I‘ll start by saying I’ve taught now for the better part of six years, all in public school. As an NYC Teaching Fellow, learning how to teach while teaching isn’t the best part of the job. Teaching, however, is. It’s a liberating experience because it’s the answer to the question of “What will you contribute to the Earth’s future?” Those of us who consider ourselves advocates hold high expectations when it comes to how much we should contribute. With teaching, the giving of self is built into the profession, and the hard part is making your teacher self good enough that you’d approve of the future you’re helping to build.
Unfortunately, schools aren’t built that like. The present brick-and-mortar school is still under the architecture of early 20th century. Whenever I go to well-to-do schools, the architecture screams “Succeed!” in contrast to the message of “Fail!” for impoverished schools. In well-to-do schools, every space is well-lit, all of the chalkboards (if there are any left) are spotless and fresh. The desks are close to pristine, the temperature in the school is just about right, and the hallways feel a bit more spacious. In less privileged schools, the paint in the hallways still can’t light up the classrooms enough, the schools vary too much in temperature, and the places where kids can get lost are as abundant as the gates and trash areas within the school crevices.
What’s most apparent in the classes I’ve visited is that the well-to-do schools have a lower ceiling than the poorer schools. So the buildings are sending them the messages only a few of us spot. For wealthy kids, the ceiling is reachable, so sky’s the limit for you. For poor kids, the ceiling is unreachable, so we’ve set the limit there.
I’m not saying those confined in factory-style schools should give up; if anything, you have the responsibility towards helping students find liberation in the most personal way possible. We live in a situation where teaching is either an exercise in helping students conform or re-learn. Studies have shown that thoughts and actions are truly independent from one another, so as educators and thought leaders, do we actually act upon the beliefs we have about our students or do we perpetuate the pathology? Do we ask kids to ask the right questions about our society and how it’s affecting our lives or do we just ask those who we think are capable of making something of themselves?
Are we asking kids to bisect angles because it’s good for an exam or because we believe it’ll inspire them to become the architects for their own futures?
People think that by setting kids free, I’m saying let them run amok in the classroom. To the contrary, I’m asking people to teach the students self-discipline without making them objects in your own fantasy about a well-behaved class. Instead of discouraging students from misbehaving by constantly yelling at them and giving them the “because I said so,” why not encourage them by showing them alternate ways of expressing themselves? In the public, we say we don’t have too much freedom with the content we deliver, but we have plenty of freedom to maneuver in the way we address students. We can create environments that mitigate the circumstances, make kids feel like they’re welcome, and convince them that we have a means for them to seek their own freedom.
If we don’t get the behaviors that lead to revolution, then we’re permitting them to continue the behaviors that often lead to their own demise. That’s the thing about freedom, too: we don’t recognize it unless we’re in constant reflection. Some of my own family members didn’t realize how their childhood landed them in prison until they got on the bus. For a kid like me, I thought they had freedom because they stood out at all times of night, rarely did any school work, and rarely heeded any adult’s advice. I envied that because of the relative rigidity of my own upbringing.
Then I looked back and saw something I couldn’t have seen at the time: with the teachers I had, I was picking up the tools for my own liberation, learning to ask critical questions of the world through my own lens. True freedom insists on discipline, and the ability to detach yourself from the distractions of the world in order to understand it better. That isn’t what every teacher taught, but by the time I got out of college, I sewed that all together myself. Once we’ve done our own peace-building, we’re well on our way to freedom. As educators, if we’re not fully vested in the idea of critical pedagogy, we should strongly consider how our actions are shaping the world.
That’s the reason many of us came into the profession anyways. I don’t have this all down, but whenever I do things in this direction, they work more often than not.
Let’s build schools that help us pull down that ceiling. Let’s de-emphasize schooling and more about learning. Let’s teach them extraction, and asking the questions behind the bubble sheet. Let them have breakfast; give them some! Make sure they clean up after themselves, though. Walk away from the chalkboard and repeat their names when they say something important. Implore them to say “I don’t get it” and don’t berate them for it. Don’t take their failures personally, but be sure they know why you’re disappointed. You’re planting seeds even when you’re not the only one tending the farm.
Let them ask why they go to school. Give a generic answer to start. But when you and they are ready, give them the real answer. Then, give them yours. By then, I hope it’s the same as mine.
Jose, who was inspired by @dcinc66 to do this, even if he was tongue-in-cheek about it …