good enough

As both a product and a champion of public schools, I confess that I am sometimes coy about where I got my K-12 teaching experience. I think it’s because I know how teachers determine your credibility by a quick sniff test, and it starts with how you answer the question, “where did you teach?” No list of fancy degrees or slick professional development programs will rescue you from the wrong answer to that question, and my answer is, to many, wrong.

I taught in private schools, folks. “Independent” is the term of art, actually, in an effort to more specifically distinguish the values and goal of such schools. And, along the way, get some distance from Dead Poets Society, A Separate Peace, and all the public imaginings of private schools as places where blue bloods marshal social capital to the next generation in ivied halls. The fact is that I have never taught a day of public school in my life. I taught full-time 7-12 English, Spanish, and performing arts at The Field School in Washington DC from 1993-1999, with a few summer stints at Beauvoir (the National Cathedral Elementary School). Coming clean about that – and asserting that my experience is singularly relevant for future public school teachers – is what I am up to here.

What an odd way for things to play out. I had never set foot in a private school until the day I interviewed at Field. I was an Air Force brat, shuffled among elementary programs through several moves until Dad became a reservist in upstate New York and I spent seven years in their mediocre and underfunded public schools. My family moved as I started tenth grade, and I suddenly became the beneficiary of a spectacular (and spectacularly tax-based) public high school in Newt Gingrich’s district outside Atlanta. (The contrast between the schools is another post for another day: suffice to say the lunch options in my new high school cafeteria were more abundant than any restaurant I’d ever been to, and I think I saw my first BMW in the senior parking lot.)

This was how a career in education worked out for me. It wasn’t by design – if I could have figured out how to do it, I’d certainly have taught public, because that was the warp and woof of my own experience. But I decided to become a teacher late in my college career, and didn’t have time to pursue certification before finishing my BA. After spending two years in Spain I had passion for teaching language, and took two foreign language pedagogy classes that cemented that desire and helped me develop teaching chops. The first thing private schools “buy” with their independence from state certification requirements is the right to keep their own counsel about who is qualified to teach their students. In my case, Spanish fluency, a prestigious undergrad degree, two classes in teaching, and what my Dean of Faculty came to call a “put me in, Coach” attitude was enough for me to land my first job at funky little Field School.

I get a moment of uncanny thrill sometimes in my current position, wondering if what I mean when I think “school” is what my students think. Am I preparing my students for the correct world? I need to be deliberate about stuff like this, as all teachers do: we teach from our experience, after all, unless and until we make deliberate choices to do otherwise. What does my unconsidered experience have me “teaching from,” anyway? How does my experience contrast with those that await my teaching students?

In three ways, I think.

First, the nature of the teaching work itself. The level of autonomy I was granted to figure out how to organize and run my classroom, connect my students’ “real” interests to those of the curriculum, build the culture of respect and risk-taking that my students needed. I am worried sick about the long-term effect of a generation of teachers whose ultimate judgment about whether or not what they did worked has been usurped by external accountability measures. My doctoral work tried to understand how teachers negotiated tensions between their obligations to external pressures and their own inner compulsions to teach and connect. I found hopeful stories of that negotiation – successful examples of folks “rendering unto Caesar” what Caesar needed to affirm accountability and returning to their closed-door classroom to practice mostly uninhibited.

I wonder at how that world has changed in the eight short years since I completed that work. Indications are that it feels very different to teach now, and that the locus of judgment about whether or not they have succeeded is almost entirely abrogated to external powers. That’s a tragedy, for the teachers and their students. While I was of course observed and mentored and evaluated at Field, those accountability measures always returned to hopeful, “appreciative inquiry” models that sought to build my strengths on the way to ameliorating my weaknesses. Can that happen in a standard-six world? Can it happen in a PLC? I don’t know, but I know community is grown into, not assigned, and community is the ground in which new teachers thrive.

Second, the ways that community grew at Field were so essential to our development as teachers. Lack of space forced shared offices and classrooms; we were piled on each other like puppies most of the time, and the virtue of that necessity was a lot of idea-swapping, profligate cross-pollination between our classes. We spent a lot of down-time with each other on the way to meets, performances, practices – a lot of what Roland Tharp called “propinquity” and opportunities for “legitimate peripheral participation,” interactions that built competence and confidence in organic and highly-stable ways. A lot of happy hours down Connecticut Avenue in Dupont Circle, too; the social fabric of the place was intimately connected to its intellectual and social values, and it all added up to a marvelously supportive setting in which to get one’s teaching legs.

How can that community be emulated in a public school setting? More easily than we might first think: lots of hanging out, lots of opportunities for sharing and celebrating each other’s successes. I see the challenges of creating this community in the institutional spaces of our public schools, but it can be done. Leaders who value it make time and find resources for it, and it’s more a “low-load / high-rep” thing than an annual event anyhow. Competition is inimical to it; collaboration and celebration is conducive. Kirp’s description of school success in Union City, New Jersey barely made a ripple when it was published last month – perhaps because community-building and real, relationship-based accountability like what he describes doesn’t boil down to the bold action that reform seems to have to mean these days. But it’s what he’s talking about, and it’s what I experienced. It’s what works.

But the last difference has to be the expectations we have about what goes on in the classes themselves. I taught for six years in rooms with about fifteen students – and that was a big class. I was comfortable as heck in that environment: the great boon of my undergrad study was how much time I spent in small seminars, so I came to value the genuine back-and-forth of respectful, engaged discussion between instructor and students, students and each other. It’s What School Looks Like To Me.

My present classes are just small enough to be run as (admittedly aerobic) seminars, and I continue to be gobsmacked by how many of my students tell me ours is the first class where they’ve been given opportunity and expectation to have something to say to each other and to me. Students must know they are seen, heard, read, answered. What does it mean when so many of our future teachers come through their own public school experience and undergrad training in mostly large rooms, where their accountability for learning is more based on measurable outcomes than the dispositions developed through relationships with each other and with professors? I think I DO mean something different when I think of a classroom than many teachers do, and I think my idea – smaller, discussion-based. everyone seen and heard and attended to – is what we need. We need our teachers to develop these values and instincts for what well-administered classes look like: the buzz of intersubjective connection, not the well-regulated models of atomized experiences.

So, there are three places where my private school experience comes up against my public school commitments:

  • the level of autonomy I expect teachers should be able to have as they grow into their practice;
  • the depth and vitality of the school communities I think teachers should be welcomed into;
  • the quality of the engagement that I think teachers should be engendering in their students’ experience, and the expectations for connection that I think they should hold of themselves and their students.

As I said, I think these three values represent our best aspirations for public education, and it is an indictment of our public school investments that we have been unable to commit the resources (physical and emotional) necessary to make them a reality. Bill Ayers stirred the rhetorical pot beautifully upon the President’s re-election, and is worth quoting here at length:

Education is a fundamental human right, not a product. In a free society education is based on a common faith in the incalculable value of every human being; it’s constructed on the principle that the fullest development of all is the condition for the full development of each, and, conversely, that the fullest development of each is the condition for the full development of all…

In a vibrant democracy, whatever the most privileged parents want for their children must serve as a minimum standard for what we as a community want for all of our children. Arne Duncan attended the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools (as did our three sons); you sent your kids to Lab, and so did your friend Rahm Emanuel. There students found small classes, abundant resources, and opportunities to experiment and explore, ask questions and pursue answers to the far limits, and a minimum of time-out for standardized testing. They found, as well, a respected and unionized teacher corps, people who were committed to a life-long career in teaching and who were encouraged to work cooperatively for their mutual benefit (and who never would settle for being judged, assessed, rewarded, or punished based on student test scores).

Good enough for you, good enough for the privileged, then it must be good enough for the kids in public schools everywhere—a standard to be aspired to and worked toward. Any other ideal for our schools, in the words of John Dewey who founded the school you chose for your daughters, “is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy.”

In so many ways, Field emulated the best of our public desiderata of what all children should have. The fact that not all our public schools do is an indictment of our civic priorities more than our private school culture – bake sales and bombers, mindless embracing of educational “reformers” bent on their own gain in heretofore closed markets.

I don’t repent of my independent school past. Rather, I seek to carry forward the values I learned to enact in private institutions into the public school setting, where the vast majority of our need lies. Good enough for the privileged, good enough for the kids in public schools everywhere.

Thanks to earthhouse.com for the image.

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One thought on “good enough

  1. Awesome. Thanks for speaking the truth,so simply and clearly. It strikes me that what all of us need, teachers and students alike, is to be seen, heard, and connected with as valuable and precious human beings. That happens, needs to happen first, a prerequisite to learning. Like our son, whose fear of being bullied prevented him from focus on the material.

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