Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Culture of Teaching pt. 1

The Culture of Teaching:
Why the teaching profession? 
Part 1

By Philip Preston Middlemiss
Many people consider the profession of teaching a bridge to some higher ambition. A bridge to something greater than perpetuating our democratic culture, or teaching humanity how to respect learning, themselves and the planet. Though these skills seem important, the public continues to believe that the job deserves neither the status nor the prestige as that of a lawyer, a movie actor, or even a school principal. When all is said and done, the profession of teaching is envied solely for its summer break. 
Teaching’s poor public image may lie in the fact that most adults measure the teaching profession solely on the experience of their final two years in high school. Years made murky by hormonal urges, emancipation anxieties, melodramatic rejections, sexual ambivalence, and status conformity. These are the years when all of us were least rational, had no handle on happy, and as emotional as an acne outbreak.  At that age I personally considered my teachers idiots, and during my senior year I rarely hesitated to inform them as such.  Hence, my karmic dance card has been full of similar rebels-without-a-clue all my 27 years in the classroom.
   Once students become parents and discover how disagreeable their own teenagers have become, their attitudes toward teachers mellow and cloud in sympathy.  When these parents sacrifice their children to the grasp of public education, there sometimes follows a false sign of respect for the teaching profession. Sometimes comments are made that idealize and ennoble the career choice of pedagogy; however, it quickly dissipates into disingenuousness,  “I don’t know how you do it. You must all be saints…”
   The romance of sainthood was lost on me, because I became a teacher a few months after my first child was born. I’m sure I had thoughts about contributing something to my community or to humanity, but mostly I just needed a job.  Teaching then meant job security, a career I could wear into old age without apology or injury, and summers with family. 
But all the reasons of why I became a teacher changed once I became a teacher. The demands of the job both challenged and changed me.
   “It must be a very fulfilling job.”
   Again the sainthood reference, to which I usually respond with ambivalence, “Well, the summers off are great.”
   I have learned over the years that this response was what people wanted to hear most. For whatever reason, non teachers wanted the validation that teaching was the scam they’d always believed it to be.  Many believed if things did not work well in their own lives, they could always fall back on teaching.  Everyone knows that anyone and their uncle could teach – plus their summers would be financed.
  I have yet discovered the scam to this job.  Some get a thrill of being surrounded by the “green fuse” of human potential, but I have always enjoyed my own seclusion to the company of teenagers.  I have rarely witnessed the blossoming of epiphany, or the paradigm shift of the mind on my watch.  To me teaching is more like someone handing me a jar to loosen, and after straining to twist its lid, I hand it back – to easily become opened for the next set of hands.  That’s what the month of June feels like in my classes – the jars all wait to open to the summer of their budding adulthood.  And not a moment before.  Right when the students balance on the cusp of becoming interesting, they depart. And that happens every damn year.  It is referred to as the “Groundhog Day Syndrome.”
  I can’t compare teaching as a noble lifesaving profession like nursing or firefighting, but more as an organic outcropping of human need, as deliberate to our evolutionary rise as the opposable thumb. From the dawn of humankind teachers have sparked students with the common thrill of discovering both the brilliance and the disappointment of their own thinking and culture. 
  The scam, if there is a scam to this job of teaching, is in the variety of rewards that range from student achievement as substantial as smoke, to a sense of purpose often marked by emotional scarring. When all is said and done, teaching is not a job for the squeamish, the hesitant or the arrogant.
  Twenty-seven years ago my mentor teacher, an elderly man nearing his retirement, told me in dead seriousness that I shouldn’t let it get around, but that this teaching gig was the easiest job a man could do. He actually lowered the volume of his voice so as passing students could not overhear. With the same seriousness, he later told me that teaching would be the perfect job, if it weren’t for all the kids. In the final month of his career, a department colleague physically separated my mentor from squaring off with a man-child 40 pounds heavier and 40 years younger.  A week later this mentor was gurneyed from the classroom having suffered, what could clinically be coined, a “Teacher’s Stroke.”  A pedagogical short-circuit (PSC).
  PSC happens to those who take the job lightly, fall into depression or the bottle, and fail to manage the complexities of their life as well as the complexities of the job’s demands. It never strikes any two teachers the same way. Like lightning and snowflakes, teachers spark and fall from the classroom in their own unique style that often mimic their worst lessons. Sometimes no one ever notices they are in trouble until they simply fail to show up in the morning.
  Contrary to my mentor’s comment, teaching is not the easiest job a person can do. It is a job that resonates throughout the day and rings like a cowbell at night when sleep is preferred.
  A fellow teacher friend once commented that the easy job, the ideal job, would be delivering freshly baked bread to the local retailers. He reasoned that the workday for bread delivery men began early and ended early. The product was light and easy to carry, the customers always grateful, and by the end of the work day a man smelled like freshly baked bread. The only resonance to the job was the fresh scent permeating the man’s clothes.  A scent, my friend winked, irresistible to woman.
  I have witnessed this teaching profession attract the young and idealistic in the same spirit as my dear friend was attracted to delivering freshly baked bread. However, new teachers soon learn that the difference between the idealism and the reality of the job is in the clientele. Most students are ill prepared or unwilling to learn. A teen-ager’s world is thick with need, want, indignation, and their attention is filtered behind ear buds and the dazzle of their fingers texting the cell phones glued to their hands.  
  The success of the teacher is measured in those few, quiet lives we are able to touch. If my teaching successes were measured in baseball statistics, I’d be dropped to the Double-A leagues. In my twenty-seven seasons my list of errors far outweigh my plays made. My stats might be better, if I played with a team that actually knew how to win. 
  I’ve always believed Education was a privilege, though many students see it as their right to abuse and waste.  Until students come to the classroom retooled to learn, teachers will continue being measured for their student’s failures, and not by their successes. Our society, so critical of the profession that helps to preserve it, may never show teachers the respect we deserve. Teachers need to stop expecting the praise, and quit complaining about the disrespect received from the voters, politicians and a tanking economy.  We need to brave the storm and embrace the irony of a job that feeds the mouth that returns to bite us.  And though teaching is not always reward enough in itself, it is usually all the profession can guarantee. The sooner this is realized, the more enjoyable the summers become. 

Philip P. Middlemiss is an English/Media Teacher at
Eureka High School in Eureka, California.  He is active as a liaison between his district’s school board and his teacher’s union.  Philip believes that all teachers need to become politically involved with their union at some aspect of their career, and understand that nothing has ever been given to teachers for which has not been fought.  

Friday, December 21, 2012

The NRA Doubles Down

Put armed officers in every school, NRA official says

In a public statement today, the NRA finally responded to a week's worth of attacks in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting.

And how did they respond? With a clear plan to make schools safer: more guns. Specifically, their plan called for armed guards in every public school in the nation.

Let's ignore for a moment the simple lack of any coherent logic in this argument, and instead, let's focus on what this "argument" says about schools as institutions.

1) This argument promotes a vision of a school as a kind of government warehouse. If we're storing these precious commodities--our children--in them, we should certainly put armed guards at the doors. In this view there is no concession that schools are more than simple infrastructure, more than just walls. But schools most certainly are more than that. I find this suggestion just as repellent, and for much the same reasons, as an argument that would call for armed guards in black churches or synagogues. Are these locations continual targets for violence? Absolutely. But the idea of armed guards would be so utterly contrary to the spirit and purpose of those institutions, that the idea appears simply wrong.

I would argue that our veneration for schools and the work that goes on there should rival or exceed that which we feel toward houses of worship. The idea of simply posting the "good guys" at the door in order to dispatch any "bad guys" who might walk through the door is vulgar and cartoonish. It is simply one more step in the militarization of all institutions.

Furthermore, the concept that there is "evil" in the world and the job of the "good guys" is to defeat that evil through superior firepower should be the kind of thinking which is, through careful critical attention, destroyed by authentic education.

2) When LaPierre asks the question, "can't we afford to put a police officer in every single school?" we should all turn inside-out in horror. If, finally, this is the question we must address about education in America, I suggest it's time to hang it up. One can only assume that when LaPierre uses phrases such as "foreign affairs" he is referring to foreign aid and not the multiple, ongoing wars against children of other countries. To ask that question, in that way, is to show such a shallow, contemptuous view of schools and education, that it's almost staggering. With what is spent on "foreign affairs" we could radically revamp American education, create equitable education for all, and train and retain expert teachers. But when LaPierra speaks about schools, he again speaks only of those warehouses where we store children.

And when he talks about doing what we know works to protect our children, I would argue that the proper answer is already inside of schools: education. Real, live, critical education that leads to the understanding of others as genuine and authentic individuals. That's how we stop the "bad guys," LaPierre included.

Cognitive Dissonance

Sometimes it's difficult to hold onto an understanding of teachers as public intellectuals and  simultaneaously deal with the knowledge that someone burns the microwave popcorn every day.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

You tell em, Henry. I can't recommend this article enough.

Memorable moments:

"While the political and ideological climate does not look favorable for the teachers at the moment, it does offer them the challenge to join a public debate with their critics, as well as the opportunity to engage in a much needed self-critique regarding the nature and purpose of schooling, classroom teaching and the relationship between education and social change. Similarly, the debate provides teachers with the opportunity to organize collectively to improve the conditions under which they work and to demonstrate to the public the central role that teachers must play in any viable attempt to reform the public schools."

"Pedagogy as an intellectual, moral and political practice is now based on "measurements of value derived from market competition." [19] Mathematical utility has now replaced critical dialogue, debate, risk-taking, the power of imaginative leaps and learning for the sake of learning. A crude instrumental rationality now governs the form and content of curricula, and where content has the potential to open up the possibility of critical thinking, it is quickly shut down. This is a pedagogy that has led to the abandonment of democratic impulses, analytic thinking, and social responsibility."

"In what follows, I want to argue that one way to rethink and restructure the nature of teacher work is to view teachers as public intellectuals. The category of intellectual is helpful in a number of ways. First, it provides a theoretical basis for examining teacher work as a form of intellectual labor, as opposed to defining it in purely instrumental or technical terms. Second, it clarifies the kinds of ideological and practical conditions necessary for teachers to function as intellectuals. Third, it helps to make clear the role teachers play in producing and legitimating various political, economic and social interests through the pedagogies they endorse and utilize."

"Schools are always political because they both produce particular kinds of agents, desires and social relations and they legitimate particular notions of the past, present and future."

"What role might public school teachers play as public intellectuals in light of the brutal killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School? In the most immediate sense, they can raise their collective voices against the educational influence of a larger culture and spectacle of violence and the power of the gun lobby to flood the country with deadly weapons. They can show how this culture of violence is only one part of a broader and all-embracing militarized culture of war, arms industry and a Darwinian survival of the fittest ethic, more characteristic of an authoritarian society than a democracy. They can mobilize young people to both stand up for teachers, students and public schools by advocating for policies that invest in schools rather than in the military-industrial complex and its massive and expensive weapons of death. "

-Henry A. Giroux

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Homework, cont.

The other day, I posted a link to a story about France's move  toward a ban on homework. It was presented almost completely without comment, leaving at least one person to wonder what my own thoughts were on the subject. So, let's see if I can put it simply:

Homework is an extraordinarily bad idea.

I don't feel the need to catalog all of the reasons why homework is a negative force in education, but I would like to focus on three.

Homework is impractical and inequitable. On the most practical level, I don't assign homework because homework won't get done. Or, even worse, a small percentage of my students will have it done and the rest won't. This would be the place to insert arguments about "personal responsibility," which is just another way of punishing students for circumstances that are absolutely beyond their control. Some students have parents at home to help. Many don't. Some students have parents who value education as an absolute good. Many don't. Some students have actual homes...

In the end, as a classroom teacher, if I want important work to be done, it better be done in the classroom, otherwise I will have a huge management problem, and an ever widening gulf between my highest and lowest performing students.

There's just too much school already. We need to be looking at scaling back the school day (The science tells us that starting later would be a great start if we actually care about student learning), though almost every single piece of school reform is designed to get students more and more school.

I want to write more about the detrimental effects of the school context itself, but for now, I just want to say that homework allows schools to extend their hold over students' lives to an almost limitless degree. I'll have lots to say about this "colonization" of students' lives by schools, but at its most basic, seven to eight hours of learning, if learning is what is actually happening, is an exhausting expectation. (This is always made painfully obvious when teachers are forced to spend extended periods of time doing professional development.) The idea that we need extended time, and that EVERYONE needs extended time, is ridiculous.

Schools own students for a majority of their young lives. There is enough time between pre-K and senior year to teach the required content three times over! If we really need more time, we should be thinking about how to reorganize our schools, not how to farm work out for home.

There is a common argument that homework performs an important function in bringing school into the home and involving parents in students' learning. If we ignore point one above and forget the fact that this is simply false for a large percentage of the population, I would STILL reject this argument.

We must accept that one of the primary effects of a compulsory education system that monopolizes so much of children's lives is that it creates a false division between school and home. School is where learning happens and home is where we play. It's not hard to recognize that this is a very recent conception of these roles. Until the late nineteenth century (and the twin births of the industrial revolution and compulsory schooling) home had always been the primary context for learning. Schools have removed learning from home and created a conception of education as something that is bestowed upon students by trained professionals and that parents simply aren't qualified.

This division creates all kinds of bad blood between parents and teachers, both of whom tend to think that they are being asked to take on responsibilities outside of their accepted roles, and homework is often a major catalyst for these conflicts.

The idea that homework is a way to bridge this divide, a divide wholly manufactured by schools themselves, is ridiculous. It's just one more way for schools to assert that their content is more important than the infinitely more essential learning that should be happening in the home.

Which is all a long way around to saying I'd much rather be Finland.

Friday, December 14, 2012


France is moving toward a legal ban on homework.

Expect the American congress to pass a resolution renaming it "Freedom Work" soon.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Practical Purposes of Education

I'd like to start with a provocative claim: There is only one "practical" use for education, and that is to help the educated individual call "bullshit" when they see and hear it.

Now, despite the fact that this is an endlessly useful and applicable purpose, many may balk and begin a laundry list of much more practical uses for education.

We must first then define terms, for when I speak about education, I am speaking of a much more rarefied thing than we might ordinarily think of.

Therefore, it seems to me useful to separate "Education" from "Training."

We will define training as instruction on how to do things. Reading, writing, arithmetic, and all of the "skills" that fall under study and personal responsibility are, in their essence, training. It should be obvious that most of the arguments for the practicality of education actually refer to training: it will aid you in further study, it will help you get and maintain a job, it will allow you to manage your finances, etc.

I want to define education in a much more stringent way. For me, education involves the changing of understanding. Either students gain new understandings, deepen their understandings, or change their understandings. In other words, memorizing facts, reading a book, or learning a math formula have nothing to do, in and of themselves, with education. Owning certain facts may very well lead to new understandings, but this is by no means taken for granted.

My goal in separating these two is not to denigrate training, but to establish a cause and effect relationship. Training gives students the tools, skills, and resources that lead to education. My concern is that, in general, we appear to place far too much emphasis on the value of training, so much so, in fact, that the matter of education can be ignored altogether.

One possible reason for this lack of attention may be that all of that stuff about forming and changing understandings of the world around us seems to stubbornly resist transformation into marketable commodities. And it's essentially impossible to measure in any concrete way. It tends to be crammed over into conversations about the Liberal Arts, which we all know are highly suspect. Ideas are, in America, a bit too abstract to be really valuable.

I myself have no problem with the impracticality of education. That it is not easily commodified and given a dollar value is rather a sign of its intrinsic value. And the ability to recognize and respond to "bullshit" is in no way a minor benefit.

The irony of my claim is that schools, our chosen tool for educating the masses, are loaded down with so much bullshit that it makes actual education not only difficult but actually dangerous to its very structure. We have given ourselves over almost completely to the idea of "training" children rather than educating them, and if there appears something insidious about the term, something less than human, that is in no way coincidental. Training is intimately tied up in relationships of authority and coercion.

I don't necessarily subscribe to Gatto's view that this system is all an elaborate conspiracy to "dumb us down." I find it much more likely that this almost absolute shift away from education in our schools is a result of 1) the best intentions of teachers and 2) Draconian legislation focused on "accountability" that takes it for granted that learning can be measured as a concrete score on a standardized test.

A colleague recently shared a reflection that jibes perfectly with what I know of the perils of school instruction. She explained how she always starts out with this big picture idea that she wants them to understand, and--in accordance with best practices--she start planning the scaffolded lessons that will get them there. Then, somewhere in the middle of the struggle that is learning, in the remediation and reteaching, in all of the formative assessment, she discovers that she has lost sight of that end goal. It's just too much. That end goal, of course, is the understanding we hope our students will form.  

Add to that a national system of accountability based on standardized tests that, almost by definition, do nothing to measure students understanding, and we see how quickly schools are transformed into training facilities designed to give students the "basic skills" they need to progress, though we can't really articulate what they might be progressing toward.

This is a long way to say that it is not, as we hear so often, a question of what we want education to do. It's a question of whether we want education at all.