Written more than three years ago, this piece comes close to making the case that teachers are the problem and I post it again because my experience in education, as student and teacher and teacher educator has been that teachers are indeed the problem, the problematic interface between student and his or her education. Teachers are not necessarily the problem because they cannot teach well, though there are some who cannot and those who defend teachers know this is true and, for the sake of students, need to do something about it. Many teachers are capable and, at least when they start teaching, willing to help students grow into wise independent thinkers who want to and know how to participate in the societal decision making process. They are often not allowed to do the good work they wish to be doing and, sadly, are rarely willing, rarely encouraged by individuals such as Ms. Weingarten or organizations such as the one she leads to demand being treated with dignity, encouraged to fight back when those in authority force teachers to do something other than what they know is best for students and the society.
I hope that the recent events in American politics serve as a wakeup call to those with strong voices in the important discussions concerning education in the United States of America to use their voices to speak to what is wrong and what has been wrong in education for so long, a system that teaches respect for authority no matter who may have attained positions of authority, qualified or not, wise or stupid, good or evil. I ask that they stop bullshitting people into believing that the system is a good one, that it is the right one to encourage and prepare people for effective participation in the democratic decision making process. Take heed of the fact that Trump was elected by and electorate that was educated by American teachers in American schools. And do not pull out the “majority voted” for the other candidate argument. No matter what the numbers, the candidate who has become the President of the United States should not have become president. If it is the rules, if it is the lies, if it is the media, the Russians and Wikileaks, whatever it is has something to do with a political (and social) system in a society where government is, by its constitution, by the people that is not working well for the people or for the general well-being of the world in which we live.
We need change and we need it now and the first thing that needs changing is the educational system. It is the root of all good in a democratic society and, too, potentially, the root of all evil.
In response to comments at My Friend, Randi Weingarten, July 10, 2013
“Today, American public education faces an existential threat to its very existence. We all need to work together, argue when we must, but maintain our basic unity against the truly radical, truly reactionary threat of privatization. As a nation, as a democracy, we cannot afford to lose this essential democratizing institution.” With this I wholeheartedly agree. I think that the important missing piece of the argument is a well rendered description of what constitutes sound educational practices in the context of a democratic society. Indeed, the tests are an abomination and the consequences for educators and students incredibly high, the loss of autonomy, the loss of a right to succeed and retain one’s individuality.
But I am concerned with the lack of discussion of the truly viable alternative to what exists now and I have no doubt that an alternative is necessary and that alternative may mean alternative ways for teachers to conduct themselves. Thus, the urge to defend teachers cannot allow those arguing for better conditions for teaching to ignore the role of teachers in creating and perpetuating the current system. If teachers are teaching under rules and regulations that prevent them from teaching well, then teachers must do something (everything) to change those conditions. If there are teachers who act to prevent necessary change or who do nothing to change the conditions of their work, then they are complicit in undermining the quality of education students receive.
I do not wish to argue about who is to blame, but I will argue that those who wish to improve the quality of education students receive consider what needs to be done to achieve such goal. One thing that has to be done is to define proper goals for instruction and it seems as though those goals are not being defined by teachers or their students. Getting a “good job” and becoming a competent worker, one who advances the cause of American competitiveness in the global economy, is what the current agenda is about. Little is said about goals such as effective participation as a citizen of a participatory democracy or the ability to challenge authorities who proscribe goals that are not the goals they would set for themselves or their own children. Few people want to be obedient workers who take what they are offered even if the offer is an absurd offer, a job that makes one miserable and pays little but is “the only job available.”
Citizens need to take on the forces that oppress them and education does need to help individuals to be able to fend for themselves, to participate in the creation of rules and policies that affect their lives. As Dewey says, people must participate in creating and regulating the institutions that govern their lives for, if they do not, then people have no good reason to give up bits and pieces of their freedom. People, as Dewey argues, in a democratic society give into rules because they believe them to be good and proper in that they allow all to live as free people amongst other free people.
If teachers feel bound by the rules, object to the rules but are not heard by the rule makers, then teachers have an obligation as citizens and as teachers of citizens to do whatever is necessary to make themselves heard. Sometimes this necessitates making trouble for oneself, causing oneself discomfort, putting things at risk, but if teachers are unwilling to do this, to grumble while doing someone else’s bidding, then they are poor role models for citizens of a democracy, a form of government that is revolutionary in regard to its coming into being and its being properly sustained. If teachers are teaching students to be good girls and boys because it is good to be good rather than right to be good because what is good is right, then they are being horribly mis-taught.