What I think when I think about teaching

September 9, 2009












What I think when I think about teaching

 Developing  methods for collective thinking was one of the wellsprings of 20th Century invention and activity. The power of the throne, pulpit, synagogue or minaret was secularized both by the rise in literacy and the advent of mass media. The Victorians introduced the information age, but by the end of the steam age their intellectual border skirmishes escalated like electricity. Charlie Chaplin was a character invented out of a Victorian Music Hall act and crude Keystone Comedy film techniques, but not long after her death that character was more recognized than Queen Victoria on whose empire the sun never set. The “Little Tramp” didn’t own a piece of property that couldn’t fit in a handkerchief on the end of a bamboo cane and his crown was a dented derby. In fact, he didn’t exist at all—except as flickering light and the intellectual property of Sir Charles Spenser Chaplin.

The revolutionary ideas Marxism, Capitalism, Mass Production, Mass Media, Public Opinion, Public Interest, Psychoanalysis, Evolution, Race, Social Darwinism, Socialism, Nationalism, even Environmentalism all ended as captives to their own armies by the end of the 20th century. Intellectual concepts became entities that thought and acted like bureaucrats, that is, human beings who have been taught, threatened or paid to think, and then act, in the interest of a system. A system generally removed from both its inspiration and its surrounding immediate reality. Although the first half of the century was consumed by inconceivable violence, the second has seemed consumed by the illusions of manipulations. Through marketing perception became reality and then a much more plastic reality.

 Adolf Hitler liked movies. His favorites were “King Kong” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”. He attempted to induce Fritz Lang [“Metropolis, M, Die Nibelugen”] to make Nazi influenced narratives for the Reich. Lang emigrated to Hollywood to make film noir detective dramas like “The Big Heat”.  In part due to Lang’s escape Hitler employed Leni Riefenstahl not merely to translate narratives, but to invent narratives. Stalin, Hitler’s dictatorial contemporary, produced a propaganda film like “Alexander Nevsky” wherein Sergei Eisenstein and Prokofiev collaborated on a propaganda piece to prepare the Soviet people for war with Germany; Riefenstahl produced “Triumph of the Will” and “Olympia”. “Alexander Nevsky” reinterpreted the historical narrative of the 13th Century  invasion of Rus by crusading Teutonic Knights. Riefenstahl produced docudramas that raised propaganda to art form promoting the Third Reich. The quintessential seminar question here is about Leni Riefenstahl, how responsible was she for the thinking that was indoctrinated in her work? How responsible is anyone for what is indoctrinated into their work?

 Many years ago in my first days of teaching I stood up and walked to the water fountain in the hall and got a drink. Eureka! From that simple sip I realized I could do almost anything I wanted to do in a classroom without asking permission. The energy I had squandered for years keeping myself still was released. I’ve loved being in classrooms ever since. Usually I think of teaching as a physical act. Although it is a complicated mental construct, teaching is demanding labor. At the end of the school day the teachers leave my school pretty much exhausted. I train both physically and intellectually to be prepared to deliver more than I’m asked.  I read widely and independently in my profession, I attend seminars and conventions; I carry on collegial conversations—all on my own. Nearly every day in a classroom has been a gift to me—Teaching called me, and I must respect that vocation.

  For the last few weeks I’ve been thinking too much about management theories and less about teaching. For most of August my school district paid me to come into a nearly empty school and think about it. Most mornings were scheduled agendas of subjects to consider, Differentiated Instruction, Literacy Initiatives, mandatory tutorial planning, Sexual Harassment, Gallup Strength Inventories, test data and a variety of conduct codes and mission statements. I don’t want to give the impression that these are trivial matters or I don’t honestly think about them. They seem important and germane to the students we serve and the work I chose to do. 

 I’ve been in education for over twenty-five years. During my career there have been occasions when I was asked and allowed to think, solve problems, invent solutions, create. There were days when “thinking outside the box” was a euphemism for creative freedom—unorthodox, but useful— as opposed to now. When you’re requested to think outside the box now, it means you’ve been handed down someone else’s problem. It generally means the plan presented hasn’t been adequate to solve the problem it was devised to resolve, but you’re expected to both follow the second-rate plan and think outside the box, e.g., How are we supposed to meet the educational level of each individual student and the district curriculum at the same time? Take ownership of our problemthink outside the box.

That is an example of management thinking, or work thinking. Work thinking is different from thinking about work. Work think is a Kafkaesque world of following the order of the day and keeping the paperwork correct. The result is too often rote obedience, and a mechanical resolution that follows parameters, but shows no genuine purpose. It becomes the paradoxical box we are both climbing inside of and escaping. Mediocrity.

 Many great teachers envision their lessons fully completed the way a painter finds a way into a painting or a musician knows where a composition must go. It’s timeless beautiful thought. Others work semester after semester refining lessons. Managed work thinking is different, it starts with the premise all of that is valueless. They’re asked to think as an entity the same way I ask my word processing software to think for me. It’s both as human and inhuman as slavery. Much the same way my grandfather, who was a trained carpenter, worked for a steel mill that required him to knock off half cooled rough ends of rolled steel, I’m often asked to think using a certain process for my employer. It becomes a less meaningful job— the management concept seems based on the premise that every person is replaceable. Carpenters can become chippers; teachers have been replaced with  learning managers.

As public education has been remodeled into a failing business I’ve been given numerous sales motivation books to read.  See You at the Top, The One Minute Manager, The Eighth Habit, Who Moved My Cheese? ,and The No Complaining Rule among others. Aspire to greatness, greatness gave way to efficiency, efficiency to a moral compass, moral compasses pointed to flexibility and now, stop whining and get to work—all reasonable, indisputable thoughts. No harm intended or done.   These books are distributed as well intentioned advice to overburdened people facing a daunting task. They don’t take much time to read, and more or less they have a single message that reads as something like a Sunday sermon given by a basketball coach at halftime with a self study inventory attached.  Now it’s the school policy that every employee spend forty-five minutes each week contemplating and discussing complaining. It would be humorous and ironic if there weren’t at least one administrator in the room monitoring my weekly progress.

For many people both teachers and, sadly, many students, education ends cynically, not as finding a way, but as finding the way out.

Tuesday the President wanted to address the students of America about education, setting goals and staying in school. The world of politics, propaganda, shaping public policy,changing political opinion and what students will do during second period have collapsed into a single, overburdened event.  President Obama speaking to millions of young people on what is ostensibly the first day of school, broadcast over television and the Internet. It seems like a reasonable task for any modern president to engage in, and others have done. I’m inclined to believe his intentions are benevolent. In my experience today’s students need every encouragement they can find. A vocal minority of our population has been capable of reframing this event as political and nefarious indoctrination. Radio entertainers and blog doctors spread the fear President Obama’s twenty minute speech and lesson plan will secretly teach children to be Socialists or follow a secret agenda. I can only assume these bloggers and radio personalities haven’t taught school. Some things neither time nor progress can change…other things we have to take responsibility for.


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