Some colleagues recently posted and emailed links to some thought-provoking blogs that tap into some concerns and qualms about my role as a teacher in a traditional high school. There was this one by a veteran teacher posted by Grant Wiggins as well as his follow-up post here. I also spent some time pondering this provocatively-titled article in Salon, not to mention Time Magazine’s recent cover story on teacher tenure. These are not the kinds of articles and blogs that make me feel all warm and fuzzy about what I do for a living.
As a teacher and as a parent, I see all too that, although traditional education works really well for many kids, it completely fails far too many others. When I teach the industrial revolution to my students, I point out how students are in a kind of factory where they are not the workers, but rather the product. They roll along the assembly line, and I bolt on some social studies along the way, with students finally emerging from the factory as a gleaming new product, complete with an “inspected by” sticker (their diploma), ready to be purchased by some college or employer. The kids are often bemused by this, but it is by no means a revelation to some of the more astute pupils in the room.
So, if I believe this to be true, what exactly am I doing here? Am I just another cog in the machine, grinding down individuality in order to produce a standardized product that will meet the specifications of the buyer? Of course I don’t believe that to be true, or I couldn’t do this job. But there are moments when I wish we could really break the mold of traditional high school. When I was teaching about slavery and compromise in the years leading up to the Civil War this week, we discussed the idea of how some individuals and some states may have widely varying views of what is moral and what should be legal. We started talking about the issues you’d expect–gay marriage, gun rights, the death penalty–but suddenly spun into a discussion of Ebola, and whether people who may have been exposed should be quarantined or even held against their will for a time. One student even said we should go so far as to euthanize people who are infected to prevent the disease from spreading. Now, this is in a class where several students have announce loudly and often that they like neither school in general nor history in particular. And yet we had a lively, vigorous debate about issues around individual liberty, balancing individual rights versus communal rights, the power of the government, and abuse of power. It was exciting! And it was “off topic.” The kids left class, grinning, convinced they had pulled one over on me by getting us away from the lesson plan.
In the ideal world, I would have been able to take that topic and let the kids run with it for as long as they wished, until they had satisfied their desire to explore these issues. We could have looked at Japanese-American internment, Typhoid Mary, and the eugenics movement. It would have represented a true learning experience that would possibly have remained with those students for some time. These are kids that will be of voting age next year. Shouldn’t I be encouraging them to delve into these ideas in order to become engaged citizens, informed individuals, and reflective human beings? But there I was next class, tugging them back to the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and the debate about whether the war with Mexico was a war to extend slavery.
I read about places like the Sudbury Valley school, and I am downright jealous–why can’t I replicate some of what they do in my classroom? Am I limited by my own conceptions about what I should be doing, by the standards I am required to help my students meet, by the limitations of not having the luxury of working with a self-selected group of students who are motivated and have motivated and involved parents, or by my own lack of creative lesson planning?
I guess what it boils down to is that I feel restricted by multiple layers of accountability, or, depending on your view, bureaucratic red tape. So, am I helping my kids, or am I part of a machine that is systematically tearing down love of learning and replacing it with a grotesque mockery of learning? Ultimately, I think I am doing good, and genuinely helping my kids. But I can do better. We can do better.