Changing My Approach

I haven’t posted anything on this blog in over three years.

The idea for this blog came to me during my first year of grad school in 2013. My plan was to re-enter the middle or high school English/Language Arts (ELA) classroom once I graduated in 2014. I felt a lot of the issues which forced me out of teaching in the first place were still a problem – the teaching profession wasn’t respected, education was legislated by individuals with no idea what works best for children, and the pay was terrible. I wanted to create a space where people could see what real teachers went through to create understanding.

I did not get a teaching job when I graduated and it was 100% my fault. I dragged my feet getting my license. I dragged my feet getting letters of recommendation. I dragged my feet looking and applying for jobs. Suddenly it was August and school was starting.

How can I write about teaching when I’m not a teacher? What can I possibly add to the conversation when I have no credibility? And why would people even want to read what I have to say anyway? Do I even remember how to write? People are going to notice all of my misplaced commas and incorrect tenses and think I’m an idiot.

I knew I needed to start writing again because I have a lot of things I need to write about for me. I shifted my thinking about this blog. I realized I do not need to write for an audience and try to convince them to feel a certain way about education. I learned it doesn’t matter what other people think, and their critical thoughts are usually a reflection of themselves anyway. I need to write this blog to explore my own struggles as I enter my own middle school ELA classroom for the first time in six years while earning my doctorate.

I need to write about how the current political climate is affecting me as an individual and how I’m going to bring that into the classroom. I need to write about the drastic change in my worldview after three years of working at a non-profit for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, homelessness, and human trafficking. I need to write about the devastation I felt when one of my former students died. I need to do all of these things for me. And I already have this platform so I’m going to use it.

So, if you want to read my largely unedited thoughts as I work to figure things out for myself – thanks. I hope in my narratives you can find something you identify with. And if this sort of navel gazing/soul searching isn’t your jam, that’s cool too. I’ll still be here writing for me.

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Part III: Teaching for Systemic Change

Narrative Three:

January 1997. Today was the start of spring semester, and I have already screwed up! What was I thinking? Completing one three-day workshop with Boal hardly makes me an expert in Theatre of the Oppressed (TO), yet I am naïve enough to offer a 3-hour class on TO?

Ok, I know the methods are powerful. I experienced that power in my workshops with him, but I didn’t realize teaching through TO would force me to change everything I thought I knew about teaching. I am so over my head!

Panicked, I opened bell hooks’ Teaching to Transgress (1994) and begin to read. Central to her argument is the belief that the learning process should be exciting, but that excitement about ideas alone is insufficient.

As a classroom community, our capacity to generate excitement is deeply affected by our interest in one another, in hearing one another’s voices, in recognizing one another’s presence.  That insistence cannot be simply stated.  It has to be demonstrated through pedagogical practices.  To begin, the professor must genuinely value everyone’s presence.  There must be an ongoing recognition that everyone influences the classroom dynamic, that everyone contributes.  (8)

hook’s builds upon Freire’s method of dialogue through what she calls “engaged pedagogy.”  Like Freire, hooks discusses using dialogue as a means to create social change; however, her critical pedagogy includes an added risk for the instructor: the instructor should illuminate academic readings with personal narratives from her own life.

As I re-read Freire, Boal, and hooks, I find myself seriously questioning my practices as a teacher.  Am I truly engaging in dialogue with my students?  How much influence am I willing to entrust to my students to help shape the class, set goals, and contribute to the evaluation process?  Can I risk my authority and power as a teacher in order to de-centralize power in my classroom?

Embracing critical pedagogy as my classroom practice is time consuming, emotionally challenging, and scary. To begin, I have to change how I view the power and status of a student/teacher relationship. To unpack the power relationship between student and teacher, my students and I will need to discuss the concept of oppression, ask ourselves as white, middle-class U.S. citizens (which we all were) if we can truly understand oppression.  One of my students writes on an exam, “What if I was not white, or straight, or even male?  What would my roles be then?  Where would I fit into society?” (Paul Flynn, final paper) These are the questions we grapple with as we analyze external and internal oppression and explore the relationship between society, culture, and our patterns of beliefs and values.

As my students and I work through various TO technique (image theatre, forum theatre, cops-in-the head) I gradually become less a teacher and more a student; I am a participant/observer in the classroom, working beside my students, writing in my journal, and keeping copious notes on our progress in each class session. But something is missing. bell hooks writes: “empowerment cannot happen if we refuse to be vulnerable while encouraging our students to take risks” (1994, p. 102).  So, if I want to build trust, I need to do more than just sit back and watch; I need to model openness and risk-taking.  Now that is scary.

As I look at all the obstacles in higher education today, all the things that need to be fixed, I am overwhelmed. I know the system is broken, but I’m not sure how to fix it. Two years after teaching my first class in TO, I had a research assistant contact and interview fifteen of the eighteen students who were in this class, and almost without exception, they all felt the experience had impacted their lives in significant ways: one person left a long term relationship that had been emotionally abusive; another told his family he was gay; a woman confronted her uncle who had sexually abused her. When I discovered all the issues these students confronted in the months following this class, I was awed. TO had a lasting effect on them, far beyond the semester we shared.

What’s Your Bathroom?

by Benjamin M. G. Walker

Heading into my student teaching semester, I was already heavily leaning toward going to graduate school outright and pursuing teaching in higher education. I was hesitant about the K-12 system because of the lack of public support as well as the emphasis on standardized assessment and bureaucratic red-tape involved in most day-to-day things. And frankly, I was passionate about competitive college speech. But since I had to complete student teaching, I figured I’d give it a fair shot and come into it with an open mind. Maybe I would find it to be everything I had hoped for and nothing I had feared. Maybe the experience would be transformative. Maybe . . . well, I wanted to leave the option open for “maybe.”

I could give you the complete narrative of my experiences, but I’ll save you from that and give you the abridged tale. As you can probably guess, it didn’t work out. Yes, I got through the semester and I even taught the following semester as a long-term substitute. So I guess I was doing a decent job. I enjoyed the lessons and the students (for the most part). I always had great stories to tell at the end of the day. But what drove me from that career path wasn’t what I thought would. And maybe I was naïve, but let me say this for those that have never taught in the K-12 system:

The bathrooms made me quit teaching high school.

I am not talking about the cleanliness, although that is a commentary in itself. Ask the average office worker when they can use the bathroom and they will most likely respond with something like “whenever I need to” or “when I get a free minute.” That sounds fair. As a high school teacher my bathroom time was set aside for me every day. I had lunch and my prep-period. That’s it. Which means if I had the sudden urge to drop a deuce during 4th period, I had to wait 3 more hours before I could excuse myself.

Why? Well, the system is set up to herd students like cattle. And you can’t have cattle unless you have someone watching the cattle. And the cattle must be watched while in their cages . . . er, classes, as well as when you shuttle them to the next destination. It’s my ass if one of the cattle bullies another cattle, or if one cattle wants to write cattle-swears on the board that I don’t understand. Essentially, I was always on duty.

But it was more than not being able to visit the facilities during the day. It was the fact that kids are everywhere. Again, maybe I was naïve but the cold reality of having little privacy, or “me-time,” smacked me in the face hard.

Teachers can tell you that when you start teaching you turn on “teacher mode.” Eventually, Teacher Mode becomes something easily switched on. I didn’t have a problem turning on the Mode. I had issue with always having to be “on.” The social performance was constant. I was physically and emotionally exhausted at the end of each day.

Now, we can probably all agree that this isn’t a problem for many teachers. And that is fine. If their personality can handle the Mode all day, I applaud them. But that isn’t me. Never has been and probably never will be. I saw greener pastures in higher education and I sprinted for that open field.

I am someone who needs time and space to unwind. Sure I can think when the cattle are around, but I can’t relax because the cattle are staring at me! Ok, well they might not be staring at me but I can feel the eyes. Someone is always watching. I only relax when I am with friends and family or at home. By myself. Where no one can see me be imperfect. I sometimes wish I wasn’t like this, but I am learning to appreciate myself for who I am. And who I am doesn’t want to worry about whether I smile enough, make enough eye contact, make the right joke, teach the lesson well, or eat the right food (what? Cake for lunch is legit!). But I can’t help but feel the judgment coming from other teachers and from the blood-thirsty, waiting-to-pounce-on-my-latest-mistake cattle. It ended up being crippling. And because I feel this way to a socially defined extreme, I definitely had issues with teaching in a high school.

If you are considering teaching K-12 or just wonder if you’d be a good fit for it as you daydream on your couch, please consider what I did not: what are your social limitations and how will they react to your working environment? This is critical. Or at least it was for me.

Figure out what your bathroom issue is. Teaching is hard enough with all the hurdles being thrown our way. Knowing how you will react to the hurdles can help you either cope or get the heck out of Dodge. What’s your bathroom?