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Learning at its Best

We’re Not the Enemy

I’ve heard the arguments and I get it. The industrial model isn’t working. The system needs to change. We need authentic learning. I get it. Really, I do. What’s funny with the whole outdated industrial model is that teachers often agree with the point and in many cases, we’re the ones trying to fight against the system.

I fight against the system in small ways (that I’m sure are not “big enough” for many who want to go with a fuck-the-system-altogether mentality): refusal to use punishments and rewards, project-based and problem-based learning, student choice in assignments, painting murals, filming documentaries, abolishing grades and moving toward independent projects.

Despite this reality, there is a purist mentality (bordering on being puritanical) that states that anyone working within the system is corrupt. On one popular blog, teachers have been compared to child abusers, prison guards, slave drivers and thieves.

We’re fighting the same fight. However, I continue to watch both sides attacking one another. Unschoolers and home-schoolers assume that teachers simply need to humble ourselves and admit that we are a part of the problem and then resign. Teachers, on the other hand, often bar any alternative education communities from having a voice in the dialogue.

In the battle for education reform, it’s starting to feel like people are fragging their own soldiers because one side isn’t quite militant enough for their army. And maybe that’s the real issue. Maybe it’s not a war. Maybe it’s not a battle. Maybe it’s time we ask more questions, propose a few more solutions and listen to one another.

About John Spencer

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


20 thoughts on “We’re Not the Enemy

  1. I (foolishly) keep thinking that a middle-ground will be reached, but about 8 times out of 10, the Hegelian dialectic winds up in a knock-down, drag-out.

    I think the possum from Okefenokee Swamp had it right. “We have met the enemy… and he is us.” (From Walt Kelly’s ‘Earth Day’ poster)

    Keep up the subversive work from inside the machine 🙂


    Posted by Brent Snavely | December 30, 2011, 4:48 pm
  2. Well said, John. 🙂

    Posted by Sylvia | December 30, 2011, 4:55 pm
  3. This is one reason I like your blog so much (another is that I am a fan of really good, expressive, thoughtful writing).
    I’m Australian and I don’t really know enough about the American school system to comment on the big fight against it, but within the range of my own experience, it seems to me that we educators are better off spending our energy on making one meaningingful change at a time,, in our classrooms, in our schools, via our blogs… one step at a time, one conversation at a time, one experiment at time. It’s working for me..

    Posted by Ed | December 30, 2011, 6:18 pm
  4. Honest-to-God, you are REALLY fortunate to have administration that tolerates your alternative approach to things. I taught ELECTIVES in a district that thought my classes were such fluff that they only bought ONE set of books for one of them (ya know, because they don’t need to take them home) and even with that mentality, when I did things that were different and motivated kids that literally did NOTHING in core subjects–it was instantly a problem. Likely because of the resentment from the core teachers who couldn’t get these kids to apply thought.

    That being said, I am now a homeschooling parent and I agree: the pissing contest has gone far enough. But I also see where it comes from. Having been on both sides of the fence, I see a lot of homeschoolers really only homeschooling for being shut out by the education community; and many in education lashing out over it. Then there are the true screw-the-public-education-system homeschoolers that are loud, obnoxious and downright rude; but they are 1) a minority; and 2) often don’t represent the views of the majority. They’re just the loudest.

    I don’t see this as the case on the education side–where my own experience would show that what we hear often actually IS the majority mindset. When I taught, I was absolutely horrified at how some of the teachers regarded parents in general. And this was a top-rated district in my state where the children were not indigent but upper middle class (most parents educated, kids clean, clothed, fed; and parents relatively available) but were still regarded as morons who couldn’t possibly understand educating children. I was embarrassed to work with people like this.

    Either way, it does need to stop. Nobody’s gaining anything from it. And nobody’s immune to it: you don’t like being regarded as “one of THOSE teachers” any more than I like being regarded as “one of THOSE parents”–or worse yet, I’m further regarded as this weird gray area where the public schooling parents feel like it’s okay for ME to homeschool because I was a teacher and therefore, I’m not exactly insulting their choice to public school because they’re not teachers and of course–I must believe that only teachers can teach their kids.

    What a profound mess. We all just need to step back and put all of this energy into something more positive; but more importantly, something that has nothing to do with OURSELVES and our own baggage… which is where I think all of the problems stem from.

    Sorry so long-winded. :/

    Posted by CaughtInTheMiddle | December 30, 2011, 6:46 pm
    • I enjoyed your long-winded comment 🙂

      I think your story is one that resonates with many both inside the system and outside the system. I think it’s evidence that respectful dialogue can happen.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | December 31, 2011, 9:48 am
  5. Then let’s have an argument amongst friends 🙂

    We need to do some dismantling; we need to form communities that can withstand the criticism and relinquishing of individuals’ ideas; we need to let go of control and power and share attention and authority.

    These are scary needs, but essential ones, if we are ever to look past schooling as an institution and to consider the kind of community and learning that stands a chance of stewarding humanity through the problems we’ve created for ourselves and the problems we haven’t begun to imagine.

    Do we need to employ ad hominem invective? No, we do not. However, we do need to argue the hell out of one another – there’s no arriving at any sustainable solutions until we air out our differences and agree on common principles of education, learning, and self-determination.

    We need the argument to establish trust and to form consensus about our purpose. We need the argument before we fight the same fight. We have to invite this argument. “Tell me why I’m wrong,” needs to be uttered in earnest.

    School can’t be about school anymore; it needs to be about a future rooted in community and an ingenious adaptability.

    That’s worth arguing about, I think. Tell me where/why I’m wrong, friends –

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | December 30, 2011, 9:12 pm
    • I’d rather not argue the hell out of anything. I’d rather discuss respectfully. I’d rather slowly meander. I’d rather tell stories, ask questions and listen. Because when I start arguing the hell out of something, I quit listening.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | December 31, 2011, 9:43 am
    • Incidentally, the tone and the discussion (both passionate and deep) was part of why it was so great to share a pint with you in Philly. I think it’s those kinds of pint conversations that ultimately reshape education.

      Posted by John T. Spencer | December 31, 2011, 9:44 am
      • And I think that “passionate and deep” can be descriptors for really great arguments, too – I don’t think “argument” holds exclusively negative meanings. To me it’s like “text;” there are many kinds – some help, others hurt, and so on across a spectrum of spectra.

        Our conversation in Philly, while not an argument, shared some qualities of “good” arguments I’ve witnessed and in which I participated. Our conversation created a sense of community, of commonality, of camaraderie – but we approached each other having already discovered some common beliefs.

        I would definitely dine out with Arne Duncan or an #edreformer or a House freshman or a pedagogically different colleague interested in finding middle ground, but part of getting to any new community, commonality, and camaraderie we could share would be some pretty frank discourse – passionate, deep, and civil – that I would characterize as argument. To me that argument would be a good and necessary thing – something completely complementary to the kind of talk we had, John.

        To me that admittance of ambiguity and apparent paradox – that belief that friends can and should argue and that arguments can and should strengthen friendship – is part of what makes the Coöp work and speak so vitally to so many people. That belief in the tenacity of critical friendship is part of what tears down the Manichaean mindset of #edreform. If friends can argue with one another passionately, deeply, and in pursuit of a lasting communion with and commitment to change, then we don’t need sides. We just need to be friends willing to argue the hell out of what matters, whether we do so through personal stories, slow meanderings, or blog posts.

        All the best,

        Posted by Chad Sansing | December 31, 2011, 5:00 pm
    • You know, I agree with you in what needs to happen, I just disagree that argument is the way there. I have never personally seen as much progress with the scenario you’re proposing as I’ve seen by building bridges and respectful friendships using some other common ground and then broaching the more difficult, dividing discussions once there is a trust and security in place that allows people to be open–in speaking AND in listening.

      How do you do this on a large scale? I have NO flaming clue. The animosity has gotten out of control.

      The worst is that the NEA could absolutely secure the future of teaching by being more open. Not only to homeschoolers, but to parents and to different pedagogies of educating. Education in it’s current formation is a top-down model. This is why educators like myself had my hands tied from making change. Maybe if I’d been a core subject teacher with test results to hand to my boss to get them off my back… maybe. But I wasn’t. And yet, my kids often made connections between subjects and within subjects (I had a few finally grasp a math concept when exposed to it from the differing perspective of my classes) that were critical.

      I am also a second career teacher–having been in middle management of corporate America in a rather cut-throat industry. It was easier to be in corporate. The top-down authority and the control of a public school system is awesome (and I mean that literally: it awes me). And they are the ones controlling the system. Only when the leadership drives a change in mentality or direction (preferably both) will things actually change.

      Until then, the people do what they can–be it lobbying for voucher systems, applying to charter schools, or full-out withdrawing their kids (and either enrolling them in an online umbrella/charter or home-eding them). Eventually, the people will get what they really want. It would be ideal if the NEA (or the AFT… ALL of them) would be leaders instead of followers.

      Posted by CaughtInTheMiddle | December 31, 2011, 6:39 pm
      • I’m with you on the NEA.

        I’ve deleted a few paragraphs to avoid word-smithing, but I think this passage

        …by building bridges and respectful friendships using some other common ground and then broaching the more difficult, dividing discussions once there is a trust and security in place that allows people to be open–in speaking AND in listening.

        describes a sound process for preparing ourselves for meaningful arguments between people who trust one another to speak honestly and purposefully on behalf of kids and learning. Can there be movement towards consensus or collective action in a “difficult, dividing discussion” without argument?


        Posted by Chad Sansing | December 31, 2011, 7:18 pm
  6. Thank you for writing this.

    Posted by Sandra | December 30, 2011, 9:58 pm
  7. I’m a grown unschooler, and the author of a popular unschooling blog, as well as being very involved in the local radical education community (mostly people looking to build genuinely accessible alternatives to regular school in the form of freeschools, learning centers, etc.). And while I see schooling itself as an institution to be oppressive and overall detrimental to the people in it, I also recognize that as it stands now, that’s the only option for many students, so I care about how those students are treated in that institution and the work people are doing to, at the very least, minimize harm. And I definitely don’t see teachers as the enemy, and know many teachers who are unschooling parents themselves, teachers who are working to build alternatives to school, teachers who make documentaries and write articles about all the problems within schooling and ways to do things better, teachers who do their best within the rigid bureaucratic structure they find themselves in to create the best environment that they can for their students… I’m well aware of the fact many teachers are people working hard to do good and change things, though I’m also aware that there are many who aren’t. I find myself a bit wary when I meet someone who’s a teacher, because my experience has been that teachers are usually either absolutely horrified or super excited about the projects I’m involved in and the views I hold. I rarely encounter a middle-ground reaction!

    But yeah, I’m a big fan of people finding common ground and moving forward from there, and though the only projects I become very involved in are ones that hold the same ideals I do, I’m always happy when various groups and people working on different projects are keeping in touch and supporting each other in some way. Each person will be drawn to working and fighting for change in different ways, and I don’t really think we’ll see a strong movement for education transformation until that’s recognized, and people stop spending so much of their time putting each other down!

    Posted by Idzie | December 31, 2011, 10:23 pm
    • Here’s to the discovery and struggle to reach the middle ground – and to moving forward.

      Happy New Year!

      Posted by Chad Sansing | January 1, 2012, 8:39 am
      • I wouldn’t say I’m interested in “reaching middle ground,” at all though. To me that strongly implies compromising the ideals each group has, and I’m not into that. The only things I spend my time on are ones that strongly fit my ideals, which means I don’t work on “reform” projects. I don’t want to “reach middle ground,” I just want to keep open lines of contact between all the different groups and individuals who are working towards real change in how society looks at and practices “education,” and for all of us to recognize that everyone will be drawn to working in different ways, and that’s okay.

        Posted by Idzie | January 1, 2012, 1:32 pm
        • Perhaps “common ground?” I took middle ground to be a place where people reacted in a measured, purposeful way to your work, given this passage from your comment:

          I find myself a bit wary when I meet someone who’s a teacher, because my experience has been that teachers are usually either absolutely horrified or super excited about the projects I’m involved in and the views I hold. I rarely encounter a middle-ground reaction!

          It seems like you’re wary of extreme reactions that are not in the middle, where serious consideration and discussion can happen after initial reactions. Given my reading, which may be totally wrong, I’d agree that finding a middle ground between extreme reactions is a good way to seriously examine an idea.

          All the best,

          Posted by Chad Sansing | January 1, 2012, 3:41 pm
  8. You might be interested in the work of Joe Bower in Alberta, Canada, if you don’t know about him already:

    Posted by Bob Collier | January 1, 2012, 1:52 am
  9. Some rich conversation here, as always. I agree that the word “argument” has developed some negative connotations since the days of Socrates, but I think it still has some merit here.

    I think that the type of “argument” that allows for us to honestly share opinions, challenge assumptions and move forward are most often engaged in willingly. And while emotions and passions don’t need to be checked at the door, there is in these instances a tacit agreement that something respectful and collegial is about to take place. The set of social norms that accompany “planned” or expected conversations are generally understood and accepted.

    I think that John points to the large number of encounters that quickly dissolve into polarized opinions, unchallenged assumptions and closed doors are ones where the “rules of engagement” are not accepted or not clearly understood.

    Over the past couple of years, I have wandered onto sites that have opinions about schools that are diametrically opposed to my own. Conversations tend to be emotionally charged and opinions are well-established and understood by the group that hang out there regularly. But I have found that my presence there has often provoked angry and immediate responses, and sometimes I have just walked away shaking my head.

    A few observations and strategies that I have tried to signal the desire to enter into more fruitful conversation:

    First, I have tried to log in and comment regularly on blogs where I know opinions differ from my own. A constant presence and desire to contribute has helped build trust, I think.

    Second, I have offered to contribute guest posts on particular issues.

    I have avoided using inflammatory words and phrases that are designed to provoke expected responses. I have tried to admit areas where my thinking could be shifted.

    I have attended events that have been planned by groups with whom I disagree. Physical presence always mitigates the war of words that has become so easy to wage online.

    Finally, I have extended invitations to folks with differing opinions to some of my own events. Our fairly recent EdCamp Toronto event had registrants from a couple of surprising places and positions.

    I struggle a great deal with the polarization around educational conversation. These strategies are not meant to sound self-righteous. They are all part of the desire to fill in some of the very unhelpful gaps that exist between perspectives.

    On another note, I think that we should arrange a virtual hangout/pub with some of the voices here. I’m always up for a pint myself, but I prefer it not to be “by myself”

    Thanks John for weaving this thread into the conversation! Sorry for the long response.

    Posted by stephen hurley | January 1, 2012, 8:52 am
  10. I think the best comment on this (very nearly universal) phenomenon still comes from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian:”

    BRIAN: Are you the Judean People’s Front?
    REG: F*#k off!
    BRIAN: What?
    REG: Judean People’s Front. We’re the People’s Front of Judea!
    FRANCIS: Wankers.
    BRIAN: Can I… join your group?
    REG: No. P*ss off.
    BRIAN: … I hate the Romans as much as anybody!
    JUDITH: Are you sure?
    BRIAN: Oh, dead sure. I hate the Romans already.
    REG: Listen. If you wanted to join the P.F.J., you’d have to really hate the Romans.
    BRIAN: I do!
    REG: Oh, yeah? How much?
    BRIAN: A lot!
    REG: Right. You’re in. Listen. The only people we hate more than the Romans are the f*#king Judean People’s Front.
    P.F.J.: Yeah…!
    FRANCIS: And the Judean Popular People’s Front.
    P.F.J.: Yeah. Oh, yeah.
    LORETTA: And the People’s Front of Judea.
    P.F.J.: Yeah!
    REG: What?
    LORETTA: The People’s Front of Judea.
    REG: We’re the People’s Front of Judea!
    LORETTA: Oh. I thought we were the Popular Front.
    REG: People’s Front!

    BRIAN: Brothers! Brothers! We should be struggling together!
    FRANCIS: We are! Ohh.
    BRIAN: We mustn’t fight each other! Surely we should be united against the common enemy!
    EVERYONE: The Judean People’s Front?!
    BRIAN: No, no! The Romans!
    EVERYONE: Oh, yeah… Yeah. Yeah. Yes…

    (for the record, the “Romans” would be any power structure that tries to control or limit your freedom to learn or to teach in the way you think is most helpful to children, or to enforce practices you believe to be harmful to children.)

    Posted by Carol Black | January 1, 2012, 3:46 pm

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