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Thompson: Teaching as Politics

Democracy1 Teaching is fundamentally a political process. At least in my world, the principle of "pick your battles" is not just a good idea - it is a fundamental law. Even for a disciplinarian Especially for a disciplinarian like me, power derives from the "consent of the governed." You can’t mandate real learning. I earn my paycheck by listening and responding to body language, and the all-important motivational process is like a political campaign. I win over my base in the first few days, or even years before the students arrive in my class. But the time it takes to woo over the others is the time it takes to woo over the others, and it’s a long campaign. The big difference between the politics of the classroom, as opposed to educational politics, is that forthrightness is an essential asset with students, not a potentially fatal flaw

I wish I dared to speak with my fellow educators with the honesty of Deborah Meier who condemns the pretense of reformers, now holding belated community meetings, as "'democracy' as satire." More daring is Meier's words "assuming, which many don't, that we trust that most school people (and parents), ... want to do their best, ..."

"What would happen if we spent more time and money on actual trial-and-error pilots and then neutrally spread the word about what happens when....? If we collected honest data, not to bribe folks or to get them to comply, but on the assumption that information is desirable, sought after, and needs no bribe? Or, at least, that enough people don't need bribes or mandates to spread the best ideas ..."

"That was our idea in NYC when we proposed the Annenberg Network for School Renewal....The mindset behind this work requires three essential agreements: (1) that our purpose is not to mandate "our approach" vs. "your approach," (2) that we make the work transparent and public, and (3) that school decisions be responsive to their own constituents."

Educational conflicts would not end under Meier's approach.  There are truly great teachers and coaches who are as competitive as they come.  When our school won state championships in both major sports, everyone knew that the basketball team had the potential to be in the nation's top ten, but the football team was an underdog.  So their nationally recognized coach fired up his team by storming out of the pep assembly on the pretext that the basketball players were getting too much respect. And I've seen award-winning Advanced Placement teachers who were just as extreme in building an "us against them" attitude.   

Frankly, I'm envious of teachers who are naturally comfortable with the best motivational practices -nonstop hugs and "I love you"s.  I exchange more fist bumps, elbow bumps, and  punches to the gut.  I miss the group learning and hands-on learning that brought me into the profession, but the rush from a great Socratic exchange is almost as great.  And it is nice knowing that parents and preachers pray for my soul rather then condemn my pro choice and gay rights beliefs.  I could never manage the amazing number of details that are at the fingertips, and right click fingers, of the young data-driven teachers, who have an equally amazing work ethic and commitment.  I mourn on a smaller scale than Meier, who grieves over Rudy Crew being in too much of a hurry to trust in her Annenberg experiment, but I wish that more of my colleagues would dare to slow down the bandwagons.

Contemplating the state of "reform" fifteen years after the plug was pulled on Meier's vision is excruciating. In another 15 years, though, we should have more to celebrate.  The devastating loss of teachers' autonomy might continue, or schools may remake themselves as safe for eccentricity.  In the wake of the "'Fiendish, Frankenstein monsters of financial engineering," the underperformance of "number-obsessed" educational engineering  might face a surprising challenge.  It would be poetic justice if the faux-accountability of NCLB may spawn an antithesis under RttT, a truly accurate and rigorous regime that drives the numbers changers out of the Temple of Learning.  Perhaps artists will transform digital technologies and restore the educational values of creative insurbordination

As I was saying, teaching is fundamentally an artistic process.


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