Old News, New Ideas: Teachers Are Trying to Change the World

What is the purpose of a teacher?

To educate?

…What is education then?

Learning about history, science, math, reading and writing?

…Can’t you just Google that?

Photo Credit: Bennilover Flickr via Compfight cc

As any “good teacher” will tell you, the purpose of a teacher is much more than that. Most will tell you that education is more than just “book learning,” and tests, and more than getting a diploma at the end of a public education. The real purpose of education is to help young people discover who they are, question the world, and find the courage, creativity, and inspiration to make their place in the world.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’ll know I talk about this sort of thing a lot. So why write another post about the same thing? Well, for one, this one will become part of my semester work in ESST 369, Critical Literacy in Social Studies, and the other, more important reason, is that I’ve got more to say, and new ideas to add.

This week I read a couple pieces that got my mind going. The first, excerpts from A.C. Grayling’s “The Challenge of Things: Thinking Through Troubled Times”, and the second, chapter 21, “Teachers as Transformative Intellectuals” by Henry Giroux from Educational Foundations: An Anthology of Critical Reading.

Photo Credit: 13winds Flickr via Compfight cc

Grayling suggests that good teachers “inspire, guid and give their students a broader sense of life’s possibilities” by putting themselves in the shoes of the student, and digging at finding better ways to make content connect with them.  He hints that teachers are more than just studious book worms there to dictate texts to young minds and make them memorize things. Grayling seems to say that perhaps teachers have a great ability to take information from the past and apply it to create new thoughts and ideas, and that by doing so, this type of education can be beneficial for the whole of society. He suggests that this is the definition of a public intellectual, and that all teachers should act in this way.

Giroux’s essay further corroborates these ideas by saying that teachers need to be viewed as more than just technicians who manage students and implement curricula. He demonstrates how stifling the world of education can be, both in the ways we train teachers, and the ways that schools are run. So much focus is put on controlling student behaviour, and making sure that teachers are trained to know how to teach the things students are “supposed” to learn at each grade level, that the real problems are often overlooked. Giroux goes on to say that too often there is “no display of concern for stimulating or nurturing a child’s intrinsic desire to learn,” because teaching and teacher education is often too focused on just getting through the content, and using plans and curricula that claim to work in any classroom. In the end, what Giroux really gets at is the idea that teachers need to be transformative intellectuals, questioning what they teach and looking at the bigger picture and end goal of our students’ education. He believes that goal should be more about creating engaged citizens than making sure that students can sit quietly in their desks.

Photo Credit: theirhistory Flickr via Compfight cc

Straight rows and “good” behaviour are certainly things that I do not require in my classroom. The goals of my teaching are not to ensure that every page of the grade level texts are read. My students are not required to pass long exams to show their mastery of any part of the curriculum. Instead, I strive to encourage my students to show respect, kindness, and empathy, and that is done by creating a safe, comfortable space for learning. I use text books as sources of information, extra practice, and a companion in the learning. I encourage students to reflect on what they’ve learned in our time together, and in their time with other teachers, and mix them with their ideas and knowledge to projects and activities that help them apply it.

After examining Grayling and Giroux’s descriptions of a public transformative intellectual, and then looking at my own teaching philosophy it is clear that I am already embodying the idea that a teacher IS these things, and I whole-heartedly believe that teachers SHOULD be these things. Teachers play very real and large parts in the creation of our society, and that it is through the teaching of PEOPLE that our society can become a better place.

Photo Credit: rpalesca Flickr via Compfight cc

Giroux also discusses an idea of making “the pedagogical more political and the political more pedagogical,” meaning that education needs to allow students and teachers to examine sources of power, to help students see and find themselves in society, and to take a look at the world and encourage students to find out about things and have a voice. I really believe that this should be the case, and this mixing of ideas is something that I began to dabble in during my internship. I encouraged my students to look at real-world issues, and to dig a little deeper and find out what was going on. We looked at elections, social justice issues, news articles, and other media outlets, and it was amazing to see and hear the ideas and questions that these young minds began to have about their world. Was it easy? No. Did it come naturally for them? Not at all (for me either!). It took nearly four months for many of them to begin to really get in there and realize that they, just like adults, can have opinions, and can learn about what is going on in the world now, and how it has been influenced by the past.

Teachers are able to encourage the “enhancement of the critical powers of the young” (so says Giroux, and I agree), but it starts with the willingness to go there in the first place and really look critically at the world. We have to take curriculum and use it to guide our thoughts and planning, and to open the minds of our students and anyone else we can reach out to in an effort to really understand our world, our society and ourselves.

Who Shall I Educate?

I think that I have always seen myself as an intelligent person, and an eager learner. From a young age I was an “over-achiever” and someone who always went above and beyond the scope of any school assignment, not for the extra marks, but because I was truly interested in learning more about whatever I was tasked to research or report on. I was bored by the monotony of some school classes, but enjoyed learning so much that I tried to find my own ways to continually seek new information. I became somewhat of a walking bank of useless facts. I enjoyed reading almanacs, world record books, and any type of history book. As I grew I still did this, and then began sharing my new-found knowledge with friends. Sometimes it could be in a conversation, or in a landslide win in Trivial Pursuit. Whatever the method, I was always the “knowledgable” one of my friends, and I think a lot of people would still categorize me in this way today.

As I now pursue my bachelor of education degree, intent on teaching students in schools, the question is how this “Knowledgable Kendra” categorization will change, or if in fact it will. Teachers, being a publicly funded profession, are in the public eye. People see them as very purposeful, yet feel it within their rights to criticize their job. Some people don’t seem to agree that a teacher’s personal opinions should enter the classroom and should certainly not be voiced to the public, and others seem to think that it is necessary for teachers to do this. So, where do I fit in on this argument? Am I a public intellectual? Are my opinions important both in an out of the classroom? Do my opinions matter? Who should I be educating?

I think that I am entering this profession in a very opportunistic period of history. It is a point in time where education is at the forefront of many peoples’ agendas, as they can see the extreme benefits from being well educated and equipped with skills and tools that will aid them in the ever-changing world that we live in. The problem, in my view, is that too many people are trying to press their opinions onto the field of education who do not understand the true core of the field itself and its need to shift and adapt over time. I truly side with Sir Ken Robinson, an international advisor on education, who’s many ideas point out the problems with today’s systems of education. I strongly believe that it is because so many people are stuck in the past ways of education that they do not see the value in the changes being made to the current systems.

I believe that it is part of my job as a teacher to educate the public about education. I believe that it is my job to educate parents about why I feel their children need to address issues like identity, sexuality, racism, cultural genocide, and the movements being created to bring these issues to the forefront of the public eye. I believe that I can use my knowledge to the advantage of my students and those in the communities I work in. I think that while the digital age has allowed us instant access to information at our fingertips, too many people do not know how to critically assess this information and differentiate what is important from what is not.

I also strongly believe that my job as a learner is never over, and when it is, I should no longer be a teacher. I think that the job of a teacher is just as much about learning as it is about teaching. A teacher’s role is to be constantly learning, and filtering information in order to bring the best to his or her students. I think that as a result of this constant quest for knowledge, it is just natural that the information spills over to the world around us. Over the course of my degree so far I constantly hear from my husband about how much he is learning about the world we live in through the information I share, and how grateful he is for it. It is because of the information that I share with my family and friends that they are able to be more informed about the world, and are able to delve deeper into those areas that interest them the most.  It is this thirst for knowledge, and the ability to share it that have confirmed my passion for wanting to become a teacher.

While I know that the world of education is not always an easy one, and can be filled with many uphill battles, I know that it is where I am meant to be. I know that my quest for knowledge and education will only better my students, and it is not only my hope that I can be the one who can share my knowledge, passions, and quests for understanding with those around me, but that my students can be also. My commitment to education runs deep, and will continue to pour over outside of my classroom.