Aliens in Academia: Teaching Writing from the Margins

One of my earliest and most vivid experiences with being an alien in academia happened many years before I entered higher education. I was teaching high school English in the same English classroom of the high school I had attended.

One day, exasperated, a tenth grade student exclaimed during class, “When are we going to do English? All we do is read and write, read and write!”

For her nine or ten years of formal education, she had come to view “English” as plowing through grammar text books, worksheets, and tests. That my class was solidly grounded in teaching them to write—even the reading was mostly about reading like a writer more so than traditional literary analysis—transported her and other students to an alternate universe that was at least disorienting.

A bit past midway into my 18 years as a high school English teacher, I entered a doctoral program and developed a more cohesive awareness of the source of my status as an alien in academia—critical pedagogy.

I remained in my high school classroom for four years after my doctorate, but the move to higher education, I must admit, was in many ways a search for belonging. The alienation I felt for nearly two decades of public school teaching reached a saturation point (some of which, I think, manifested in my panic attacks and realization I was a life-long sufferer of anxiety in the year after I received my EdD).

However, I have to report that 17 years into higher education I am possibly even more aware of being an alien in academia.

Recently on Twitter, John Warner, Paula Patch, and I wrestled with a thread started by Warner:

While the three of us are joined by expertise and experience in teaching writing, we all have different degrees and backgrounds along with different higher education fits.

Several aspects of this discussion highlight that teaching writing at the college level is its own unique kind of being an alien in academia. Here are some of the issues worth considering:

  • Tenure-track and full-time teaching at the university level tends to require faculty with terminal degrees. The word “terminal” implies that this is the highest degree a person can earn in a field, but it also suggests the stress of achieving the degree (the experience could kill you, if it doesn’t necessarily kill your spirit) and, as the points raised by Warner and Patch reveal, represents the unspoken reality that the degree kills your opportunities beyond a very narrow band of “fit.” Too often, it seems, advanced degrees are alienating instead of being one of many possible ways to enter and grow in higher education as faculty.
  • The fine and performing arts, for example, offer a counter-model to how the teaching of writing often exists on the margins in colleges and universities. Fine arts and performing arts professors may not have terminal degrees, but do have expertise; notable, though, is that the fine and performing arts are not viewed as discrete skills that can and should be taught across the curriculum. In other words, the teaching of writing has experienced two contradictory and corrupting characterizations: (1) all students and academics need the essential skill of writing, and thus, (2) all disciplines and professors should and can teach writing (seemingly without any formal understanding of pedagogy).
  • This writing-across-the-curriculum has worked to push the teaching of writing even further to the margins by seeking ways to integrate it everywhere. Composition exists as an independent structure in some colleges, but more often than not, writing is diluted as something to be taught by everyone and even worse as something students should have already acquired (or can acquire in one or two first-year seminars)—thus, the teaching of writing is mandatory drudgery, a low act of remediation.
  • The teaching of writing, extremely well highlighted by Warner’s experiences, also labors under limiting and limited constraints, tensions among remediation, first-year composition, writing-across-the-curriculum (and among the disciplines), scholarly writing (citation and concerns about plagiarism), and so-called creative writing (fiction, poetry). These tensions highlight the common failure for colleges and universities to consider who qualifies to teach writing, how to structure writing instruction and programs, and how to recruit, support, and foster expert faculty of writing.

Teaching writing suffers from its diversity, its need for faculty who either have some generalist leanings or seek ways to grow and develop beyond the narrow expertise of a terminal degree. Teaching writing is about both pedagogy and content expertise—the teaching of writing requires expertise and experience in the teaching and being a writer.

My journey as an alien in academia has many facets; my credentials mean I belong in teacher education, but I do not fit there because my soul is somewhere that fits better with English and composition as well as sociology, all of which are places I do not belong.

Being working-class and critical do not help things either.

The conversation among Warner, Patch, and me raises a powerful question about the essential nature of teaching writing in higher education where those of us teaching writing are mere aliens, pushed to do our work at the margins while struggling within the paradox of writing as essential and something any professor can teach.

This may, of course, lead to another paradox, the community that is formed by our status as aliens teaching writing at the margins that in some ways hold everything together.

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Making Writing Instruction Work: Conferencing

Here’s an open secret about teacher education: While politicians and pundits have been criticizing teacher education intensely since the Obama administration (think VAM), we in teacher education are disturbingly aware that many (if not most) of our candidates do not and cannot practice what they are taught once they enter the classroom.

Let me focus here on writing instruction as an example of that conflict.

Applebee and Langer’s most current and comprehensive research revealed some disturbing conclusions about “the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (LaBrant, 1947, p. 87):

Overall, in comparison to the 1979–80 study, students in our study were writing more in all subjects, but that writing tended to be short and often did not provide students with opportunities to use composing as a way to think through the issues, to show the depth or breadth of their knowledge, or to make new connections or raise new issues…. The responses make it clear that relatively little writing was required even in English…. [W]riting on average mattered less than multiple-choice or short-answer questions in assessing performance in English…. Some teachers and administrators, in fact, were quite explicit about aligning their own testing with the high-stakes exams their students would face. (pp. 15-17)

As I explain in my review of their research:

This gap between research and practice, reaching back to LaBrant (1947), is highlighted again and again throughout this volume—in ELA, social studies/history, mathematics, and science. Applebee and Langer emphasize that the negative consequences of high-stakes testing distinguish this study from their earlier work and that accountability has essentially stymied the influence of writing research (Graham & Perin, 2007; Smagorinsky, 2006), professional organizations, and teacher professionalism.

Teacher education struggles mightily against the persistent “considerable gap,” in fact, but the stalemate between informed practice and the realities of day-to-day classroom teaching can be alleviated.

Recently, I was again reminded of this problem when an early career teacher who completed my program was struggling with student-teacher conferences.

One of the greatest benefits I have experienced by moving to higher education (teaching first-year writing) from secondary education is the ability to require conferences from my students and having the time to make these conferences highly effective.

Since I have de-graded courses (as I did when teaching high school by the way), I include minimum requirements for student participation (see my fist-year writing syllabus). Those minimum requirements for writing-intensive courses include submitting full initial drafts, conferencing with me, and submitting at least one revision based on the strategies we identify in those conferences.

My feedback on writing has shifted significantly away from marking essays (using track changes and comments in Word) and toward more and more face-to-face conferencing.

I have, however, far more time available for conferencing than secondary ELA teachers, and my student load for my writing-intensive courses hovers around 20-24 students (a dramatic difference when compared to the 100-150 students most secondary teachers have).

Now if we confront that many K-12 teachers do not practice what they are taught as research-based best practice, we must also address that this gap is driven by the impracticality and inefficiency of effective writing instruction in the so-called real world of secondary teaching.

The early-career teacher mentioned above was exasperated because she had spent a couple days conferencing with students about their first essays of the academic year but had many students still to conference with. This amount of time and energy for conferencing was, she admitted, overwhelming and impractical.

She simply cannot sustain this over the semester weighed against all the other responsibilities she faced as their teacher.

As we discussed how to make writing instruction work, I mentioned I had addressed these problems in her methods course—although we both had to realize that here is another paradox of teacher education: Much of learning to teach cannot and will not happen until teachers are in the classroom, and that learning is an ongoing journey, not something to be acquired and then practiced.

Teacher educators too often oversimplify teaching during teacher preparation (the art of teaching tends to be framed as the science of teaching—rubrics, model lessons, etc.), and then practicing teachers feel they enter the classroom unprepared once the complexity and unpredictability of teaching become a daily reality.

Here, then, let me focus on the conferencing dilemma noted above.

First, when teaching students to write, we all must do less better. Teachers at all levels should decrease how much they mark student writing and then must narrowly target the time and content of face-to-face conferences.

I mark about the first quarter or third of student essays, and then add a few additional comments throughout the rest of the essay. When I conference with students, we create a two-to-three-point revision plan.

Less is more effective, and we must all resist the urge to martyr ourselves. (The lamenting in the teachers’ lounge or on social media about how much of our lives outside of school is spent lugging around and marking student writing is something we should all stop—the lamenting and the time, by the way.)

So, yes, face-to-face conferencing with students learning to write is a powerful research-based part of effective writing instruction, and conferencing is incredible time intensive, nearly unmanageable in the real-world of secondary teaching.

These are pragmatic compromises between best practice and reality that serve teachers and students well while remaining committed to the effectiveness of conferencing:

  • Regardless of how we conference, we must set realistic time limits and then not break those structures. And we must recognize that a few minutes can be more effective than marathon sessions that overwhelms teachers and students. I schedule my student conferences in about 20-minute blocks but we use less than that most times. Conferences of 4-5 minutes can be very effective in the secondary classroom—if well planned and targeted.
  • Another essential element of responding to student writing, whether by marking or in conferences, is to frame that work within students being required to address what is marked. If there is no structure for required revision and editing, and if the amount of revision and editing is unmanageable, then the time spent marking and conferencing is just more martyrdom.
  • While responding to student essays, and remaining committed to marking less, keep notes on common issues among most of the students to drive whole-class instruction (a companion to conferencing*, in fact), and group students by less common patterns to facilitate small group conferences as an alternative to individual conferences. This last practice allows teachers to manage 5 or 6 small group conferences of 5-10 minutes each (one class period if you are on a block schedule) versus trying to conduct 25-30 individual conferences of 5-10 minutes (several class sessions).
  • Create a schedule over your grading period that guarantees each student at least one or two individual conferences by targeting a handful of students for each major writing assignment, but not conferencing with all students for every writing assignment. Here I want to stress Henry David Thoreau’s “A [hu]man has not everything to do, but something; and because [she/]he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that [she/]he should do something wrong” (“Civil Disobedience”).
  • Related to the point above, and significant for all aspects of writing instruction, teachers must have identified goals for each writing assignment, and again, the fewer the better. Responding to student writing either by marking student drafts or conferencing often suffers from teachers marking too much (wasting their time) and overwhelming students to the point of paralysis. But that targeting should also consider levels of importance to that feedback. Elements of revision addressing content and organization as well as word choice and sentence formation should be emphasized over basic editing (not to be ignored, but to be positioned at the end of the writing process once the writing deserves editing).
  • Student-teacher conferencing should work symbiotically with peer conferencing. In fact, student-teacher conferences should have the goal of making students more autonomous so that peer conferences and individual drafting become more and more effective, the role of the teacher gradually reduced. Teacher time and energy, then, more pronounced early in a course but relieved throughout the course. Also, student-teacher conferences can gradually focus on revision while editing can be gradually shifted to peer conferencing.

An irony of how we can close the gap between research and classroom practices is that effective writing instruction grounded in workshop methods requires a great deal of structure and organization. Many falsely see workshop as haphazard and traditional teacher-centered teaching as structured, if not rigid and authoritarian.

However, teaching writing well does not require that teachers martyr themselves. In fact, writing instruction greatly improves once we learn to do less better.


* Another way to make best practice practical is to step back from the practice and understand the concept. One of the key elements of conferencing is that it is based in student artifacts of learning. If most students are struggling with endings in their essays, a whole class session on endings is nearly as effective as meeting each student one-on-one. Here, whole-class teaching grounded in evidence of student needs is honoring a key aspect of conferencing without creating the stress of time.

Why Can’t We Be Friends?

New academic year, and even more stress for new teachers—including the traditional advice heaped on those new teachers, including:

Another pearl of wisdom along the same lines is the warning that teachers shouldn’t be friends with students.

Both are deeply flawed advice because they misrepresent basic humanity, essential goals of being a teachers, and the positive qualities demonstrated by friendship.

Telling teachers to be humorless, ostensibly tough, in the first months of any class is a truly perverse view of the relationship necessary for a teacher to be effective. This advice also expresses a really ugly view of human nature, and young people.

One thing I have learned over 35 years of teaching and almost 30 years of being a parent and now grandparent is that children and young people need and appreciate adult transparency and consistency. They also respond to our modeling kindness, patience, and respect.

Taking on the veneer of being humorless and tough is a false representation of Self, and doing so for a set few weeks or months—obviously as a precursor to becoming your true Self—is setting students up to distrust the teacher as yet another adult playing roles and yet another adult who students cannot anticipate or trust.

So here is better advice: From second one of any new class, teachers should be their full and authentic Selves, and should seek to be kind, open, genuine, and trustworthy.

In short, as the professional in the room, teachers should model from that first second and throughout their teaching the sort of ethical and loving human we would want all children to become.

Of course, the Teacher Self is a version of our fuller Self beyond the classroom. But that Teacher Self should never be something forced or artificial—in part because I firmly believe students sense that and learn to distrust it.

This advice about being stern, deadly serious, is akin to “don’t be friends with your students,” another piece of horrible advice in terms of the relationship between teacher and students as well as a complete misreading of “friendship.”

To be a friend with someone is not monolithic, just as there is no singular love (familial love is not the same as romantic love, although both may run very deep).

Students as evolving humans need teachers as trusted mentors to model being friendly in appropriate and nuanced ways, and showing love, kindness, and even affection in appropriate and nuanced ways.

Friendship includes codes about trust and kindness that are not only appropriate for teaching and learning, but essential.

Over the coarse of our lives, we have dozens, even hundreds of friends—and those friendships are on a spectrum. We have collegial friends, recreational friends, etc.

But all types of friendship are not the same because there are implicit and explicit boundaries to those friendships.

Are you kind and patient with students? Do you spend a great deal of quality time with students? Do you seek ways to make students’ live better, more informed and joyful? Do you develop shorthand ways to communicate, to joke and laugh?

These are elements of friendship—and certainly friendliness in classrooms among teachers and students carries some important boundaries, mostly about levels of intimacy and professionalism (teachers separating the personal from the artifacts of learning that teachers must respond to and assess).

This last point about boundaries is central here since I think people give horrible advice to beginning teachers because we tend to distrust teachers and their ability to be both fully human with their students and able to perform the key moves of teaching (mostly the evaluation and grading elements).

Teachers can and do hold those boundaries, make those distinctions—just as doctors and lawyers do, although doctors are urged to develop “bedside manners” to connect personally with patients in order to improve care.

Ultimately, to teach is about way more than the prescribed content of courses. All teachers are mentors and counsellors, fully human practitioners who are indirectly and directly shaping the full humanity of young people.

To this day, on social media and over text messages, I offer “I love you” to several former students—something I expressed when they were my students, and something they eagerly and often express to me.

We became friends when they were my students and we remain indebted to each other because we made each other’s lives richer in some way.

To recognize the humanity in each other has always meant for me that no boundaries dare be crossed that would hurt those students, mislead them in any way.

Nothing is easy or simple, but teachers being fully human—including being kind, joyful, and loving—is never something to be withheld or hidden from students.

It is imperative, in fact, that we share our full selves the first moment of any class, and then honor our own and their dignity and humanity throughout the course—and into their lives after school.

There is no room for pretense in teaching, and there is no shame in the kindness of one person toward another.

Low-Stakes Environments and Embracing the Value of Failing

Since I am a tenured full professor, I have many conversations with students and friends about the whole tenure and promotion process in higher education—or as I call it, “hazing.”

In a recent discussion about this over breakfast, I began to think about the negative consequences of high-stakes evaluations, about the culture in all formal education in the U.S. that trains teachers/professors and students to avoid mistakes and failure at all costs because of those high stakes.

As a high-stakes process (faculty depend on attaining tenure in order to continue their careers), tenure imposes onto candidates the expectations of the department, the university, and the discipline in ways that erase the faculty’s own autonomy, forcing the faculty member to demonstrate compliance above what should be more desirable qualities such as professionalism, pedagogy, and scholarship.

A clever faculty member can work diligently to create artifacts of what is expected of that faculty member in order to gain a secure status that, ironically, allows the faculty member to then be any sort of teacher, colleague, or scholar they wish (even as that was not revealed by the tenure process).

This problem is grounded in the inherently corrosive influence of high-stakes environments that foster risk aversion as well as compliance.

All high-stakes environments in education are counter-productive for teachers/professors and students.

All of them.

To teach is to fail, and then move forward.

To learn is to fail, and then move forward.

The only way teachers and students can fail with the sort of slack necessary to grow is to do so in a low-stakes environment.

High-stakes breed teaching and learning safely, stunted growth, or even stasis.

To make an analogy, mountain biking is a challenging activity beyond the cardio-vascular demands because this cycling requires in-the-moment technique and decisions that can be learned only by trial-and-error, often that have real consequences (crashing, for example).

And here is a key point because high-stake teaching and learning environments often have artificial negative consequences (such as grades) that may dissuade repeated trial-and-error approaches that cultivate expertise.

A few of us were recently on an out-of-town cycling vacation, meaning we rode new trails on our mountain bikes. These experiences are intimidating because you do not know the trail features, you have not yet made on-the-fly decisions about speed and line that mean the difference between rolling on or crashing.

Nearly all trails are better the second, third, fourth times; nearly always you gain confidence because you failed, because you learned what worked, and what didn’t.

The confidence that grows from failure, then, is the most powerful element in moving from a novice to an expert state.

Recreational mountain biking is often low-stakes because your experiments and failures are not about whether or not you may continue riding, but about how to ride better next time. In fact, the near guarantee of next time is an excellent motivator for taking risks, experiencing a little (or a lot) or pain.

While discussing the challenges of new trails with a friend, we talked about how being able to back-track in order to try a segment again is an exciting feature of riding. It isn’t a race, and there are no expectations except our own about what we want from our riding.

Low-stakes environments with room for failure as a natural feature of growth—this is a healthy way to learn, to teach, to become.

The irony, I think, is that academics on tenure track have a great deal in common with nearly all K-12 and college students because they are all inhibited by high-stakes environments that discourage sincere risk taking and healthy failure.

Academics on tenure track and students are encouraged to be dishonest, to play a game that may benefit them for their compliance but not their genuine selves.

It seems to me that all levels of formal education are the exact places where low-stakes environments that embrace failure should, even must, exist.

Yet, high-stakes environments and risk-averse ideologies tend to dominate all types of formal education, I think, because high-stakes are falsely associated with high expectations.

Here, as my final point, is the paradox since high-stakes environments tend to ask less of teachers/professors and students who are mostly complying to external demands or expectations.

Low-stakes environments that value failure and mistakes are more likely to foster autonomy and original decision making—both of which ask more of teachers/professors and students than deferring to imposed mandates or assignments.

High-stakes environments that encourage compliance instead of risk-taking work against the best possibilities in any teacher/professor or student.

By lowering stakes, increasing the opportunities to take risks, and recognizing the inherent necessity of failure, teaching and learning can and will not only survive but thrive in ways that far surpass the compliance that all too often characterizes both teaching and learning in traditional settings.

 

“[A]ll this fiddle”: On Genre Wars in a Time of Craft Beer

Poetry MM

“Poetry,” Marianne Moore

Several years ago I was initiated into the craft beer world—having been a serious drinker of beer since high school but being a somewhat resolute low-brow consumer in many ways eschewing the snobbery I witnessed among wine connoisseurs.

Along with my cycling friends Rob and Brian, I made a couple trips to Colorado for bicycling and beer; while on those trips, I was gradually indoctrinated into a more refined understanding of craft beer, mostly guided by Brian.

Today, I frequent local and regional breweries almost exclusively for my beer drinking—along with my one remain low-brow habit of grande Dos Equis ambers a couple times a week at Mexican restaurants.

I remain far too naturally unsophisticated to ever grasp wine nuances, although I have friends who can easily convince me to enjoy wine with them, but my beer palate is moderately well educated, and I do enjoy a wide range of craft beers that I am certain baffles the mostly Bud Light crowd of my hometown and state.

Having come to beer snobbery late in life, I find the distinctions about “good” or “bad” beer quite similar to the genre wars that I have been living since I was a teen since my introduction to so-called literary fiction was significantly primed by my initial love for science fiction (mere “genre” fiction) and comic books (not any sort of literature at all!).

In Literary fiction or genre? When Megan Abbott and Naomi Novik are writing, who cares, Michale Robbins opens by confronting: “If there’s a distinction between ‘genre fiction’ and ‘literary fiction,’ it’s certainly not that the former isn’t literary and the latter isn’t generic. It’s mostly that the generic conventions of the latter are those that critics and professors are trained to value most.”

A former student, who was a top-notch English major and now teaches English, recently finished reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and drew the same conclusion—if we remain in a formalist paradigm of what counts as “literary,” then Tartt’s novel may well be pronounced so much popular fiddle.

Yet, as my former student noted, the novel could just as easily be praised if we change our metrics, set aside our snobbery.

John Warner’s Is ‘The Great Gatsby’ really required reading? Disrupt Texts challenges teachers to reconsider the classics also ventures into the debate about such snobberies grounded in the canon:

Much of the discussion among educators focuses on how using these texts can be enhanced by injecting marginalized perspectives. This is the “disrupt” part of Disrupt Texts. Rather than taking a single perspective as representative for all, the discussion challenges the notion of a single, fixed history. This is the root of critical thinking and a pre-requisite to lasting learning.

Education isn’t merely transmitting information; students must be taught to make meaning for themselves.

Warner’s last point can be extended, I think, to giving students not the right or only lens for evaluating texts (using the often unnamed New Criticism approach to dissecting text often written with New Criticism’s emphasis on craft and meaning in mind) but many and varied opportunities to examine texts in order to draw their own ways to navigate texts (a variety of lens, some more formal such as feminist or Marxist) and their own guidelines for what makes texts compelling, satisfying, and even “good.”

My former student and I continued to discuss her experience with The Goldfinch, the challenges, I noted, of making a really long novel satisfying. Tartt’s work, she said, was enjoyable to read, but she felt it failed in some important ways—ways I categorize as achieving or not that “satisfying.”

This discussion prompted me to think about Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, a very long and complex work.

When I first read 1Q84, I was initially drawn to the rotating main characters, but when a third focal character is introduced, I began to feel uncomfortable, a sense that the novels’ cohesion was being compromised.

Also I was uneasy with Murakami’s novel being labeled “science fiction”; I could not see anything about the work as I read it that would make me classify it as that genre (maybe something like fantasy or magical realism?).

I find all of Murakami compelling so I read quite eagerly even as I was uncomfortable with the possibility that the long work would not remain cohesive (I am sure my English training in New Criticism and literary snobbery were in play here as well). However, the work came together, fell into place—although how that happens is at least fantastical (one would argue a convention of genre not literary fiction).

All of this is to say that as an experienced and autonomous reader I have developed capacities for interrogating texts, mostly to determine if I enjoyed the work and the writer.

Some of my formal background as a student and English education major/English teacher actually inhibits my joy as a reader—a reality all too common for students.

The genre wars, then, often create barriers to reading and reading for pleasure.

In Moore’s “Poetry,” her second stanza evokes “high-sounding interpretation,” “unintelligible,” and “we/ do not admire what/ we cannot understand.”

Writers, like Moore and others, it seems, do themselves play into the genre wars and all that snobbery, especially about what constitutes the “good” writers as distinct from the hacks. But in the end, writers are mostly about having readers, readers eager to read, readers satisfied by a compelling and cohesive text—wishing for a next story, or book, or essay, or poem.

I cannot shake from my own mind as a reader the importance of texts being satisfying, cohesive. But I also think about my joy as a reader.

Two of the most wonderful texts I have ever read are Roxane Gay’s “There is No ‘E’ in Zombi Which Means There Can Be No You Or We”  and Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch”—beautiful, compelling works of fiction that depend heavily on so-called genre conventions but rise well above the bar of satisfying (even if we cannot resist the allure of evaluation, whether they are “literature”).

As a reader I am seeking writing that demonstrates purpose, a fidelity, I think, to the sort of writing the writer intends, the sort of text I am choosing to read.

Everything else is just fiddle, like calling Miller High Life “The Champagne of Beers.”

Teacher v. Professor: On Why Anyone Would Be an Educator

While cycling with a new acquaintance, I navigated through the usual questions about how long I have been a professor, and then, after I mentioned that I was a high school English teacher for 18 years before moving to higher education, the follow up about which was easier, or which I preferred.

On this ride and during the conversation, I realized I am quickly approaching the tipping point in my career since I am starting my 17th year as a professor, just one year away from having been a professor for as long as I was a high school teacher—the identity I remain strongly associated with about myself professionally.

Being a writer has held both aspects of my being an educator together, but K-12 teaching and being a professor in higher education (especially my role as a teacher educator) are far more distinct than alike.

However, and most disturbing, K-12 teachers and college professors are increasingly sharing disillusionment with being educators as K-12 teachers are fleeing public education and fewer are majoring/certifying to teach while quit lit has become a phenomenon throughout higher education.

My journey as an educator offers some unique insight since I have nearly two decades in each contexts, K-12 and higher education. As well, my work in higher education remains directly connected to K-12 classroom teaching (I am a teacher educator and spend time observing in public schools as well as having professional and personal relationships with public school teachers).

For a majority of my time as a high school teacher, I was department chair, and several of those years included being a coach. My days were often very long, starting at 7:30 AM and ending on match days as late as 11 PM.

As a high school English teacher, I taught around 100 students or more at a time and had five classes a day, usually 2-3 preps. Since I focused on teaching my students to write, I responded to about 4000 essays and 6000 journals a year.

In 1995, I entered a doctoral program, an EdD in curriculum and instruction; I continued to work full-time and even maintained my adjunct work at local colleges. The doctorate experience was sobering since every other candidate I encountered was seeking a doctorate to leave the K-12 classroom—except me.

I completed my degree and was still resolute I would teach high school until I retired, and then maybe seek something at the university level. My pay bump for the advanced degree was, in fact, quite good.

The summer of 2002 was not something I planned, but when a position opened at a nearby university (a position held by my former high school teacher and mentor), I applied with no real expectations about making the transition so soon.

After a flurry of on-campus interviewing, and then a disheartening negotiation about salary (the opening offer was a $17,500 pay cut), I agreed to leave my high school job for higher education. The final pay was still $6000 below my public school salary, but the university promised I would have overloads and summer work to make up the difference.

So I sit here this summer about to start my 17th year as a college professor, a full professor with tenure. I have learned a great deal.

First, the prestige and respect shift from K-12 teaching to higher education was stunning, especially since I taught high school for 4 years while I had a doctorate; the degree was not the key factor in how people viewed and treated me.

Professors receive immediate respect and assumptions about our expertise that K-12 teachers never experience. My ability to publish, for example, in local, state, and national newspaper magically appeared once I could list my university instead if my high school when querying.

Next, and related, that respect divide cannot be disassociated from the impact of gender: More than 3 of 4 K-12 teachers are women, but the largest group of professors is men, and that imbalance is even greater at the higher ranks, where men are the majority. The university where I teach, for example, is well over 60% male faculty.

Possibly the greatest differences, however, between K-12 teaching and being a professor are expectations for labor and what counts as your professional obligations.

By the time I left K-12 teaching, I was wearing a wrist brace; my right hand was nearly immobile from marking essays, and to be honest, teaching English as I knew I should [1] was nearly unmanageable against the rest of my responsibilities and having a family or any sort of recreational life.

Burn out is a common term associated with K-12 teaching, but since teaching doesn’t appear to be manual labor (such as construction) or isn’t associated with production (most of us balk at seeing our students as widgets), those who have not taught fail to recognize the physical and psychological wear that comes with teaching.

I joke, though it isn’t funny, that being stared at by 100 or so students per day is stunningly exhausting. But most K-12 teachers have no real time to eat alone (or with only other adults), to go to the restroom, or to do with their work day anything other than grade, respond to student work, plan, or address the never-ending minutia of bureaucracy that is teaching (standards, meetings, paperwork, etc.).

Teaching—even just lasting past the first 3-5 years—two or three decades is a herculean task in surviving a career; too many teachers out of self-preservation learn to work in auto-mode, mailing in a profession because it has simply erased your humanity.

Along with professional respect, I gained a great deal of professional autonomy (which K-12 teachers have almost none) and, most of all, time. A heavy semester for me is teaching several courses three days a week, usually M, W, F and from about early morning to mid-afternoon.

Except for meetings (and higher education has an ugly committee and departmental meetings problem), I have multiple days a week to devote to my professional commitments other than teaching, for me, being a writer.

And as a professor, I have never fretted about going to the bathroom, and making sure I eat, calmly, is nearly never a struggle.

I also teach with almost no direct evaluative surveillance or oversight (which can be a bad thing, of course); this I note because it reduces the unnecessary stress of teaching in a high-stakes accountability environment that allows you no professional autonomy (what it means to be a K-12 teacher).

I must stress that a great deal of pettiness and an inordinate amount of unhealthy practices still plague higher education—the tenure and promotion process along with the faculty evaluation process are steeped in sexism and inequity, for example.

And the cancer that is high-stakes accountability and reducing education to work-preparation is creeping, no galloping, toward and eventually over higher education.

When I first took my university position, I was surprised at how out of touch professors were with K-12 teaching and the negative impact of the standards and high-stakes testing movement. I, in fact, warned my colleagues that the accountability movement would some day come to colleges and universities so it was in their own self-interest to begin fighting the movement in K-12 schools.

But they didn’t listen.

Higher education isn’t called the Ivory Tower for nothing.

So this brings me to why anyone would be an educator—especially in 2018 when the consequences weighed against the rewards for being a K-12 teacher or a college professor are tipping mightily in the wrong direction.

To teach, at any level, for many of us is something like a calling. Just as one day in my first year of college I recognized I am a writer (I did not choose that), I know myself to be a teacher.

Despite my introversion, and my discomfort with people, crowds, I am never more relaxed than in a classroom with students. We are there with common purpose and we mostly are seeking ways to be a community.

These are things I believe in, things I trust about the possibility of humans being better than we have been so far.

To be an educator, then, is not the problem in that the profession itself, whether K-12 or in higher education, is compelling and deeply fulfilling.

The problem is that to be a teacher in the U.S. is colored by the cultural negative attitude toward labor, being a worker, and the power of collective workers against the wishes of corporatism.

Teaching at all levels has continually been corrupted by the urge to reduce public institutions to private entities driven by corporate paradigms.

K-12 teachers have always worked in environments that isolate us, overwork us so that we cannot resist, and have gradually become less and less unionized. Much of higher education (because of the tenure and promotion process as well as departmental politics) has also allowed competition to trump collaboration.

It is not so much why anyone would be an educator, but why those of us who teach at any level have allowed our profession to be dismantled, devalued, and dehumanizing.

And finally, teachers and professors are regularly policed for being political, admonished for being activists. And to that we must ask, in whose interest is this political call for teachers and professors to not be political?

Isolated, silenced, and depoliticized, we educators are failing a profession that deserves better.

In solidarity, raising our voices, and actively exercising our politics, we educators can resurrect one of the most valuable acts of labor humans can embrace.

The latter is why anyone would be an educator.


[1] The martyr/missionary dilemma.

 

The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Practitioner in Education

In the final days of my Summer I graduate course, my department chair asked me to switch from the Summer II graduate course I was assigned (a new preparation I had worked on diligently to teach for the first time) to a literacy course in which the instructor could no longer teach the class.

This course was one I have never taught, and thus, would have to prepare in just a few days to take on—scrambling as I did to understand the other instructor’s syllabus and schedule while also facing the herculean task of teaching from four assigned books that I have never read.

This afternoon, then, when I face these graduate students, I will confess that I have never taught elementary literacy (the course is a graduate literacy methods class)—having all my experience and expertise in teaching high school and college literacy, primarily writing—and thus, I will be relying on their practitioner expertise (the students are mostly practicing elementary teachers) while performing the role myself of facilitator.

In my Summer I class, as well, one assignment required students to read a professional book on literacy, and share with the class. Part of our discussion revolved around professional books in education emphasizing classroom practice (over theory and philosophy) while being written by education personalities.

The credibility of these books are often grounded in the assumption these personalities are credible; issues of validity and reliability—and even thorough citation—are ignored or de-emphasized. So I cautioned them that professional books (and education personalities) are not to be viewed as scripture, not as sacred directives, but as opportunities to think along with these education personalities in order to develop and sharpen their own practitioner expertise.

My journey as an educator has included 18 years as a classroom high school English teacher followed by 16 years as a teacher educator, and concurrently, an education scholar and public intellectual.

I lived, then, nearly two decades of sitting in mandated workshops and presentations where education consultants spoke down to us practitioners while earning in a few hours what no practicing teacher earned. These consultants and speakers may have had some classroom experience, but it was vividly clear to us they had all eagerly jumped ship to talk to lowly practitioners because the hours and the pay were much better.

K-12 teachers tend to loath this traditional aspect of being a teacher—the torture of being treated unprofessionally and the waste of our precious time that we could all better use to do the stuff of teaching, planning and responding to student work.

The edu-guru market is an ugly beast that perpetuates the notion that K-12 teachers are not professional or experts themselves, that practice is somehow just a mechanical thing that can be imposed onto a passive and compliant workforce (let us hasten to add, a passive and compliant workforce in which 3 of 4 teachers are women with undergraduate and graduate degrees and years of experience).

So when I teach or provide in-service for teachers, I emphasize my own classroom experience above all else, and couch my scholarly expertise in that practice now edging toward 40 years.

The accountability era has ratcheted up this divide, in part perpetuated by authoritarian structures (prescriptive legislation and top-down managerial styles of administrators) and in part by the market.

This latter influence must not be ignored. Publishers depend heavily on the cult of personality to drive textbook and professional book sales as well as the related consultant appearances.

Too often, however, what is being mandated and sold proves to be mostly hokum beneath the shimmer and shine of well-formatted books and over-confident edu-gurus.

Paul Murphy’s Teachers Are Tired of Robert Marzano highlights nearly everything that is wrong with this cult of personality that de-professionalizes teachers while also blaming them for the outcomes driven by the practices they are mandated and coerced to implement.

Murphy stresses: “For years, teachers were asked (or, more often, told) to swallow a lot of crap. More and more of us are done eating it” (emphasis in original).

In a powerful and thorough interrogation of this dynamic, Benjamin Doxtdator challenges Doug Lemov and Dave Burgess:

Both Lemov and Burgess construct masculine, individualistic heroes. Champion teachers, according to Lemov, “routinely do what a thousand hand-wringing social programs have found impossible: close the achievement gap between rich and poor, transform students at risk of failure into achievers and believers, and rewrite the equation of opportunity.” For Burgess, Pirates are “entrepreneurs”, “daring, adventurous, and willing to set forth into uncharted territories with no guarantee of success. They reject the status quo and refuse to conform to any society that stifles creativity and independence.”

I have spent a great deal of my work as a scholar and public intellectual raising the same concerns about Angela Duckworth’s grit and Carol Dweck’s growth mindset.

Scholars of poverty and social class began lining up more than a decade ago to refute the popular but invalid training provided by Ruby Payne, who continues to profit greatly off the uncritical edu-guru poverty circuit funded mostly by tax dollars.

There are patterns to all this madness:

  • Practitioners are framed as or assumed to be unprofessional and inexpert.
  • Experts are, then, the consultants themselves, who are beyond reproach (criticize the work of Duckworth, or John Hattie, and expect to be accused of attacking the people themselves, to be shamed for the criticism).
  • Both educational research and teacher practices are trivialized as secondary to the gimmick (grit, teaching like a champion, visible learning, etc.) and the edu-guru who peddles the gimmick.
  • Teaching and learning are necessarily narrowed and over-simplified. Marzano and Hattie direct a laser focus on the impact of teachers; Duckworth and Dweck keep the accusatory eye on weaknesses and flaws in the children/students themselves.
  • Teacher and student voices are muted or entirely ignored.
  • Teachers are conditioned to behave in unprofessional ways that are used to justify treating them unprofessionally.
  • Divisions of labor and compensation for labor are disturbingly skewed so that practitioners are underpaid and under-appreciated while consultants and administrators (farthest from the day-to-day experiences of students) are overpaid and overvalued.

When I met with a colleague who designed the course I will be teaching for the first time this afternoon, she empathized with the abrupt change in course assignments and then helped me tremendously by noting that when she taught the course, she used elements of the National Writing Project (NWP) model for summer institutes.

I was co- and lead instructor of a writing project in South Carolina at the end of my high school teaching career just before entering higher education in 2002. Being a participant in and then facilitating for a NWP site were by far the greatest experiences for me as an educator and a professional.

Why? The sacred elements of these summer seminars were the professionalism of the teachers and the community of scholars that was fostered and developed.

One of the most important refrains of these communities was the call to check ourselves regularly against the allure of edu-gurus and gimmicks (we at first embraced the term “best practice” and then quickly felt it had become a mandate and not a healthy generalization for how any teacher works from a toolbox of practices with the needs of the learner guiding those fluid decisions).

K-12 practitioners remain trapped in a hellish contradiction created by the cult of personality driving edu-gurus and gimmicks: Teachers are simultaneously posed as the singular and most important factor in student learning (a verifiable lie) and then treated as incompetent technicians.

Teachers need to be relieved of edu-gurus and gimmicks; they deserve professional experiences that include the time, support, and conditions that are conducive to what is best for each student taking a seat in any of their classrooms.

Teachers must not be reduced to technocrats, must not be compelled to be martyrs and missionaries.

If we can resist the allure of celebrity and cashing in, we must ultimately acknowledge the humanity of teachers and their students, while admitting the ugly influences of sexism and consumerism that too often trump our stated goals of democracy and equity.