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Teacher as Connector

Teacher as Connector

Written by Katie Rietberg
November 29, 2013

During our discussion of “Teacher as Community Member and Connector,” I was surprised to hear the frustration in Tolu Olorundu’s voice when he mentioned the current crop of new teachers: “The crop that we’re graduating is a bunch of neo-liberal, never stand up for students, just do your job, press a button; and we can’t have that.” Studying at Teachers College, in a program that places so much emphasis not just on getting to know students but getting to know yourself–examining your own context and reflecting on how this history with education, history as a student, influences your teaching–it seems obvious that one way to improve education would be to improve teacher education, to invest in better and more rigorous, experiential preparation. I had assumed the progress was linear, that new teachers would of course be more socially conscious,  would be taught to favor engaged pedagogy over the banking method, would believe that “every kid has a soul,” as Olorundu says. Not only is there a difference between intention and execution, but, based on his response and a recent New York Times article, which calls teacher education an “industry of mediocrity,” there is a glaring disconnect or an unwillingness to reform the teacher education programs that have been so lucrative for many universities.

The schools with the highest turnover rates, where most new teachers start and soon leave due to administrative tension or burnout, are often the schools that are desperate for funding and thus forced to teach-to-the-test and use scripted curricula and workbooks designed by corporations. These schools put pressure on teachers to get results–to cover all the material and check off every standard while maintaining order, since opening up the classroom to critical thinking could lead to digressions and distractions. Teachers are judged by the test scores of their students, motivating some to alienate those students who pose a challenge, need more attention/resources, or “drag down” the class average. Using standardized test scores to validate the work and achievement of both students and teachers leads to a cycle of oppression and socially reproduced violence. As Olorundu mentions, there are schools like Mumford that supposedly “resolve” administrative issues related to funding and a lack of resources by getting students out of the classroom–handing out labels (like emotionally disturbed), using IEPs to segregate students, enforcing arbitrary discipline procedures (like mass suspensions). Students have no control over these administrative issues, just like teachers often have little control over the scripted curricula imposed upon them and the federal standards by which their effectiveness will be judged.   

When we put new teachers who have not had the opportunity to reflect on their own biases and educational background into a classroom, they often revert back to the practices modeled by their own teachers–for better or worse. Another new teacher (not studying at Teachers College) advised me to make an example of a few students on my first day, “that way they’ll respect you and know not to mess with you.” When we leave new teachers to fend for themselves, feeling alone and isolated (unable or unwilling to ask for help because they have seen too many “victory narratives” and do not want to reveal any potential weaknesses), it creates an antagonistic atmosphere of us versus them–teacher versus students–where the goal is simply to survive and never let them see you sweat. Hiding or denying the relationships that are essential to teaching only forces new (student) teachers to rely on their own, individual knowledge, which comes from their institutional history as a student. Working in isolation blinds one to the fact that there are other methods, other schools, and other teacher education philosophies out there; we falsely convince ourselves to see “the existing school reality as the only possible reality” (Britzman, 446).

According to Wittgenstein, we are still occupied with the same philosophical problems because our language has remained the same. Even when we attempt to implement new methods and incorporate technology into the classroom, we often face the same issues because we simply “replicate existing literacy practices”–the literacy practices we grew up with and were subjected to as students (Garcia, 95). We use what we know, what is familiar, even though these practices end up reproducing the same disinvestment and alienation we may have felt as students ourselves. If we want to change the way students see English class, we need to change our definitions of reading as a passive or isolated activity and writing as a finished product. “Reading the word implies continually reading the world,” since reading is a transformative act that involves negotiating and navigating the differences between reader and writer contexts (Duncan-Andrade and Morrell, 3). Reading is not just accepting someone else’s words; it gives students a chance to (re)think and (re)write their own worlds through exposure to new perspectives. Instead of just changing the medium but conveying the same message, we can use technology to engage students and validate the digital/cultural literacies they bring with them (Garcia, 95).

Will society ever really value teaching as a serious profession that takes preparation and years of experience, instead of simply throwing young graduates into a sink-or-swim situation where neither they nor their students benefit? Does respect come from the number of degrees you have or your graduate school grade point average? Are these the measures of a “master” teacher? Teacher education programs cannot change until our language and mindset change. Instead of being so focused on what will make the rest of society respect teachers, what about the opinions of students? What matters to them? What do they think makes a great teacher? What earns their respect and trust? I think part of the problem stems from the issue of how to represent someone on paper; how to capture their experience in a resume, or judge them by a prestigious college degree or GPA. How do we define success and measure achievement, for teachers and students? How can we represent and assess student understanding, and humanize students on paper instead of judging them by standardized test scores?