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Learning at its Best

What Can I Occupy?

I’ve been away from the online spaceless space for a few days. I’ve read up on the Occupy Education tumblr, tweets and Facebook page. At first, it felt inspiring. It still does. However, when I read these posts again, I feel like a fraud.

See, I’m not a “real” teacher this year. I’m a bizarre role of teaching pull-out groups, doing co-teaching, coaching teachers who are integrating tech-integrated project-based learning and helping shift the math and reading in our district toward a more constructivist role.

I don’t have my own classroom (though I’m starting to see the danger in using a possessive pronoun for a space that students should own). I’m not the “main” teacher on most days. Instead, I work with five classrooms, typically a half-day a piece twice a week.

So, I pulled out a sheet of paper and began the question of “what can I occupy?”

I still don’t have an answer.

I’m still not sure that “occupation” is the right approach.

But here is what I am doing this year to help shift education toward a more authentic approach:

  • Guiding a group of fifth-graders toward a mural on social justice.
  • Helping a sixth-grade teacher work democratically with her class on planning and implementing a documentary project.
  • Engaging teachers in hard dialogues about why social studies matters, why so much of what they taught were lies and how to get beyond the “white noise” of the textbook and into controversial subjects. I watched a group of fourth graders analyze the reality of Columbus and indigenous genocide. A girl cried as she wrote about her family and their story and the feeling that she is participating in genocide when she left the reservation and has no access to the language.
  • Helping both students and teachers see that math isn’t neutral and that there are many ways to arrive at the same solution.
  • Encouraging students to use mobile devices to own their own voice in blogging, videos and podcasts.
  • Modeling critical thinking questioning at a grade when teachers are often doubtful of whether or not students can think that deeply.
  • I have encouraged teachers to abandon the textbooks and bring in authentic resources that will lead to meaningful learning.
  • Learning to ask teachers questions and find their own voice instead of looking to me as the self-proclaimed expert. I’m learning from them. I’m learning what it means to allow movement, to slow down and to approach a customized classroom at a younger age.

I glance at the list again and realize that it’s geared toward readers and not for myself. It’s an attempt to feel less like a fraud. It’s self-righteous, because it doesn’t tell the other side of the story. It doesn’t mention selling out last year and giving five weeks worth of mandated tests. It doesn’t mention complying with the rules of walking kids in straight lines. It doesn’t mention that I left the classroom in fear and frustration. I fled. And as much as I’d like to justify my new position, the truth is that I am making far less of a difference than I did before.

So, I pull out a new sheet of paper. What can I occupy? I can own my own mental space:

  • I can listen more than I speak
  • I can fight for nuance and paradox in a world of polarity
  • I can remember that power comes through humility
  • I can build bridges with teachers, principals and parents
  • I can tell my story with honesty

So, I still feel like a fraud. I still feel like I had a bigger impact when I worked with twenty-seven kids all day. I’m already recognizing that I need to be “just a teacher” next year and that it needs to be in an un-tested subject (back to social studies, perhaps?).

It strikes me that the fear that I cannot do enough, that my contribution is too small or that I am too much of a hypocrite is what so often allows me to let others own my voice. My own inadequacy is the impetus toward inaction.

I look at the two lists. They’re small actions, but they’re the seeds of a grassroots movement. Wild seeds of small-a anarchy growing under the thick industrial pavement of factory schools. I might be crazy, but I believe that a humble seeds can birth a wild, organic, sustainable change.

I’m convinced that we need people at all levels who are willing to occupy education. We need teachers and principals, specialists and superintendents, parents and students. We need public schoolers, home-schoolers, un-schoolers, private-schoolers and charter-schoolers to stand up and say, “I will not sell a child’s mind to the textbook-testing-corporate conglomerate.”

About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


27 thoughts on “What Can I Occupy?

  1. I don’t think you are a fraud. I also don’t believe that you can make a judgment that you are making far less impact than last year. For one it is too early in the year to be fair to what this year turns out like. Also if you help five teachers change the way they teach then your impact may end up being far greater. It is why Jesus had twelve disciples and did not stay on earth forever-multiplication principal.

    You may not be able to make an accurate judgment for years or you may never be able to truly know the effects you have in the classroom or as a “coach.”

    I am guessing what you may be missing is the close family that you had in your room last year. But this does not mean you are not making an impact or even a greater one. My two cents 😉

    Posted by Michael Kaechele | October 11, 2011, 1:20 pm
    • Thanks for the encouraging words. That means a lot coming from you. I highly respect your opinions and I see you as someone who is one of the most genuine teachers I know.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | October 11, 2011, 1:24 pm
  2. John,

    I read this and not only do I not see you as a fraud, I see you as a model. I am not currently in the classroom, probably will not be next year either. I work with a 11 month little boy, and I don’t feel like a fraud. I have learned more about being a teacher working with him then I have in any of my education reading. Occupying space is more a metaphor, it can be inside yourself. Occupying the space to say “I am working towards transforming education”, I am working to help do my part to make education better for all the learners in my life. You are a learner, you occupy education by sharing your learning, you occupy education for standing up for more holistic ways to teach, you occupy education by being honest to your children, you occupy education by questioning homework, tests, and textbooks.

    You occupy education no matter if you are in a classroom or not. SO I don’t see you as a fraud, I see you as a model!

    Occupying education with you!


    Posted by dloitz | October 11, 2011, 1:48 pm
    • Thanks, David. I think the part of feeling like a fraud comes from the sense that I was running away instead of trying to fight the testing system. I had proven that constructivism “works” by their metrics and I ran. I didn’t want to be a test case. I wasn’t sure it would always work. I wasn’t positive I could repeat the same results, because students are people and not variables. That’s where the fraud comes in.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | October 11, 2011, 1:52 pm
  3. It will take coöperation, organization, and effort from people in every space in public education, John, and your mobility and willingness to navigate ambiguity are, I suspect, wonderful assets in helping colleagues, students, and parents realize how else we could be teaching and learning. You’re also a parent, and we need parents, too.

    Trust the process,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | October 11, 2011, 3:26 pm
    • Thanks for the kind words, Chad. I sometimes forget that my role as a parent matters (even when advocating that parents need to take charge of their own children’s education).

      Posted by John T. Spencer | October 11, 2011, 4:20 pm
    • And not only “in public education,” I think, Chad. Those who are choosing to take a stand by walking away are needed too. Those that are working to provide a counter-hegemonic vision be it by homeschooling, unschooling, working in learning centers, or alternative independent schools – all are occupying important space too…Just sayin’.


      Posted by Paul Freedman | October 12, 2011, 2:20 am
      • Paul, I agree wholeheartedly, but also consider it part of my responsibilities and accountability to myself to champion change in public education where counter-hegemonic visions are scant, and, certainly, to invite homeschoolers, unschoolers, and all others to participate in transforming a public institution that has a grip on so many of the young people who will be the neighbors and fellow citizens of those educated outside the system.


        Posted by Chad Sansing | October 12, 2011, 12:49 pm
      • Excellent point, Paul. I hope that was clear in the original post when I mention all the different valid models.

        Posted by John T. Spencer | October 12, 2011, 12:54 pm
  4. I’m with David. Couldn’t have said it better. Thanks for being a model John.


    Posted by Kirsten | October 11, 2011, 3:46 pm
  5. Regarding those last two paragraphs in particular: yes yes yes! Thank you for your part.

    “The real work of planet-saving will be small, humble, and humbling, and (insofar as it involves love), pleasing and rewarding. Its jobs will be too many to count, too many to report, too many to be publicly noticed or rewarded, too small to make anyone rich or famous.”—Wendell Berry

    This movement is a big part of that planet-saving.

    Posted by mindyfitch | October 11, 2011, 6:28 pm
  6. I’m thinking it’s the system, not you. If it has driven you away and is making it this hard for you to feel good about being there. . . not a solution . . . just a thought.

    Posted by Nance Confer | October 11, 2011, 6:29 pm
    • Thanks for the thought and the pushback. I still like being there. I still like the act of teaching. I still believe good teachers need to work in bad systems. The question of the extent to which I participate is a difficult one that is mired in mystery. The sense of guilt in withdrawal comes not from the system so much as my own love of teaching and belief that change within the system needs to occur.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | October 11, 2011, 6:37 pm
  7. John,

    I am once again smitten by your honesty.

    Unlike some of those here, I think you should go ahead and take the time to feel like a fraud and perhaps even beat yourself up a bit. What you are experiencing will help you move forward tomorrow, next week or over the next months.

    At various times during life I have also wondered, “What can I occupy?” I have made various decisions and taken action on them – later, I find myself asking that question once again. Life is, after all, difficult.

    I wish you the best, and look forward to hearing about what space you decide to occupy.


    Posted by Brent Snavely | October 11, 2011, 6:59 pm
    • Thanks. I think you’re right that being self-critical is important. Wrestling with working from within or from the outside – potentially self-marginalized or conforming to a bad system – can be really hard for me. I’m doubtful that there is a hard-and-fast solution.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | October 12, 2011, 1:19 pm
  8. I have a question as a fellow teacher. If you are out at Occupy Wallstreet or Occupy Edu, who is in your classroom? Shouldn’t we be occupying our classroom? Telling students about what is going on with this? Sharing the varying thoughts and opinions? Teaching them to learn more about the issues and to form their thoughts? Teaching them economics? What are we teaching our students other than it’s ok to cut schools…sometimes…if it really matters (and even then that will vary for adolescents and what they constitute as ‘really matters’)? I get that as teachers we are passionate about education and we should be. But aren’t we leaving kids hanging in the process when we’re out of school? No one is as good in your classroom with your students than you are.

    Posted by Lindsey | October 11, 2011, 9:33 pm
    • Just to clarify: I’m not out on the streets protesting. There isn’t much of a movement here in Phoenix, really.

      However, I have taken days off before to go protest some really mean-spirited immigration policies. My students knew about this, because they saw me there and they asked about it. I kept quiet at school (part of our handbook) but they knew where I stood on an issue of social justice.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | October 11, 2011, 9:53 pm
    • It IS OK to miss school sometimes. There are more important things in the world than school.

      Posted by Nance Confer | October 12, 2011, 7:05 am
    • #occupyedu is about occupying your classroom, Lindsey, so that it becomes a place where teachers and students learn and make meaning together through the shared work of teaching and learning. #occupyedu is like #ows in that it recognizes and decries the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of tests, canned curricula, and interventions that crowd out student choice and inquiry from the classroom. #occupyedu, however, knows that to change schools we need to change our classrooms; we can’t wait for the system. Some of us protest locally in #occupy movements; all of us #occupyedu through our work with kids.

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | October 12, 2011, 8:55 pm
  9. Lindsey,

    I think you are right in that you should be occupying your classroom… See Chad’s post, Occupying your Classroom. Our Occupy Education campaign is just that… it is a way for teachers, students and parents to tell the world how they are occupying their classroom…. please join us!


    Posted by dloitz | October 11, 2011, 9:39 pm
  10. I’ll be honest, John, I didn’t read all of the comments before leaving this one. Usually, I am very particular about reading the entire conversation before leaving my thoughts, but so much of what you shared speaks to me. I have been a ‘specialist’ teacher ever since becoming a full-time teacher. For two years I taught Science before I moved to teaching in a lab. At my former school I taught 600 kids over the course of a week. 600. Talk about feeling like you’re not making a difference.

    As for being a fraud, I had that feeling today while checking out #occupyphilly. As I walked up in my $80 North Face jacket, as an employed, highly educated (though highly in debt) homeowner with health insurance, I thought–“I’m angry like everyone else, but my story is not that of the 99%. Yes, I owe tens of thousands of dollars in student loans and I am undercompensated in comparison with private sector people with my same qualifications, but overall, I’m doing OK.

    I also have kids walk in lines–in fact, one 3rd grade class had to practice walking up the stairs correctly yesterday–they were quite unruly when they arrived at my door–I plug my grades into the sickening excuse for a gradebook each week. But, I also try to make my classroom a sanctuary, a place where student voices matter, where creativity is celebrated, where choices are offered, where assessment is undercover and based on what you can do, not your answers to questions. But maybe I’m just trying to make myself feel better….

    I don’t feel that I can occupy my classroom (I agree that it should be ‘our’ classroom), but I feel that I can be transparent with my students and transparent with my colleagues and speak my mind, always sticking up for what I believe is right.

    Thank you for your honesty, as always.

    Posted by marybethhertz | October 12, 2011, 9:59 pm
  11. After reading your post I actually feel a little better about teaching a tested subject.

    Don’t get me wrong, I HATE testing. But, teaching a subject that is tested gives me the opportunity to do 2 things

    1. Explain and show to my students how standardized tests know nothing, learn nothing, and demonstrate nothing about them as people.

    2. It gives me the chance to prove that students can do well on those lower order tests with no test prep and a focus on constructivist learning.

    Not the best situation, but the best I can do…for now.

    Posted by Jeff Russell (JRussellTeacher) | October 12, 2011, 11:41 pm
  12. … and did you miss out “Have fun” ?

    Posted by Shamblesguru (@shamblesguru) | October 18, 2011, 5:14 am

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