Sunday, March 4, 2012

Guest Blog - On Fear and Schooling: A NYC Teacher Wonders

This is a guest blog from a pubic school teacher in New York City.  Given the culture of fear that permeates this teacher's work and I imagine the work of other teachers in the system, the teacher will remain anonymous. The post is part of an ongoing dialogue this teacher is involved in on a weekly basis as part of a graduate course s/he is taking. The teacher refers to Thomas Newkirk and the book being read in the course: Holding Onto Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones (2009) .

In reading the post I wondered a lot about the culture of fear that seems present in schools, especially large city systems.  One only has to read of the culture of fear that was reported in Atlanta under Beverly Hall's reign to understand how such fear can lead good people to do things they might not have conceived themselves of doing.  Last spring I published another teacher's words, Miss C Recounts: Teaching at a South Bronx Charter School. This teacher as well wrote about the absurdity of rules and regulations and the underlying culture of fear that permeated the work of teaching and learning. 

I hope both of these posts give you pause.  I hope they move you to inquire as to what may be happening at your local school and how you might be able to help change the culture from one of fear to one of mutual respect and creativity. Teachers cannot teach well when they are being required to be compliant and not to be thinkers.  They cannot teach our children well when they are operating in a culture of fear. Fear makes all of us less than we are: less kind, less thoughtful, less hopeful and far more myopic in our view of reality.
from here.

I have so much to say about this topic that I do not know where to begin! I will say this though--I can't even get a nibble from private or independent schools because I have xx years with the NYC DOE (the recruiter told me that might happen). Ugh!
B. (name of a student in the graduate class) mentioned during our online chat that students  are being socialized and I agree. I saw that at a middle school and see it again at a high school. I would like to add that the teachers who work in this system are being socialized too.
Our most current and absurd directive is to post "evidence of teaching" on chart paper. We are then to "cover our walls" with said evidence. This is learning we can refer back to when students need to review a concept. Work that proves the teacher has been teaching. Naturally, I began to question the purpose of this: is this a new form of note-taking? What exactly do you want on these charts? Is this to evaluate the teacher? I use PowerPoint. If a slide is very important, could I instead have it made into a poster for $2? What about their notebooks--what are those now for? And so on.
My AP and the "Master Teacher" assigned to me told me to calm down -- stop asking so many questions, stop stressing, just put something on it and cover your walls. The teacher I share a room with has already used up her entire $30 pad. I just stare at mine...not because I can't figure out how to use it but because I was supposed to use it by Friday (we had three days). Unfortunately, my students were finishing a project that began before the chart paper; moreover, my chart paper was locked up for two of three days. Should I have scraped my lesson on day 3 and created a new one that used up the chart paper (and appeased the powers to be)? I did not. Teachers who have never taught outside this system think this (and so much more) is normal. 
While reading Newkirk  this morning, I reread a few times his "habits of the mind" (142)*. This very foundation has been yanked from under so many teachers, whether new to the profession or veterans who have been playing the bizarre games that make up our daily lives. To have a "mind that is never still, always observant, and never locked in a fixed position" is the antithesis to what "they" want standing in front of America's most vulnerable.   
And so when I get no nibbles from schools outside this system, I can't help but think, "Have my xxx years with the DOE given me a scarlet T?"  

 * from Newkirk's book. He outlines four habits of mind:
Habits of Mind (pg. 142-143)
  1. The habit of observation.  What do you notice?  This is the capacity to slow down, pay attention, notice the unusual detail, fact or statistic--one that is not evident at first glance.
  2. The habit of generalization.  A key question is "What do you make of this?"  What inferences, judgements, evaluations, conclusions, theses do you arrive at?  It is to think in patterns, to make connections.
  3. The habit of evidence.  What is the basis of your generalizations?  And what make you think this evidence is solid, when there is so much suspicious information available?
  4. The habit of considering alternatives.  How could it be otherwise?  What credible positions might differ from yours?  What are the 'rivals' to your own position?

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