Needed: True-to-Life Classroom Narratives as Counter Narratives

The problem with schools these days…

The problem is that everyone is trying to tell his own version of the problem, and depending on who you listen to, the story differs. The problem is poverty, or the problem is inequitable school funding, or the problem is that there needs to be more mandated testing, or the problem is that there needs to be less mandated testing, or the problem is that there needs to be more rigorous curriculum, or the problem is that teachers are ineffective, or the problem is that teachers are over-burdened, or the problem is parents, or the problem is the public schools, or the problem is the charter schools, or the problem is federal mandates, or the problem is budget cuts, or the problem is the lack of nutritional food in the schools, or the problem is that class sizes need to be smaller, or the problem is that class sizes need to be bigger, or the problem is… I could go on and on but that’s really not what I wanted this blog post to be about.

And I was deliberate about phrasing most of those problems up there as solutions. Because the real problem is that people (who are not usually educators) jump straight to the solutions without really knowing much about the actual world for which they are offering solutions.

That world is the classroom.

Sure we all spent plenty of time in the classroom as students. But that does not make us all expert educators. Heck, I’ve been working as an educator going on seventeen years here and I have three college degrees in education (two of those graduate degrees) and I know I still have a lot to learn about teaching.

But I certainly have a better vantage point of the world of the classroom than many people who make decisions that affect my day-to-day existence there.

In The Exhaustion of the American Teacher, John Kuhn argues for a counter view of the problem, counter than the view that pins it all on the perceived incompetence of teachers (forgive me while I quote the first three paragraphs, but I want you to get a sense of how Kuhn contextualizes his argument):

“With the 2012-2013 American school year still in its infancy, it’s worthwhile to note that the people doing the actual educating are down in the dumps. Many feel more beaten down this year than last. Some are walking into their classrooms unsure if this is still the job for them. Their hearts ache with a quiet anguish that’s peculiarly theirs. They’ve accumulated invisible scars from years of trying to educate the increasingly hobbled American child effectively enough that his international test scores will rival those of children flourishing in wealthy, socially-advanced Scandinavian nations and even wealthier Asian city-states where tiger moms value education like American parents value fast food and reality TV.

“The American child has changed, and not necessarily for the better. Many shrill voices argue that teachers must change, too, by simply working harder. The favored lever for achieving this prescribed augmentation of the American schoolteacher’s work ethic is fear, driven by a progressively more precarious employment situation.

“Meanwhile, no one is demanding American non-teachers change anything. […] a swelling army of kid-whipped or addiction-addled American parents have totally abdicated the job of parenting and have raised the white flag when it comes to disciplining their children or teaching them virtues like honesty, hard work, and self-respect. Americans have explicitly handed off character education to schoolteachers. Such a practice says a great deal about our nation’s expectations of its parents.”

Parents. It seems that Kuhn blames parents. And exhaustion. Kuhn blames parents for exhausting teachers because teachers have to parent all their students.

Now there is a lot I like about Kuhn’s piece. This point about America’s teachers being exhausted for one thing–I’ve written plenty in this blog about my own exhausted journey and the ways I’ve worked to deal with it. How Kuhn discusses it reminds me of a metaphor I brought up with my principal recently during a discussion of our slowly growing class sizes. It’s like the lobster in the pot of water; the lobster doesn’t notice that the water is slowing heating up until it is too late for it to free itself from sure death. My teacher career has kind of been the same. Each year my classes have gotten just a little bit bigger and I’m tasked with attending just a few more meetings and there’s just a little more paperwork and there are just a few more mandates from above (new tests, new curriculum, etc.). From one year to the next it might not seem like much, but cumulatively over time I can really see how much more I have to do now in the same amount of time in any given week. I’ve not yet been successful at bending the space-time continuum to create more time in the day; nor have I been successful at actually developing super-human skills. So though the work load has increased, my time and human characteristics to deal with it have stayed the same. I just do the best I can each year at managing it all as efficiently as possible.

At what point will we collectively be that lobster stuck in the pot of boiling water unable to free ourselves and facing imminent (figurative) death?

Though I appreciated Kuhn for pointing out the exhaustion that you can see in any hard-working American teacher, I bristled at what seemed to be the target of his argument:

Truth is, the problem with the American student is the American adult. Deadbeat dads, pushover moms, vulgar celebrities, self-interested politicians, depraved ministers, tax-sheltering CEOs, steroid-injecting athletes, benefit-collecting retirees who vote down school taxes, and yes, incompetent teachers—all take their turns conspiring to neglect the needs of the young in favor of the wants of the old.

Adults—not merely teachers—have caused these little ones to stumble, but journalists and nonprofits and interloping government experts offer not a hand to the young but rather a cat-of-nine-tails across the backs of their teachers. Injustice for teachers is confused with justice for kids.

Though there is certainly some truth to this, it is a wide brush stroke and a dangerous stereotype. There have always been American adults who do not provide a decent example to American youngsters. But just as it’s dangerous and unfair to demonize teachers as a whole and blame them for the problems in schools, it’s just as dangerous for Kuhn to demonize adults as a whole and blame them for problems in schools. Speaking in extremes like this creates narratives that people carry around in their heads that they use to define the world that they see. A reader of Kuhn’s piece could walk away with a narrative in his head that defines schools as places lacking hope or anything good really because teachers are so damn tired, that defines American parents as addicts who have handed over parenting to those exhausted teachers, that makes the whole situation sound just terrible.

And I know that it’s not necessarily that terrible. Of course no school is alike across the country, but the school where I teach is a counter narrative to Kuhn’s view of things. For the most part, parents are pretty involved and expect students to work hard and support them in doing that work. For the most part, teachers love the work. For the most part, we are supported by our building and district administration to think outside of the box and do really relevant teaching, despite the mandates and budget cuts we receive each year.

The truth is that the conversation about schooling in America needs a heavy dose of counter narratives. This is another thing I thought was compelling about Kuhn’s piece. He provided a the list toward the end of how the greater conversation has been speaking to teachers–these are key details in the current dominate narrative about schooling. Here are a few snippets for you:

“Waiting for ‘Superman’” told teachers they were terrible, callous, and incompetent, that only magnanimous charter school operatives could save victimized children from their rapacious clutches.

NCLB told teachers they would only be considered successful if 100% of their students passed 100% of their tests.

Condoleezza Rice told teachers they were so ineffective that they were a national security threat.

StudentsFirst told America to distrust its teachers.

Eric Hanushek told America that larger class sizes will improve education and, gee-whiz, they’re cheaper too, so why wouldn’t we grow them? Bill Gates seconded the motion.

Barack Obama told teachers he hated teaching to the test, and then he built Race to the Top of Test Mountain.

And a recent NYTimes Sunday Magazine piece went deeper into our collective view of teachers. In Not So Hot for Teacher – NYTimes.com, Elizabeth Alsop takes a look at how movies and television portray teachers:

“Look closely, and you’ll find they all, to some extent, use the teaching profession as a shorthand for a character’s dysfunction or even cosmic disenfranchisement. […] No one, these shows imply, would teach because she wants to, because she likes it or is good at it. Despite the lip service regularly and dutifully paid to the profession, within the lexicon of contemporary visual culture, it seems clear that it remains a career of last resort.”

Ouch. But it’s true. If you defined teachers based on the narrative about them told through movies and TV, Alsop explained that you get awesome teachers like the one in “Stand and Deliver,” or you get criminals like Walter White in “Breaking Bad.” There’s no middle ground:

“The fact that we see teachers in such extreme terms–as angelically good, as horrifyingly bad–may in fact be an indication that we don’t see them at all.”

Exactly. I think that what we have here is an inability to see teachers as real, hard-working people with lives and struggles. And I think the dominant narrative about schooling in our society is to blame for that. This dominant narrative comes from what Kuhn traced and from portrayals of teachers in movies and TV.  According to Alsop,

“Teaching, we seem to agree, demands universal respect. But actual teachers? Not so much.”

And:

“Viewers are now all too familiar with certain tropes of teaching yet all but unacquainted with anything like the real thing.”

I’ve written about this before in response to an academic piece from a journal about journalism that argued the media has done a horrible job covering education fairly, mainly because of an inability to actually get into classrooms, spaces where generally we want to protect students from outside intrusions. So in lieu of access to actual classrooms, journalists have done a horrible job covering education and contributed to the dominate, damaging narrative about schooling. Don’t even get me started again on “The Principal’s Office” and the ridiculous view of high schools and teenagers and teachers it portrays. And Alsop also explains that in the entertainment world’s view of teaching,

“While we’ve seen a lot of teachers, we still see very little teaching. It’s the one profession in pop culture in which the practitioners rarely get to practice. Imagine ‘Law and Order’ without litigation or ‘ER’ without the diagnoses. Then you can appreciate how weird it is when even programs about education, like David E. Kelley’s ‘Boston Public,’ show relatively little actual educating taking place.”

So what am I trying to say with this long and rambling post?

The need for narratives from classrooms is more important now than ever. We need powerful counter narratives to the dominant story in our nation’s consciousness about teaching, teachers, education, and schooling. We need people to look at education with nuance, not wide brush strokes and sweeping generalizations. Stories matter; they are what we use in our minds to define what we see.

We must tell our own stories, else the story being told about us will define us in ways we can not endure, in ways that ultimately damage our students.

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One Response to Needed: True-to-Life Classroom Narratives as Counter Narratives

  1. Robert LaRue says:

    Too tired and angry to post an observation.

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