A few months ago I was teaching a somewhat uninspiring writing curriculum to a group of sixth graders as part of teacher training program. As young educators, participants in the training were expected to prepare original lessons from a pre-written curriculum and teach them to classes of about twenty students on a daily basis. We were observed by mentor teachers several times a week, and met with those mentors about once a week to receive feedback on our growth as aspiring teachers. Even with many great supports in place, my colleagues and I were struggling to make the curriculum our own, as well as making it engaging for our students. The program, which was private and in league with many of the standard “reform” movements of the day, put a great deal of emphasis on preparing students with the skills they would need to excel in elite academic institutions, and very little on social justice and community empowerment.
For one of my initial lessons, students had been assigned a short story for the previous night’s homework, preparing them to begin writing a simple summary in class that day. At the beginning of the lesson I asked students to describe what they had read and how they had interpreted the course of the events for themselves. Immediately hands shot up as students clamored to give their own interpretations, and I as I began to listen I quickly realized that members of the class had not understood all the events in the same ways. One student, Kelvin, was particularly adamant about his interpretation of the ending of the story, and a debate broke out amongst different students about what had really happened by the end of the tale. Even as I encouraged students to find evidence from the text to support their claims, I was excited to see their enthusiasm around the assignment, their ability to articulate and problem-shoot their own interpretations, as well as to see that each student had brought their own lens to the reading. The lively discussion was by far the most encouraging event in the class at that time, and as I had been frustrated with my lack of success in engaging students with the material and finding ways of connecting it back to their own lives, this seemed like a step in the right direction.
When I met with my mentor teacher later that week–a compassionate but by-the-book Teach For America alum–one of the first lessons he wanted to discuss was the aforementioned summery class. Specifically, he wanted to discuss the debate which the students had had around the events of the short story. “Kelvin was wrong,” he instructed me. “It was irresponsible for you as the teacher to let a student with a wrong interpretation have so much room to speak. You should have stopped him, corrected him, and made sure that every other student in the class knew what the right answer was. If a test was given to the students right now, I guarantee that few of them would be able to describe the events of the story correctly.” When I countered by saying that I thought giving the students the opportunity to argue their own perspectives allowed them to cement their understanding of the story more deeply, he replied, “But if they’ve cemented it incorrectly, then you have failed as the teacher. If they are wrong, you need to correct them. It is your job to give them the right answer, and if they try to argue with you, to assert your authority as the instructor.”
This meeting jarred me, and gave me a great deal to think about in terms of my responsibilities as an educator. On the one hand, I was confronted with the reality that as a teacher I do have to think about the real obstacles that my students will come up against in their lives, and providing them with the necessary skills that will need to navigate those obstacles. On the other hand, I recognized that I must also think about the systems and codes which oppress my students–the same ones which oppressed me in my own education–and aid in creating a foundation for them to fight those systems. Finding a balance between giving students the tools they need to survive world, while simultaneously preparing them to transform the world into a place which does not merely have to be survived, is a constant struggle for teachers dedicated to radical learning, and this meeting was the first time that I, as an aspiring educator, had come up against it. Yet, I would argue, given the current climate of public education across the globe, this is the key battle in which we as educators and advocates must engage in. As charter schools become the imagined wave of the future for oppressed communities, as massive corporations and hedge fund managers take control of the public sector, and as Teacher For America and other privately-funded organizations become primary training grounds for young educators, demanding that education remain in the hands of the public and that classrooms serve the communities they teach becomes not only a radical act, but a threatening one. Helping students pass while also encouraging them to resist a set curriculum and the invasion of their communities by private corporations becomes the feasible but fraught goal of the educator, and one which is not met without a real fight.
To be true advocates for the intellectual growth of our students, and to remain genuinely committed to the radial purposes of education, teachers must become voices of protest in the face of privatization, and the hijacking of learning for mere vocational and occupational preparation. This means asking difficult and unpopular questions of ourselves and of the institutions which employ us, the same types of questions which I attempted to pose later on to my mentor teacher: If I want my students to see the world from multiple angles and perspectives, how can I tell them that there is only one correct interpretation? If I want my students to challenge power, how can I run my classroom as an unquestionable figure of authority? These are not frivolous quandaries, for answering them for yourself as an educator can be the difference between creating a classroom which mirrors the dominating social order, and one which works to fight it. Acting upon them can make one even more unpopular (while my mentor teacher entertained my questions, he was resistant to their actually being given priority in the classroom, and was not pleased when I refused to make certain changes to structure of mine), but if our goal is to empower our students to stand up in the face of oppressive and conservative institutions, we must learn to do the same alongside them. This is the definition of a true ally.