of American literature began with Howard Zinn’s reconsideration of the Columbus discovering America myth and then built on adding Margaret Fuller to the traditional examination of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

The second half of that first quarter focused on Gandhi’s non-violent non-cooperation as well as an expanded sub-unit of black thought—including Marcus Garvey, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. We considered whose voice matters, and why, along with complicating the often oversimplified presentation of MLK as the only black voice in U.S. history.

In the 1980s and 1990s of rural upstate SC, these texts and conversations were rare and hard for my students, resisted and rejected by the community (my birth town), and challenging for me as a becoming-teacher. And much of this I did badly despite my best intentions.

Beyond my classroom, as department chair, I worked to de-track our English classes as much as possible (reducing the levels from 4 to 3), but also ended the practice of multiple texts per grade level that in effect labeled our students walking down the hallways. I also had the department stop issuing grammar and vocabulary texts to all students, moving those texts to resources for teachers who wished to use them.

Then, I did not think of that teaching as activism, however.

So I share all this not to pat myself on the back, but to acknowledge now how our teaching can—and I would argue must—be activism. To detail what teaching-as-activism looks like in the day to day.

I share also to note that when working within the system as it is handed to us, we are being political in that we are complicit when we passively work as agents of practices that are a disservice to our students, and ourselves.

Activism is teaching for that which we want to be and thus against that which we witness as wrong.

None of this is easy or comfortable, and I recognize in hindsight, to work against the system has real costs, even if we do not lose our jobs, which of course serves no one well.

My journey to embrace writing as activism was much slower developing, but along the way I have shifted much of my energy toward public work because I believe that also to be activism—raising a voice in the pursuit of change, putting ones name behind words that challenge.

But it is the writing as activism that gives me greater pause because writing is a solitary and often isolated thing (although teaching is often a profession in which we are isolated from each other, and fail in teaching in solidarity because of that dynamic).

My dual vocations as teacher/writer are significantly impacted by my privilege as well as the perceptions that teaching is not/should not be political and that writing is not really putting one bodily into the fray.

Thus, my vigilance lies in setting aside paternalistic urges, working beside and not for, and seeking ways in which my unearned privilege can be used in the service of others who are burdened by inequity.

As teachers and writers, are we activists, then?

I say that we can be, that we must be.

But how that looks is ours to decide; grand and small, our impact on the world is in our daily actions, our daily words.

And I am always, always anchored in my high school classroom, where my efforts to open the world to my students, to foster in them a belief that the world can be different, the world can be better were often subtly taped to my wall—the words of Henry David Thoreau:

Any fool can make a rule, and any fool will mind it.

A man has not everything to do, but something; and because he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that he should do something wrong.

I think to be a teacher is to confront our doubts, to break through the stigma we may feel about our desire to make a difference, to change the world, to be activists.

These doubts and these callings are shared by writers as well, I believe.

Yes, teaching and writing are activism, activism we should be proud to own.

We Can, and We Must

I remembered it had been one of Mother’s pet ideas—she was always voicing it—that in the long run one gets used to anything.

The Stranger, Albert Camus (Trans. Stuart Gilbert)

Pamela Cantor offers her medical perspective to the education reform debate that tends to focus on high-poverty schools disproportionately serving  black and brown children:

The argument that says we can’t fix education until we fix poverty is a false one [1]. We can’t fix poverty or the other adverse events of children’s lives, but we can “fix” the impact of stress on the developing brain. In fact, we have to. We can and must teach schools and teachers how to do this now.

Lurking beneath the good intentions of this charge, however, is the false dichotomy of fatalism that is common among a wide range of education reformers.

For children living in poverty—a stressful and toxic life of unjust scarcity—this “we” has chosen simultaneously to concede that “we” can do nothing about poverty, racism, and inequity, but those impoverished children have been sentenced to both their lives of poverty and then formal education that replicates the stress of the lives (which “we” demand they set aside somehow just by walking through the doors of schools) through mantras of “no excuses,” manufactured lessons in “grit,” and race- and class-biased high-stakes testing that doubles down on stress and anxiety.

The false dichotomy of fatalism has built a world in which privileged adults with the power to tolerate this world or to change this world are afforded excuses (“We can’t fix poverty or the other adverse events of children’s lives”), but powerless and impoverished children are dehumanized with the demand of “no excuses.”

“I have always rejected fatalism,” writes Paulo Freire:

I prefer rebelliousness because it affirms my status as a person who has never given in to the manipulations and strategies designed to reduce the human person to nothing. The recently proclaimed death of history, which symbolizes the death of utopia, of our right to dream, reinforces without doubt the claims that imprison our freedom. This makes the struggle for the restoration of utopia all the more necessary. Educational practice itself, as an experience in humanization, must be impregnated with this ideal.

Meursault in Albert Camus’s The Stranger confesses and embraces human resignation, the fatalism that the world happens to us, that a world in which we are alive or dead is no different, that a world of freedom or prison is simply something “we” get used to.

Margaret Atwood offers a more detailed and darkly disturbing vision in The Handmaid’s Tale and Offred/June, who has been shaped a different woman in her lives before and after the fall of the world “we” know and the brave new world of Gilead.

The world “we” have created is neither existential fiction nor speculative dystopian fiction; the world “we” have created is far more terrible.

“Why exactly was I sad?” asks Ta-Nehisi Coates in Letter to My Son, as he confronts a “failed” guest appearance on a news show:

I came out of the studio and walked for a while. It was a calm December day. Families, believing themselves white, were out on the streets. Infants, raised to be white, were bundled in strollers. And I was sad for these people, much as I was sad for the host and sad for all the people out there watching and reveling in a specious hope. I realized then why I was sad. When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree-houses and the Cub Scouts. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world, I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.

July 5, 2015, is in too many ways ample evidence not of celebration but disappointment, one grounded in the exact document of declaration that prompts annual flag waving each July in the United States of America.

As “we” rebelled from the British crown, “we” pronounced to “hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”—excluding black humans shackled by slavery and those second-class humans, women.

Thomas Jefferson had faced slavery in the original draft of this declaration, but due to the pressure of Southern heritage and the Invisible Hand of the all-mighty market, “we” included only some men, despite the rhetoric otherwise.

More than 100 years passed before the rhetoric of law approached the apparent original intent of declaring independence, but the clock continues to tick as “we” throw up our hands when “we” don’t have them covering our eyes.

Coates above quotes James Baldwin because Coates recognizes in his own life as well as the life of his son that as Baldwin declared:

To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time. So the first part of the problem is how to control the rage so that it won’t destroy you. Part of the rage is this: it isn’t only what is happening to you, but it’s what’s happening around you all of the time, in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference, the indifference and ignorance of most white people in this country.

“Indifference and ignorance of most white people in this country” is the fatalism “we” embody each time “we” claim nothing can be done about poverty, racism, or inequity—each time “we” ask more of children, the poor, the marginalized and dehumanized than of ourselves.

“We,” I regret, have chosen a resignation and paralysis that benefits the “we” “who believe that they are white,” as Coates channels Baldwin.

Freire believed, however, “we” can transform into we by “reject[ing] fatalism.”

We can, and we must.

[1] While I believe this first comment is a straw man argument (since many are calling for both equity-based reform of society and schools, and this smacks of implying some are using poverty as an excuse), Cantor should consider that Martin Luther King Jr. asserted: “We are likely to find that the problems of housing and education, instead of preceding the elimination of poverty, will themselves be affected if poverty is first abolished.”

Our Practice, Our Selves

In my undergraduate introductory education course, I read aloud the first or second class Sandra Cisneros’s “Eleven.”

The central character is Rachel, and the setting is her school day on her eleventh birthday. School that day strips all the shine from what should be a day of celebration and joy for this child because her math teacher, Mrs. Price, demands that Rachel not only claim but also wear a red sweater the teacher is certain belongs to Rachel (although, as the readers, the teacher, and students discover, it doesn’t). A key moment in the story highlights the power dynamic between Mrs. Price and Rachel: “Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not.”

Even for college students (and especially for my sophomores when I taught high school in rural South Carolina), I am hard to take those first days, and even weeks. My teacher persona and my class ask a great deal of students, who often feel overwhelmed, disoriented, and even angry.

So this semester I have just had “the talk” with that introductory class (and I also teach two first years seminars that are writing intensive); it includes acknowledging that I recognize how disorienting my class and I are for them as well as reminding them of “Eleven” and Rachel.

I very consciously want my students to be intellectually and ideologically rattled, but I also am committed to a much more important and foundational imperative: Students must always feel and be physically, emotionally, and psychologically safe in their learning spaces that I orchestrate.

Rachel in Cisneros’s story cannot learn on that day when she feels tiny, powerless, dehumanized. And the agent of those feelings are Mrs. Price, her callous attitude toward her students (children), and ultimately her practice.

Our Practice, Our Selves

Those of us who teach are now likely beginning new academic years, whether at the K-12 or higher education levels. As a result, I have read many posts and conversations on social media about our practices.

For my first year students, for example, I shared John Warner’s really fine piece, New Cell Phone/Computer Policy Draft Version. The transition from high school (significantly rule-based) to college is often difficult for students for reasons beyond the greater academic expectations. I have found that the transition to making decisions and being self-sufficient is far more disorienting for our students than even the challenges of college academics.

I have also come across online debates about handling late work from students and even a Tweet about a professor banning students from emailing except for emergencies.

After 31 years of teaching, then, I have been thinking again about how our practice teaches our students who we are and sends lessons that may not be in either our or our students’ best interests. I want here to outline a few of these in order to highlight what has always driven me as a teacher, coach, and parent: Seeking ways in which to avoid practicing what I believe is the greatest failure among adults, hypocrisy—holding children to standards that we ourselves never meet:

  • Let me start with Warner’s topic: cell phones and computers in class. Over my three decades as an educator, I have never attended a meeting with teachers or professors in which all of those attending paid full attention. In recent years, computers and cell phones are always out, and a significant number of teachers and professors are either multi-tasking or simply not paying attention. Thus, instead of imposing rules because I can, I discuss with students how and why their cell phones and laptops can be either productive or distracting in class—and how that is their decision, one that impacts everyone else in the room. I had similar talks with my high school students about needing to leave class to use the bathroom (automatic demerits where I taught, by the way). While teachers and schools are prone to embrace hard-line black-and-white rules, justifying them by invoking the real world, that approach to “rules” is in fact nothing like the real world.
  • The professor banning email from students struck me hard because I not only encourage students to email me, but also give them my cell number and mention texting. In fact, I want communication from my students—and I expect that a significant amount of it will be frustrating (asking me information they should know) and even so-called “disrespectful” (emails with “BTW” and other such text-ese). But I encourage these communications because I seek as many opportunities to teach students as I can, and I also am committed to doing so with patience and affording them the dignity they deserve. I often say in class that they should feel free to say what they want in class, in part so I can warn them never to utter such again, especially in a college classroom.
  • Both of the above, I think, are informed by my greatest pet peeve about (possibly) the most repeated commandment we make to teachers: Don’t be friends with your students. This always baffles and infuriates me because I cannot fathom what there is about friendship that isn’t appropriate for the teacher/student relationship. Kindness? Compassion? Attentiveness? I suspect that this dictum confuses a rightful restriction to the level of intimacy between teacher and student, but I also notice many teachers work so hard to maintain some artificial pose of professional distance between them and their students that all the humanity is drained out of teaching and learning. My students are my friends by default, and I love them. Again, I cannot comprehend how any of that should be avoided.
  • And just to address one practice linked more directly to instruction: How do we treat late work? [1] First, I have already examined high and reasonable expectations for student work—in which I made an important point related to the first bullet above: While editing several scholarly volumes, I have yet to have all work submitted complete and on time by college professors and scholars. In fact, in each situation, a number of the pieces were late (not just one or two) and many had significant citation problems (including not using the requested style sheet) as well as most needing heavy copyediting and feedback. So once again, while meeting deadlines and high-quality work are obviously important to instill in students, both are not as pervasive in the adult world as many teachers model in their classes: “I don’t accept late work,” “Late work starts at a B (or C),” and such. I no longer grade work, but if I did, I would never put a grade on an artifact of learning that didn’t represent the quality of the artifact (and not outside aspects unrelated to that quality). I did include considerations of habitually late work in quarter grades when teaching high school, but the key there was “habitually late,” and the need to address that habit.

Basic human kindness and dignity—these are the lessons I want my students to learn. And I don’t see those lessons in rules, and certainly not embedded in adult hypocrisy. I feel compelled as a teacher to work against both extremes confronted by Paulo Freire:

It is in this sense that both the authoritarian teacher who suffocates the natural curiosity and freedom on the student as well as the teacher who imposes no standards at all are equally disrespectful of an essential characteristic of our humanness, namely, our radical (and assumed) unfinishedness, out of which emerges the possibility of being ethical. (p. 59)

How often under the considerable weight of being a teacher do we bend to the callousness of Mrs. Price (“the authoritarian teacher”) and her ultimate failure—”Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not”—at the expense of a child’s or young adult’s respect or dignity?

How often do we fall victim to what LaBrant confronted: “On the other hand, we should not, under the guise of developing literary standards, merely pass along adult weariness” (p. 276)?

Let us be vigilant in recognizing that our practice is our Selves. Let us seek always to avoid any of our students feeling as Rachel does on her eleventh birthday, a victim of “adult weariness”:

Today I’m eleven. There’s a cake Mama’s making for tonight and when Papa comes home from work we’ll eat it. There’ll be candles and presents and everybody will sing Happy birthday, happy birthday to you, Rachel, only it’s too late.

[1] See Late Work: A Constructive Response, Rick Wormeli

Cashing in on Journalism’s Neutral Pose

As I have highlighted several times about how often education journalism fails the democratic goals of both the free press and universal public education, this Tweet from Juana Summers at NPR represents the power of the neutral pose among journalists:

Let me stress here, that this claim is not unique to Summers of NPR, but pervasive throughout media and journalism as the hallmark of “professionalism.” I have been mulling the breezy NPR approach to all topics for some time now, and thus was not surprised to find this piece from 1982, The Tedium Twins, which skewers the exact issue I have confronted over and over:

Trudging back through the “MacNeil/Lehrer” scripts, the hardy reader will soon observe how extraordinarily narrow is the range of opinion canvassed by a show dedicated to dispassionate examination of the issues of the day. The favored blend is usually a couple of congressmen or senators, barking at each other from either side of the fence, corporate chieftains, government executives, ranking lobbyists, and the odd foreign statesman. The mix is ludicrously respectable, almost always heavily establishment in tone. Official spokesmen of trade and interest groups are preferred over people who only have something interesting to say.

As we confront the inherent danger in honoring civility and balance over accuracy and taking evidence-based stances on credibility, we must also admit that the neutral pose is little more than a mask for something pretty insidious: the influence of the powerful and wealthy over what the media covers (and does not cover) and how those topics are framed. To that I invite you to read Mercedes Schneider’s Gates, Other “Philanthropy,” and the Purchase of a Success Narrative, including:

Billionaire Bill Gates funds the media.

This is no surprise to me.

What did surprise me is the discovery that he meets with the media he funds (and others) regularly behind closed doors.

[See also Adam Bessie and Dan Carino’s The Gates Foundation Education Reform Hype Machine and Bizarre Inequality Theory.]

So we are faced with our media and our educators trapped inside demands that they remain neutral, dispassionate, not political. And this is what that has gotten us (despite claims that our free press and public schools are essential to our democracy built on claims of equity and meritocracy), as detailed by Matt Bruenig:

The top 10% of families own 75.3% of the nation’s wealth. The bottom half of families own 1.1% of it. The families squished in between those two groups own 24.6% of the national wealth.

The present wealth distribution is more unequal than it was in 2010, the last year this survey was conducted. Specifically, the top 10% increased their share of the national wealth by 0.8 percentage points between 2010 and 2013. The bottom half and middle 40% saw their share of the national wealth fall by 0.1 and 0.7 percentage points respectively.

Bruenig also highlights that economic inequity in the U.S. is race-based (whites own the U.S.) and that within that white imbalance, there exists another layer of class imbalance:

This means that the top 10% of white families own 65.1% of all the wealth in the nation. The bottom half of white families own just 2% of the national wealth. And the white families in the 50th-90th percentile of white families own 22.9% of the national wealth.

Along the media spectrum from the breezy NPR dispassion (the so-called “Liberal Media”) and the faux “fair and balance” of Fox News (the so-called “Right-wing Media”), we must admit there is little difference in the consequences of any of our media since, as Paulo Freire has warned, all that neutrality is ironically not neutral at all:

Freire neutral

 

As poet Adrienne Rich [1] has confronted:

Universal public education has two possible—and contradictory—missions. One is the development of a literate, articulate, and well-informed citizenry so that the democratic process can continue to evolve and the promise of radical equality can be brought closer to realization. The other is the perpetuation of a class system dividing an elite, nominally “gifted” few, tracked from an early age, from a very large underclass essentially to be written off as alienated from language and science, from poetry and politics, from history and hope—toward low-wage temporary jobs. The second is the direction our society has taken. The results are devastating in terms of the betrayal of a generation of youth. The loss to the whole of society is incalculable. (p. 162)

That second and wrong direction is the result of the neutral pose.

For Further Reading

Universal Public Education—Our (Contradictory) Missions

[1] Rich, A. (2001). Arts of the Possible: Essays and Conversations. New York, NY: W. W. Norton and Company.