“High standards are not enough. There are kinds of excellence–very important kinds–that are not necessarily associated with the capacity for renewal…An institution may hold itself to the highest standards, and yet already be entombed in the complacency that will eventually spell it’s decline.” John Gardner, The Art of Self-Renewel
“We are in an age that assumes the narrowing trend of specialization to be logical, natural, and desirable. Consequently, society expects all earnestly responsible communication to be crisply brief. Advancing science has now discovered that all the known cases of biological extinction have been caused by overspecialization, whose concentration of only selected genes sacrifices general adaptability. Thus the specialist’s brief for pinpointing brevity is dubious. In the meantime, humanity has been deprived of comprehensive understanding. Specialization has bred feelings of isolation, futility, and confusion in individuals. It has also resulted in the individuals leaving responsibility for thinking and social action to others. Specialization breeds biases that ultimately aggregate as international and ideological discord, which in turn leads to war.” Buckminster Fuller, The Wellspring of Reality
Fuller, a man and thinker that admire, is expounding on one of the greatest threats to our profession of teaching. In reading education news and of the ongoing battles between the teacher’s unions and the “reformers,” the debates on the merits of Common Core education, universal pre-k, design thinking versus the traditional model, I find that the life, mind and professional aspirations of the teacher are wholly forgotten, or at the very least subsumed into the monolith of the “teacher.”
Before continuing, let me say that I came to teaching by way of a long, and some say interesting, professional and social journey. The details of that journey are something better left for a different venue, but it’s that journey that makes me the teacher that I am. I’ll leave the words that bring value judgements like talents, or skills by the side and just say like all humans I have collected experiences and desires that I love to express.
Like many teachers, the expression of my hobbies and talents usually find their moments of expression in the almost three months I have to myself when I’m not in the classroom. When you’re a full time teacher you get in the habit of leaving it all on the table. You give it your all every day that you can, and sometimes you have to phone it in. But those days, phone days, are few and far between. This means that those aspects of your life, those talents and expressions of your passions, take the back burner. You become specialized. Nine months of the year you are part of the monolithic juggernaut of the American teacher.
“Specialization has bred feelings of isolation, futility, and confusion in individuals.”
It is no wonder that teacher burnout in the United States is so high. The “isolation, futility and confusion,” that Fuller alludes to infects our system. When we can’t be our whole selves in everything that we do, especially our chosen professions, we run the risk of hollowing ourselves out only to be filled with anxiety and stress that is frequently alleviated either by abandoning the work or protecting ourselves and becoming an agent of the monolith. The generic teacher is a “functional deliverer of curriculum.” Let me pause again here and say that the delivery of curriculum and teaching in and of itself is a very difficult job. It is easily the hardest job I have ever had at its most basic level. What I’m arguing for here is that to become something more, that is, teaching, we should expand our definition or understanding of the teacher.
I happen to teach at a small, independent school with about 300 students ranging from 6th-12th grade. This wasn’t my first teaching gig, but it is the ideal teaching job for me. One day I can teach the impact of the Potsdam Conference on world history, and then on another show episodes of the Twilight Zone and talk about the art of storytelling. It is a place where I can be free to be my full self in the classroom. However, in conversations with people outside my circle of colleagues and students the veneer of the “teacher” is very easy to slip on, or step into. Primarily, this happens because people already have a concept of the “teacher” and immediately reach for it when you tell them you teach 6th grade humanities.
“It has also resulted in the individuals leaving responsibility for thinking and social action to others.”
So here’s the deal: we’re going to break out of the mode of specialization that bedevils us all, and in doing so we can change the image of the teacher. We’ll do this together in this place, where we’ll hear teachers expounding on subjects that are of particular interest to us. They may also be fully related, tangentially related, or not related at all to our “profession.” Teachers, the best teachers, are first and foremost thinkers. Whenever you hear the trite maxim: “I was taught how to think,”step back and consider how necessary a skill thinking is in our society, and you will hear the voices of power and truth. People should know that I can teach about the power of literature, but also that lesson contains my thoughts and teaching on the Lord of the Rings, and the prism or spectre of WWI that hangs over the work and J.R.R. Tolkien. I try my damnedest to experience music, from Run the Jewels, to Apex Twin, Wilco, the Cure, St. Vincent, Ministry, Bob Dylan, and Nina Simone, etc. The world is a grand place, and a teachers place in it is one of a thinker, an experiencer of knowledge. We don’t deliver curriculum so much as invite others to experience it with us!
So consider this an invitation to step in with the teachers. Listen to us expound on literature, film, current events, television, pop culture, environmental science, comedy and music. We are changing the dynamic here. We are more than “teachers,” we are the Virgil to your your Dante, and we’d love for you to join us on our journey.