Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Listening to Teachers

8 a.m. this morning
Edward Said wrote that “a beginning is accepted as a beginning after we are long past beginning and after our apprenticeship is over” (1975, Beginnings: Intention and Method, p.76).  I have been thinking about this insight in light of conversations and email exchanges  I have had with teachers as they readied themselves for a new school year.  It's taken me some time to wind back to these email exchanges--to understand them.  Being beyond a moment often helps me to reframe it. Against two teachers' stories, I am also remembering the many 'opening to a school year days' I have been involved with as a former assistant superintendent and here, now-- I wish that I had understood more about these beginning days--understood how to listen better, earlier.

8 a.m. this morning
In writing about the partially unknown beginning, Said explains “that we make and accept it [such beginnings] at the same time that we realize that we are ‘wrong’” (p. 78).  I wonder how often we acknowledge that in our day to day work.  Said's words help me to keep centered the reality that fictions are co-constructed on a page as well as in a classroom, school or district.  This way of knowing is a doorway. Perhaps, even one we need to walk through. 

In the current push for Common Core Standards and national mathematics and reading/writing assessments for every breathing child ages 8 to 18, I suspect we are missing that teaching and learning are human enterprises, temporally located, fictitious and oddly real.   It is in the co-joining of fictions and realities that a text’s identity is made—be it on paper or in the lived-curriculum of a classroom--or in the opening day exercises when admins often set the direction for a school year.   
8 a.m. this morning

Said explains that this blending of fiction and reality hold constant, “so long as we have language to help us and hinder us in finding it, and so long as language provides us with a word whose meaning must be made certain if it is not to be wholly obscure” (p.78). 

Hmm. Language.  Whose language gets voiced on opening days of school?  How set are we to listen--to hear?  We often speak of ensuring student voice in the classroom and I wonder how often we afford the same essential need to teachers?
From the Midwest, a teacher writes to me and says:

Okay, let's start out with the bad news and move along to the good.  No students this week.  It's all professional development.  Monday was special.  We all came in pretty enthusiastic: new year, clean slate, no negotiating like last year.  Greetings from the super first, where we get a mixed welcome.  Welcome back, you're the best staff ever, and by the way, here's the newspaper article ranking all the county schools and we're 13th in test scores.  Go team!  Staff meeting in the afternoon, and the principal  comes in to inspire us some more.  By the way, this year there will be no electronic devices, no food or drink in rooms, no sitting on the floor (that's bad, and no one is learning when they are sitting on the floor with a book), no students ever leaving the room unsupervised, no allowing students to sit on the floor in the hall to spread out around a large project that couldn't fit on a desk, etc, etc, etc. No no no no no... Thou shalt not....I'm very excited to be back.  Glad you're all here too.  By the way, we need to talk about the first day, Tuesday, which is a half day.  In the morning each grade level will meet in one room with their team and go over the handbook and the rules.  Then it's down to the gym at 8:30 for the principal to give his go team speech here's how to behave, and then we figure out what to do with the last couple hours. Second day of school is picture day, so there will be periodic disruptions.  Third day of school: three drills are scheduled - fire, tornado, and lock down. Have a great year.
Middle school staff used to be a lively, fun, loving group.  We sit in silence. Questions?  Silence.  I'm thinking that ph.d program's sounding pretty damn good about now. This is how we're
expected to set the tone at the beginning of the year.

Remember Carl? Science teacher across the hall from me?  Older guy?  Told you he got into teaching for the money?  That guy has taught me more about character and ethics and how you teach it and live it with kids than anybody.  He's crushed, hurt, doesn't want to end his career under this cloud, couldn't bring himself to retire while things are as they are.  I realize I've been going to him and looking for hope, but there isn't any there.  He tells me he found a story the summer that he's been looking for for years - something about a bucket that a grandmother sends a kid out with and just says bring back something.  He's been wanting to use it to demonstrate trust for his students.  Here, you've done well, go sit outside for a few minutes beneath the tree of knowledge and bring me back something in this bucket.  But wait, we're supposed to go over the handbook.  We can't let the kids wander off alone.  After a long, depressing
conversation, we finally decided that we're going to set the tone our own way and wait to get in trouble.

Tuesday morning I'm no longer excited to get out of bed and go back to that building.  But on the way to work I start thinking about Haroun and the Sea of Stories.  I'm kinda sappy and every time I read the first page about the sad city, so sad it had forgotten its name, I get a little choked up.  As I'm thinking about this text, it occurs to me that that's what we are: so sad we've forgotten who we are.  Long story as short as I can make it, I brought out the book and shared the first page with Carl and talked about it with him.  I dropped the idea on as many staff members as I could yesterday, and I think we've come to the agreement that we're going to pull back together to re-establish who we are and what we believe in and act accordingly rather than doing what's dictated. I'm feeling much more optimistic now. I believe we can take back our building.

700 miles East, another teacher returns to school for the first day and is given an oath to sign.  The first statement reads:  “I believe in and support the science of teaching.”  This is an oath the teacher is required to sign and display in the classroom and this comprises the most important opening message the superintendent thinks to provide.  He tells the gathered staff, "All teachers must sign and display the oath in the classroom."
            “What is this?” I ask after the teacher forwards the thirteen statements.
            “We get this each year and we’re suppose to sign it. Last year I crossed out science and wrote in art and then put it on the wall.”
            “What are you going to this year?”
            “I’m throwing it out.  It’s insulting.”
8 a.m. this morning

I collect stories as much to hear the language, as to remind myself how critical it is to know (as much as one can) another person's story.  Early in Haroun an the Sea of Stories (Rushdie), one of the more important questions gets posed: What's the use of stories that aren't even true? (p. 22). 

In some ways, stories are alll we have--these utterances that are part fiction, part someone's truth. Stories help me to wonder: What is it we privilege in public education anymore?  Who are our leaders?  Is anyone listening to teachers? 

8 a.m this morning
Yesterday I read an annual update by Bill Gates and have been thinking a lot about how he might spend some of that money in a way that would surely (in)form education. Had I his ear, I would recommend that he fund the collection and distribution of teachers' stories.  These could be audio, video, or written--collected by other storytellers, photographers, videographers.  Ten thousand stories.  Ten thousand teachers whose voices we stand a chance to hear telling us about their teaching and learning. I know we would learn immeasurably. Think of it as a new Federal Writers Project for our time: good for the economy and good for children and schools.

Said tells us that a beginning "is often that which is left behind" (p.29). Our apprenticeship is over. We need to listen.


  1. Blown away by this post Mary Ann. Your invocation of Said is prescient in many ways. What I take from Said is that as humans we must deconstruct and discharge our patterns of oppression (yes even oppressors need to discharge about the patterns that hold us and our "developed worlds"). As you weave the the idea of entrance into school.... I reflect on the tension between the mechanized, managed, and detached structures of school and the simple yet complex messiness of learning. Where Said has written post-colonial narrative, you are asking for exploration of the same....A project that lends agency to the hundreds of thousands of students and teachers who are actively living "away" from the "school" proscribed by corporations and the architecture of industrial education.

  2. Thank you Thomas. I do see a post-colonial narrative as a way of coming to re/name the work teachers do at school by teachers. The naming is so important and each time some 'other' names it for the teacher, the work gets fixed as colony.