Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Schools as Settled Households: Musings about Excellence and Teaching

The Way Home. Ringwood, NJ 11.6.10

When I was a child, I often wondered about the lives of the people who had previously lived in the house where I grew up.   I recall talk of a boy who battled leukemia and how his father worked off the tension and perhaps some of the fear by restoring every piece of wood (all walnut) to its original luster.  At that time, cancer was a much hushed illness, perhaps similar in tone to the previous generation who spoke of someone going to a sanitarium because of tuberculosis.  

By the time I came to America and settled into that house—the boy and his father were long gone. Yet, the stories I heard and now recall some 50 years later continue to inform the way I live and love, the people and understandings I value and trust. Home is often so much more than location—be that time or space.  Recently I have been thinking about home and what it might mean and to whom.  I was traveling the other day, heading towards home, and snapped the photograph that tops this post.  Home to me has often been both a location and a presence of mind. Even when the location was not as solid as it is today, the presence of mind has never been fleeting, shabby, flimsy or forgotten.  Home allows me to recall what I cannot forget: that every human matters, that the course of actions I take and fail to take imprint me in ways I will not be able to distance myself from at some later moment, and that each small moment offers the opportunity to demonstrate the ideals I value and have learned in the company of others.

In the course of my professional work, I recently have been asked to think about the question, "What is excellent teaching?"   I know instinctively this excellence is not housed in the single body of the teacher. I think we spend far too much time wondering about the excellent teacher and not enough time wondering about the conditions that gives rise to "excellence".  This is not to say there are no teachers doing valued and fine work, but rather, all of the fine work I have been involved in has occurred in the context of a more extended group and that "excellence" has been locally determined.  

Wendell Berry offers a description that is helpful.  In an essay I recently had published ("Dressing the Corpse: Professional Development and the Play of Singularities"), I made use of Berry's concept about the differences between the technical farmer and the good farmer.  Earlier in the article I had discussed observing a fairly new primary school teacher (Ms. Sheridan) in an inner city. Ms. Sheridan had been "developed" by the school system to deliver a product, not teach. This professional development was done to her in an effort to make her excellent.  I wrote:

Months after meeting Ms. Sheridan, I have occasion to think of her again. It’s quite late at night and my husband and son are each asleep. In the quiet of the house, I sit at the kitchen table reading Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America. His description of the technical and the good farmer momentarily distracts me and I find I am thinking of Ms. Sheridan again. The technical farmer, Berry says, can be made by training, while the good farmer, “is a cultural product; he is made by a sort of training, certainly in what his time imposes or demands, but also he is made by generations of experience” (1977, p. 45).
Berry explains that the essential experience of the good farmer is “tested, preserved, handed down in settled households, friendships, and communities that are deliberately and carefully native to their own ground” (1977, p. 45).  In what ways, I wonder, might schools become similar to these settled households; places where teachers, like Ms. Sheridan, are able to learn from generations of experience so as to inform, invent, complicate, question, redirect, and revise their work native to their own ground?

Instead of inquiring about the excellent teacher (I think this is a hold over of the same mindset that believes in superheroes) as if some prototype might exist, I want to suggest that we ask how we might engender schools to function as settled households native to their own ground.  Excellence, regardless of the mania about standards, is a socially compose construct and does not exist in some finite,  singularly "truthful" manner. What we name as excellent is connected to who we are and are not. 

I deeply believe that excellence, as defined by people in a common place and time, rests not in a single person, although it may find expression through a single person, but is part of a collective experience that is locally realized. Those who have come before us and those who teach and learn alongside us influence the work we do.  The culture of a place is more important than any single individual.  We would be wise to not mistake the "excellent" teacher from the place(s) s/he has worked and the stories that have (in)formed the culture of that work.

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