The "Buffalo" teacher, in the middle of the field

with time to self reflect. What will he decide?

[this is the second part of my 13 December post reflecting on my course in “Ethics and Foundations in American Education.” I use the north American bison (depicted), also known as the “buffalo,” as a totem animal because of its strength, stolidity, and precariousness, qualities I see in my current biographical/professional situation]

For the buffalo-teacher, EDU 6460 has represented a professional crisis. He feels staggered at the quantity and the quality of the course work. In the courses he took previously, in the CUC Educational Administrative degree program, the instructional focus was instrumental, always on the physical, measurable level of simple tools. The questions were “how” questions: how to be an effective leader of teachers, how to administer state laws in the school district, how to levy and spend tax dollars. Hardly a “why” question in the twelve courses his cohort took for the Type 75 degree. Technique, rather than purpose, ruled. The buffalo-teacher responded successfully to the techinical, which may explain his presence today in an Educational Technology degree program.


A good example of this conventional graduate education the buffalo-teacher found un “troubled” would be EDL 6230–School Law as taught by Dr. C. Kuck in the Fall term of 2005. She assigned fascinating readings, often as densely written as those of the most opaque critical theorists. Lots of case studies and resultant ethical dilemms were featured. But what the good doctor taught (herself a retired K-8 school principal) were “how’s” of the profession–technical rules and tips for getting successfully through the received and un-questioned system. She provided theory on how to legally win the school game–how to respond to a legal problem sets (on, as it were, the chessboard of the school game) and remain correct, if not ethically correct, withinthe complicated rules, or laws, of the game. Again, larger questions regarding the very legitimacy of the institution of education never arose.


By contrast, this course as taught by Professor Lukasik (2009) asks only “why” questions: why some are privileged in the American system of public education, and some are not; why education is legislated and funded in the ways it has been; why the current inadequate system needs to continue, given viable alternative theories and practices. Huge, metaphysical/existential questions such as these “sucker-punched” the middle-aged buffalo-teacher’s brain in ways he was not accustomed to. In previous CUC classes he had not been asked to stop and observe his practice, reflect on its ultimate fruits and righteousness, and then devise plans for making it his practice more just. The enervating self-examination involved in questioning his ethical foundations had very physical consequences: he lost sleep and functioning capability, falling behind in his duties to his students and family worrying about his very raison d’etre. If he had not already passed through his “midlife crisis,” he would possibly have been precipitated into one from the coursework. Its metaphysical and value-based focus turned out to be exhausting–cognitively and psychically.


The buffalo-teacher felt accused by the course content. Ayers and others were writing about him. He had to acknowlege that in some ways he was the problem, and this gave him pause. Twenty-three years into his teaching career, he had lapsed into habits of uncertain ethical provenance. He had come to see his job as a mere means to the immediate physical ends of providing material sustenance for his three offspring. In the pursuit of a steadily increasing and job-secure salary, teaching, he had forgotten, largely, to think about the ultimate ends he was teaching for. He grew perilously close to Ayers’ (2005) “authoritarian teacher”; he was rarely found to be “learning or searching, listening or asking or wondering” (7). Heeding the biological and social imperative of sustaining his household, he merely accepted what his boss told him to do. He had become “a company man” in order to keep the paychecks coming.


He had also been cowed into submission, having seen several of his public school teacher colleagues terminated for standing up to the bosses, blowing whistles, or in general acting out of their consciences. It was not as if he did not notice and rankle at the depersonalized methods of administration. At one point, he had gone on record with the superintendent of schools in the pursuit of clearer, more ethical leadership within his department–an authoritarian department which Ayers could have told him (2005) was “twisted toward mystification and geared toward control.” But he had been slapped down by the administration, and the experience left him cynical and fearful. In contrast to the troubled political, the merely physical requirements of the job comforted the buffalo-teacher. He kept his head down and eyes blinkered as he worked–just as his name-sake water buffalo pulling the plow of his master in a rice paddy.


Imagine picking that immense beast of burden out of the rice paddy and placing him into a dry analytical plain. That was his traumatic experience of EDU 6460 for the subject. In this course his unblinkered eyes were hurt from the intensity of the visual data. He was presented with maps of the master’s plantations, and was able to clearly see figures related to the environmental and social damage his operation was causing. He took stock of the innocent women and children who suffered as a direct result of the enterprise in which he stolidly, unquestioningly marched, avoiding any wrath, paying his union dues and 403 B contributions, submitting to the regime’s changes in orders, and in general acting like Ayers’ (2005) oppressive educator, whose teaching has been reduced from the ethical work it is “to the instrumental, the merely serviceable.”


The buffalo-teacher has also had to take stock of his own particular social and racial debilities. In dealing with a student body that is increasingly poor, colored, and non-English speaking, he brings his white, middle-class values and pre-suppositions. Fooling himself that he can be neutrally “color-blind” regarding his “ghetto” students, he risks miseducating them every non-critical thinking day. As Applebaum (2005) points out, what has privileged him in his own education and learning may stand as a hindrance to his students of color learning from him. At the same time, he teaches in a school that is still largely white and middle-class, not terribly different from the schools he attended as a student. Therefore, unless he brings in a critical consciousness such as that derived by exposure to EDU 6460 authors, he will not be “troubled” by the awkward and possibly oppressive circumstances of his current teaching position. With the course, however, he may succeed in better serving “the least of these” in his educational custody.


And yet teaching had not turned out to be the convivial profession it had seemed to be in the 1970s, when the buffalo-teacher had been schooled by American public school teachers who in the main seemed very content and healthy people–fulfilled citizens, mostly. As a young buffalo they had given him important examples of functional US adults. He met these same adults when he “entered the profession” as a young buffalo-teacher in the 1980s. Some of them welcomed and sought to mentor him in the profession. There was a “familial” ethos in the community of teachers he experienced in Chicago Catholic high schools in the 1980’s and 90’s, and in the pre-NCLB suburban public district of the early aughts. Certainly they engaged in departmental and personal politics, but older teachers of the previous generation of American public educators seemed to enjoy “respected elders” status in the departments buffalo teacher had joined.


He has noticed that in the current NCLB era schools, older teachers are resented by administrators for their higher salaries and possibly disruptive (to their hegemony) outspokenness. Younger teachers are brought into a culture that values conformity, enforced collaboration, and a focus on the “bottom line” of test scores. None of the younger teachers voluntarily collaborates with him. There is not merely a “generation gap,” but a gap in economic imperatives and drives between him and his junior colleagues. Because most of them are earning relatively little money and carrying large student loan debts, it is understandable that he hears no philosophical or ethical concerns from them in the performance of their increasingly “accountable” teaching. Only yesterday he heard a junior colleague expressing cynical and egotistic motives that (to his recollection) would have been shameful in the pre-NCLB teacher’s lounge–remarks having to do with “whatever the stupid test asks for…” Alarmed as he may feel at the break-down of morale, he has not spoken out. Finding himself in the precarious position of “old man” in a changed “country,” he has felt little inclined to behave in ways that make him an easier target to predating administrators keen on keeping their rules un-molested.


Pathetic as the buffalo-teacher seems, he does not feeling sorry for himself. He has, as a result of the present assignment in EDU 6460, begun devising plans that give him hope, a dream of establishing a new school that will incorporate a democratic ethos of collective individualism, training in the arts, sustainable biological engineering, and a service to the community (both human and natural). Until his plan for a dual-campus inner city school that would be K-12 and residential receive official backing, he has exercises and learning to do in completion of his Ed Tech degree, from whence he believes he will emerge a more useful member of his profession. If nothing else, he feels confident that in pursuing Educational Technology he will engage in interesting critical engagements and conversations around learning and society. And one such exercise is the Critical Evaluation table, which affords him the opportunity to analyze his practice in order to make it more reflective of his principles.


As the Critical Evaluation table shows, each of buffalo-teacher’s professional areas of activity has democratic and experiential elements already. Through reflective revisioning, these can be extended, modified, and improved. The present paper cannot give extensive overview, so generalizations and a few specific examples will have suffice.


The buffalo-teacher’s current practice could be characterized as being:

· encouraging of individual growth

o in each of the “regular track” English classes, students confer with teacher (their “literacy coach” for twice each semester in one-on-one discussions over one’s learning goals; regular self-assessments (“How am I progressing as a speaker? as a writer?“, etc.)

o regular opportunities for student creative expression

· valuing of student knowledge

o in each class students get regular opportunities to deliver extemporaneous speeches for extra credit.

o student creative expression is valued and proudly displayed

· encouraging of civic action in the “commons”

o reference to ultimate audience: the world wide web of fellow human beings in communication toward an improved global society


As Professor Lukasik said (2009) at the final face-to-face class session in EDU 6460 (10 December 2009), “the learning does not stop with the end of the course.” Through conscientious attention to and reflection on my practice through the use of the Critical Evaluation table, as well as through a hoped-for ongoing dialog with critically thinking peers, I have every expectation of indefinitely extending my critical teaching effectiveness (and thus my ethical practice) outward (to a global audience) and deeper (into ever-more effective and productive-of-social progress).

References

Ayers, W. (2005). Teaching toward Freedom. Boston: Beacon Press.

Applebaum, B. (2005). “In the name of morality: moral responsibility, whiteness, and moral justice education.” Journal of Moral Education, Vol. 34, no. 3, pp. 277-290.

Delpit, L.D. (1988). “The Silenced Dialogue: Power and Pedagogy in Educating Other People’s Children” in Harvard Educational Review, Vol 58, No. 3 August 1988. 280-98.

De Olne Campos, M. (1990). UNESCO Courier: “Reading the world – interview with Brazilian educator Paulo Freire.” PDF is available at this link.

Dewey, J. (1922) Democracy and Education: an Introduction to the Philosophy of Education. New York: Macmillan.

Dewey, J. (1916) Experience and Education.

Dewey, J. (1897) “My Pedagogic Creed” School Journal vol. 54 (January 1897), pp. 77-80.

Eisner, Elliot W. (2002) The Educational Imagination: On the Design and Evaluation of School Programs, third edition. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey

Friere, Paulo. (2000) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Friere, Paulo. “Reading the world” – interview with Brazilian educator Paulo Freire – interview UNESCO Courier, Dec, 1990 by Marcio D’Olne Campos

Hansen, D.T. (1994) “The Idea of Vocation in Teaching.” Philosophy of Education.

Hinchey, P. (2006). Becoming a Critical Educator: Defining a Classroom Identity, Designing a Critical Pedagogy. New York: Peter Lang.

Kohn, A. (1999) “From Degrading to De-grading.” High School Magazine, March 1999.

Lukasik, J.M. (19 November 2009) class discussion, EDU 6460: Ethics and Foundations of American Education (Hybrid) CUC, Lombard, Illinois.

Marzano, Robert J. (2003) What works in Schools: translating research into action. Alexandria, VA: ACSD Books.

Orr, D.W. (1994). Ecological Literacy. New York: SUNY Press

Reeves, D.B. (2008) “Leading to Change: Grading practices” Educational LeadershipFebruary 2008, pgs 85-87.

Shapiro, H. (2006). Losing heart: The moral and spiritual miseducation of America’s children. Montauk, NJ: Larence Erlbaum.

Smith, M. & Wilhelm, J. (2002).Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys”: The Role of Literacy in the Lives of Young Men. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Photo courtesy of Pics4Learning

One response to “The "Buffalo" teacher, in the middle of the field”

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