In early March I was invited to join the NYC Teaching Fellows. Three weeks later I confirmed my enrollment and immediately got to work on the various administrative tasks required of new fellows: getting my fingerprints taken at the NYC DOE, collecting transcripts and shot records, and completing the first two online courses that were made immediately available to us and which are required for certification. At the same time I established a study plan in order to best prepare for my certification exams (LAST and Multi-Subject) and even started taking a crack at the recommended reading list provided by the folks at fellowship headquarters and venturing out on a few school visits.
Suddenly, it’s May and most of us (if not all of us) have received our university assignments and have begun the online pre-training enrollment course (not to be confused with the two courses mentioned above; those courses were the Mandated Reporter Training/Child Abuse Reporting Workshop and School Violence Prevention and Intervention—a.k.a. School-to-Prison Pipeline 101). We are also—many of us—counting the days until our summer training begins on June 11th. The time is moving quickly and suddenly my day is jam packed—and I know many other fellows are even busier, particularly those who are relocating to NYC in order to participate in the fellowship. Already, it seems, there’s not much time to take a step back and reflect.
Immediately before joining the fellowship I had been conducting research and writing a preliminary draft of a course about reflective teaching practices. I was at a bit of a standstill in the writing and design process because, frankly, I felt that it was crucial for me to have more experience (that is, more than zero) working as a public school teacher in the United States. Although I have a good deal of experience teaching in informal education programs and seven years’ experience teaching ESL abroad…I’ve never had to deal with the infamously contentious, malfunctioning, seemingly in a state-of-protracted emergency United States public school system. “Who am I,” the self-inquiry posed, “to teach public school teachers about reflective teaching practices, when I’ve had absolutely no practical experience with the pressures, constraints, joys, and frustrations encountered by those who belong to perhaps the most crapped-upon profession in the USA today? So, after spending two months reading everything I could get my hands on about reflective teaching practices, I accepted the fellowship opportunity and requested a break from my research to focus on the NYCTF induction, during which I would essentially take notes that would later inform the course design. My mentor supported my decision and provided helpful insight and encouragement.
When I began my internship with Teachers Without Borders I had in place a five-year plan to become a public school teacher, who would be sure to etch out sufficient time on a regular basis (at least weekly) to reflect through writing (in a private journal and on my blog), drawing (sketching in a notebook to simply unwind and process in a wordless medium), conversation with colleagues (to hear different perspectives, share support, and become aware of my own blind spots), etcetera on what was happening in my classroom, school, and community. (That’s only the beginning of the five-year plan!) I haven’t even begun teaching yet and already I must push myself to create space for these reflections.
Here, rather than provide a detailed literature review analyzing various ideas about reflective teaching practices, I’ll say this: It’s necessary to routinely take a step back, look at the big picture, critically examine my own behavior and the ways in which my practice is being received by students as well as colleagues and administrators. It’s important—and will enrich and ‘keep honest’ my practice—if I commit myself to a ritual examination of my own assumptions about teaching and learning, communication, and the people in my learning community. At this point, that is, in this post, I’d like to reflect a bit on my experience in the fellowship to date. It’s still quite early but it’s important to me to establish this practice of reflection from the beginning and I do hope that some other fellows (or anyone else) will find these reflections helpful.
I’m scared. What if my passion, idealism, and sense of being called to teach is squashed, squandered, and squelched by the infamous bureaucracy? (Isn’t alliteration spectacular?) When I read Jonathan Kozol, I feel cozy, inspired, and redeemed—a bit like those late nights with a flashlight reading a book that I’m ‘too young’ to read, in a tent made of my own bed sheets and the strength of my own inherent compulsion to rebel at whatever stands between me and learning. My curiosity will not be strangled. But what about my idealism? Will the ‘system’ eat me up and spit me out half-dead and soul-stripped?
I disagree. With what? (I promise, it’s not with everything and anything.) With the many troubling assumptions that inform Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion, a book that all fellows are required to read before the start of our summer training. Assumption number one: the banking method is the only successful approach to teaching and learning (Lemov’s impassioned rants against seating arrangements that stray from the industrial model of single-file rows of students facing the teacher at the blackboard underscore his deep suspicion of student-directed learning and collaboration). Assumption number two: classroom management is based on fear and subjugation. Here’s a quote: “Standing just over a student’s shoulder as you peruse his work or standing at the back of the classroom as a class discusses a topic builds subtle but pervasive control of the classroom environment in order to focus it on learning.” [My italics] Is learning the focus in that scenario? Learning what? It sounds a lot like learning one’s ‘place’ in a deeply disturbing power dynamic. The thing is, there are very successful educators who build classroom cultures that are based on mutual respect not fear and domination. Am I the only one who started humming Strange Fruit when I read this passage?
I am inspired. The fellow fellows inspire me. Teachers I’ve met on school visits inspire me. Students wide-eyed and imperfect inspire me but more than ANYTHING–true to my undying love for and solidarity with the most beautiful courageous rebels who have taught me to stand up and speak out (Martin Luther King Jr., Paulo Freire, Mahatma Ghandi, Sri Ramakrishna, Helen Keller, Nina Simone, Thoreau, the Freedom Riders, Jonathan Kozol, the profoundly radical Jesus, and yes there are MANY many more–I am inspired by INJUSTICE. Inspired to action, inspired to dissent, inspired to speak out and act up but more than anything, inspired to TEACH. Thus, my inspiration is closely linked to my above-mentioned disagreement and fear! Kozol writes in On Being a Teacher: “It seems to be a rule of thumb in the United States, as in most other nations of the modern world, that the only acceptable rebel–certainly the one whose greatness is most certain and unclouded–is a dead one.” (He is writing about the ways in which the words and works of famous radicals are watered down in textbooks. For example, “Thoreau was enraged by several attitudes and actions of the U.S. government, above all our toleration of the slave trade and the war against Mexico.”…yet, most of us encounter Thoreau’s poems about nature when we are students. p 39)
I’ll leave you with some inspiring words from Kozol (also from On Being a Teacher):
The hidden curriculum, as we have seen before, is the teacher’s own integrity and lived conviction. The most memorable lesson is not what is written by the student on a sheet of yellow lined paper in the lesson pad;nor is it the clumsy sentence published (and “illustrated”) in the standard and official text. It is the message which is written in a teacher’s eyes throughout the course of his or her career. It is the lesson which endures a lifetime.
I hereby pledge to look into my own eyes each morning and ask myself, “What message is there?”