Tom Burwell Reflection about Education
Think about the difference between volunteer work and having a job within a corporate system. If you’re the cashier at Walmart, the more machine-like you are, the better. The important thing is to check items out quickly and accurately, to “complete your duties efficiently.” Your attitude toward customers is not the primary priority. But if you’re volunteering at, say, feeding the homeless, interaction with people is the important thing. (Unless, they are starving are something, which is very rare in America.) A machine-like volunteer would bring no joy to the lives of those you are serving, and thus misses the entire point of volunteer work, of public service. Corporate work benefits from a machine-like approach; public service benefits from a human-like approach.
In his book How to Survive in Your Native Land, recounting his experiences teaching in a public middle school, James Herndon provides a powerful illustration of the difference between truly internally motivated student activities, and what teachers assume to be internally motivated participation. He describes how kids in his regular class enjoyed the creative tasks he came up for them to do: the “uproar when twenty kids rushed to the board to put up their symbols” when the class was creating a Hieroglyphics-like language, getting information about how the Peace Corps operates and then writing “imaginary journals of stays in Africa and South America.” Then, once, he and a colleague started a new class, without grades, and in which students were issued “permanent hall passes,” making attendance completely optional. They soon found that students didn’t want to participate in these creative tasks. “We had to face the fact that all the stuff we thought the kids were dying to do (if they only had time away from the stupefying lessons of other teachers) was in fact stuff that we wanted them to do, that we invented. … And not only things to be doing—it was things for them, the kids, to be doing. … We wanted to see what symbols the kids would invent for English words; we didn’t have much curiosity about the symbols we ourselves would invent. We didn’t write fake Peace Corps journals ourselves; we only told the kids to do it.”
Herndon then describes the successful activity of that class. He and his colleague decided to make a film, but one that they wanted to make. “We didn’t want to find out what the kids’ notions of films were. We didn’t want to see what they would do with the film. We didn’t want to inspect their creativity.”
“If … the role of teacher as giver of orders didn’t work out, it was also true that the other role (the one Frank and I had imagined)—the teacher as Provider Of Things To Do, the teacher as Entertainer—didn’t work our either. For wasn’t that just what the kids had been telling us all year in their oblique, exasperating way? What did all that Nothing To Do In Here mean, if not that the kids didn’t want entertainers, wouldn’t accept them if they didn't have to, wanted the teachers to be something else entirely?
“Wanted them to be what? What was the difference between all the grand things we’d thought up for the kids to do and The Hawk? Why, merely that we didn’t want to do any of the former ourselves and we did want to do the latter.”…
“Wanted them to be human.”
Later, Herndon spells out his central message to teachers:
“Resist every day all the apparatus of the school which was created in order to enable you to manage and evaluate a group, since it is just that management which destroyed the kids you have in your class.
“You must examine your authority for what it is, and abandon that part of it which is official, board-appointed, credentialed and dead. Then you must accept the natural authority you have as an adult, belonging to a community of adults which includes the kid’s parents and relatives.”
So Herndon tells us to resist “all the apparatus of the school which was created in order to enable you to manage and evaluate a group.” But be aware that the apparatus serves a useful function. For bad teachers, and we should admit there are bad teachers, the apparatus is a necessary “safety net” that gives at least some sort of direction to the class. But that’s all it is: a safety net! If we’re trying to teach students to do more than crawl, we must “resist the apparatus”, rise above the safety net, and use only the “natural authority you have as an adult.” So don’t use grades to get behavior out of students, (but I do believe grades have a useful function of allocating scholarship opportunities to those who most want them), and don’t give out praise to students just for doing what’s expected of them (how weird would it be if we treated our friends that way? “Good job coming to dinner with me tonight, Steve!”). Resist that artificial authority; only use it as a safety net when you feel overwhelmed from being the only adult in a class full of kids.
This is such an important idea for teachers to understand: Authority from being a teacher is a good safety net, but should be resisted. Our authority from being an adult is in fact much more real, and much more powerful.
So which approach should a teacher take? Should teaching be approached like any other corporate job? Or should it be approached more like a public service? From what I can tell, the education department here favors the corporate model of teaching. We’re encouraged to use rubrics, “behavioral objectives”, and grades to get students to efficiently carry out the assignments we give them.
I love the idea of teaching; I want to teach, at least on and off, many years down the road from now. But I’m not satisfied with the experience I have had in this department. This is now my senior year, and it’s not at all been what I hoped it would be. To me, teaching is about more than getting students to understand the content of a subject. To me, teaching is about impacting the lives of students, about initiating them into society, about teaching them to be good members of a community. When I think of a good teacher, I have always thought of Socrates, Jesus or the Buddha. It seems to me, though, in this department we’re not learning how to be teachers. We’re learning how to train corporate workers. …to get students to carry out their tasks accurately and efficiently. I believe in public education. If I teach, I want to teach in public schools. I understand the value of everything we have covered in this class, and appreciate being made aware about all of it, but I don’t agree with being required to fill out all these lesson plans and content assessment projects. Don’t all the physics classes I have taken test whether I know the content or not? To properly teach physics in high school isn’t so much about getting students to understand specific concepts; most of them won’t become physicists anyway. Rather it’s about explaining the role physics has in our society, and about initiating them somewhat into that culture of physics, so that students will be able to decide whether or not they are interested in pursuing the subject as a possible career.
I don’t think being able to fill out a unit plan reflects my ability to be a high school physics teacher. Being a high school teacher should focus primarily on building a strong sense of classroom community, initiating students into the cultures of different career paths, and only then, on having successful lesson plans that give students every opportunity to succeed on that path if their interest leads them there. For me at least, putting the primary focus on producing excellent lesson plans for all students, whether they are really interested in the subject or not, deadens what the idea of teaching is all about. Rather than impacting the lives and choices of students, teaching is reduced to either giving students orders or an entertaining them--either training corporate workers or simply providing students with things to do.