Why Teach?

When asked why teaching, one recent applicant to the teaching certificate program I coordinate said, “Because I have to REALLY get out of retail.” I wanted to stand up and yell, “STOP dammit! Stop! Thanks for coming and good luck making retail less stultifying.”

Most applicants are pulled, rather than pushed into the profession, but their reasons still routinely speak to ulterior motives.

• “I’m a good story teller and students’ find me engaging.”

• “I love when the light bulb goes off when a student learns something new.”

• “It will be nice to have the same schedule as my children.”

That’s understandable. I recently wrote that everyone cares about compensation, benefits, work-life balance, but I’m waiting longingly for a prospective teacher to say something like this:

“I want to become an educator because I have a hunch that teaching is a continuous exercise in selflessness and I want to learn to lose myself in service of others. I’m an impatient listener and prone to self-centeredness. I want to learn to listen to young people in ways that help them fulfill their potential. I suspect teaching will provide me the opportunity to become not just a positive influence in young people’s lives, but also a better person, friend, partner, and citizen.”

I suppose, if that more Eastern starting point leads one to ask, “Relative to others, how well are you serving others and modeling selflessness?” practicing selfless service to others could turn into a tail chasing, self-regarding exercise. “Too bad others aren’t as selfless as me.” Ego is a perpetual trap.

Despite that conundrum, I’m wondering if I should add this tagline to our Teaching Credential Program’s promotional materials, “People with Buddhist sensibilities are strongly encouraged to apply.”

 

 

The Scourge of Vagueness

The Columbia Basin Herald:

“The Moses Lake School District is looking for a new high school principal following the resignation of Mark Harris Wednesday.

“We came to a mutually agreeable decision that his skill set is not the best fit for Moses Lake,” said outgoing superintendent Michelle Price.”

I’d be very disappointed if one of my first year writing students explained someone’s firing by writing, “his skill set was not the best fit”, because that requires readers to work way too hard.

Then a slight elaboration:

“We had a conversation about where we are and the future of two high schools,” Harris said. “And we decided they need someone who knows the community and is steeped in its traditions and culture.”

More vagueness, “where we are”, “the future”, “knows the community”, “its traditions and cultures”. Those references are far from self-explanatory. This reader is going to guess Harris didn’t ask enough questions, implemented changes with little input from teacher-leaders, and probably lacked the needed interpersonal skills to effectively lead a high school more generally.

There’s this pseudo-elaboration too:

“Explaining the phrase ‘skill set,’ Price elaborated that with the addition of the second high school as well as planned upgrades to the existing high school, Harris didn’t really have the skills to lead through that kind of change.”

But again the phrase, “the skills to lead through that kind of change” is the same vague reflex. What does that mean? What specific skills was Harris lacking? The reader has to speculate. After a couple of readings, I still don’t know what “the skills to lead through that kind of change” is code for?

The district spokesperson concludes by proving it is possible to speak entirely in cliches:

“It will take someone special to lead people through the coming changes,” she added. “Leadership is about fit.”

What does “someone special” mean? And “changes”? And “Leadership is about fit.”? Dear CBH, please resubmit.

Even though all of Moses Lakes probably knows, I can’t help but conclude that Harris flamed out as a principal in ways the district really doesn’t want made more public.

Here’s an idea. When no one is willing to tell ANY of the story behind the story, just go to Twitter, and spare readers the public relations chess game.

Summer Reading and Thinking

What I’m reading. Janesville by Amy Goldstein. What happens to a place when a majority of people work for an automaker that closes shop? When people used to earn $28/hour with some overtime and now make somewhere between $0 and $16/hour. Here’s a part of the answer:

     “In the shadows of town, hundreds of teenagers are becoming victims of a domino effect. These are kids whose parents used to scrape by on jobs at Burger King or Target or the Gas Mart. Now their parents are competing with the unemployed autoworkers who used to look down on these jobs but now are grasping at any job they can find. So, as middle-class families have been tumbling downhill, working-class families have been tumbling into poverty. And as this down-into-poverty domino effect happens, some parents are turning to drinking or drugs. Some are leaving their kids behind while they go looking for work out of town. Some are just unable to keep up the rent. So with a parent or on their own, a growing crop of teenagers is surfing the couches at  friends’ and relatives’ places—or spending nights in out-of–the-way spots in cars or on the street.”

Robert Putnam on Janesville,

“Reflecting on the state of the white working class, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy focuses on cultural decay and the individual, whereas Amy Goldstein’s Janesville emphasizes economic collapse and the community.  To understand how we have gotten to America’s current malaise, both are essential reading.”

On deck. In the hole.

Shifting to thinking, I’m thinking about how artists talk about becoming artists and the implications of that for parents, teachers, and coaches. How do parents, teachers, and coaches cultivate true artistry or other specialized forms of expertise in young people? Specialized expertise that might enable them to independently make a living in the new economy. My thoughts are still in the subconscious primordial ooze phase, but I trust they’ll settle in some sort of coherent pattern sometime soon.

In short, here’s what I don’t hear artists say, “I took this really great class in school.” Instead, musicians for example, almost always say, “My parents were always playing the coolest music.” The word I keep returning to is “milieu” or social environment. In this data obsessed age, we’re utterly lacking in sophistication when it comes to the cumulative effective of the environments young people inhabit. Granted, formal schooling, think Juilliard for example, can contribute to artistic excellence, but meaningful learning is mostly the result of osmosis outside of school.

How do some families, in the way they live day-to-day, foster specialized expertise in children almost by accident, whether in the arts, academics, cooking, design, computers, or athletics? What can educators learn from those families to reinvent formal academic settings? What might “osmosis-based” schools look like? Schools where students watch adults actively engaged in learning and get seriously caught up in the fun.

 

My Complicity in Civilization’s Decline

I like to think my teaching makes a small positive difference in the world. That my students learn new things they deem meaningful, that they become a bit more curious about the world, and incrementally more caring towards others. Most enjoy my decidedly informal approach towards teaching which has been shaped by Quaker education principles and Ira Shor’s teaching (Critical Teaching and Every Day Life and When Students Have Power).

That aside, Molly Worthen, an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, has me rethinking my three decades as an educator. In a New York Times essay titled “U Can’t Talk to UR Professor Like This” she argues that the teacher-student relationship depends on a

“special kind of inequality” and that insisting on traditional etiquette is . . . simply good pedagogy.”

In the end, she impugns professors like me for being on a first-name basis with students who are all adults.

Worthen:

“The facile egalitarianism of the first-name basis can impede good teaching and mentoring, but it also presents a more insidious threat. It undermines the message that academic titles are meant to convey: esteem for learning.”

Worthen leans on a math professor friend who argues,

“More and more, students view the process of going to college as a business transaction.”

The suggestion being my type of classroom informality is the reason students. . .

“see themselves as customers, and they view knowledge as a physical thing where they pay money and I hand them the knowledge, so if they don’t do well on a test, they think I haven’t kept up my side of the business agreement.”

A pretty heavy trip to lay at the foot of classrooms like mine.

“Values of higher education,” Worthen explains, “are not the values of the commercial, capitalist paradigm.”

So faculty like me are to blame for the corporatization of higher education, but that’s not the worst of my offenses. Worthen also states that professors should take the time to teach students how to relate to authority figures not just as preparation for a job.

“The real point,” she explains, “is to stand up for the values that have made our universities the guardians of civilization.”

I never realized it, but ultimately I guess, by encouraging my students to use my first name, I’m complicit in civilization’s decline.

I don’t begrudge Worthen her formality, but I don’t understand her stridency. Who knows why she can’t accept the fact that teaching excellence takes many forms. Tucked in the middle of her essay is one paragraph that resonated with me:

“Alexis Delgado, a sophomore at the University of Rochester, is skeptical of professors who make a point of insisting on their title. ‘I always think it’s a power move,’ she told me. ‘Just because someone gave you a piece of paper that says you’re smart doesn’t mean you can communicate those ideas to me. I reserve the right to judge if you’re a good professor.’”

Worthen writes about “esteem for learning” without acknowledging what most undermines that, unrelenting grade grubbing. I believe the more formal faculty are, the more likely students are to “give them what they want”. Passivity is so engrained in students by college, any hope for a genuine questioning of authority, especially the professor’s, requires an intentional informality. Forget the guardian of civilization bullshit, I just want students to speak and write more authentically. Passing on using my formal title is a means towards that end. It isn’t a panacea for heightened student authenticity, but it’s not the root of all problems in higher education or Western Civilization either.