Several articles litter my desk, downloaded from cyber space. Educators all over the country rant and rage over what’s going on in schools; modern day bull sessions. Everyone’s an expert. It’s hard to tease out fact from fiction. Funny how life works. Several years ago when I was working on my dissertation, I read an article about critical race theory which outlined the importance of validating personal lived experiences as data. The voices of Blacks and other non-western, “oral” cultures were dismissed entirely from our knowledge base because they were not considered real data. They were just stories. Stories about racism, discrimination and inequality were deemed “subjective” because they were not written down, not “science.”
Now, we’re inundated with voices— each one sparks in the sky fighting like shooting stars to stand out above the crowd. Or maybe we’re not fighting with each other at all. Maybe everything we hear and see on the internet, on Twitter, in social media is an orchestra and we’re being asked to evolve. How are we unique but together come up with the same song?
The school year is coming to an end and I want to read everything. Previously, my energy was depleted by designing curriculum to match the Common Core, navigating a hostile work environment, dodging the litany of tests and other bureaucratic requirements imposed upon me, a teacher working for $28 an hour. But ever since my principal told me I was not invited back next year, I became free. It was inevitable. No matter how much I worked to clean up that mess, no matter how hard I worked to create a welcoming, safe and inspiring learning environment for the children, I would be classified as “problematic,” aka “not effective.” Why? Because I’m an old school teacher that teaches as if teaching were an art.
There is no place for art in teaching.
This reminds me of a recent lesson. Think 6th grade classroom. We’re discussing the use of metaphor and the character trait, bright. “What does it really mean,” I asked the students, “when we say a person is bright?” Hands shot up and several others called out, “It means you’re smart!” Correct. Then, I proceeded to draw a Smart Board cartoon character with a thought bubble hovering over his head. Inside, I drew a light bulb with five sparks sprouting out from all sides. “Have you guys ever seen this in a cartoon?” They had. “Calling someone bright comes from our belief that ideas are like light bulbs that go off in our brains,” I explained. “Intelligence or being smart is a trait given to those who bring light to darkness.” Then, I wrote the word E N L I G H T E N M E N T on board, making sure I tapped the red ink pen icon on my menu in order for the LIGHT in ENLIGHTENMENT to be highlighted. “Have you ever seen this word?” Quiet. A few shook their heads and a couple laughed. “Enlightenment is what all great thinkers and sages aim to achieve,” I told them, “it’s the state of grace in which there is perfect harmony between your mind and spirit— between what you learn in school and the journey of your soul.” Quiet. You could hear a pin drop in my 6th grade, middle of the Bronx, inclusive classroom— a pin! Then I added, “Many believe, just like Martin Luther King did (we had recently read his essay The Purpose of Education) that true smarts comes from knowledge, yes!— but also from the courage of a person’s spirit to use the information wisely and ethically.”
Alright, I got a couple of blank stares at this point. But as usual, I nodded and smiled as if they were all with me the whole time because teaching is like that. It’s like sprinkling water on seeds. You never know when thought sprouts. Then I moved on to the next metaphor which was perfectly light and funny because it was about ogres and how when we call someone an ogre we’re really saying they are mean and ugly.
Yes, it’s true. There’s no place for art in teaching. No place for enlightenment.
This is why there are so many resignation letters from teachers and principals being published. They are warriors who’ve laid down their helmets.
What does it feel like this year walking in the shoes of a teacher after 13 years being outside the classroom? It doesn’t feel very good. Some days it feels like I’m doing the most important thing in the world, that I’m this steward leading a group of boys and girls to the other shore, to safety. But overall, teaching is painful and complicated and overwhelmingly all consuming. It’s like the kind of drain that gets at every pore, every muscle aches and when I go home in the evening, I know that the real teachers out there who still believe education is enlightenment, won’t last very long. There’s a tidal wave in our midst.
Fortunately, I’ve been set free yet again. I suppose it has to happen for people like me to continue living outside the box. Not to be bought or packaged, not to be misguided or convinced that the only way to live is in a perpetual state of fear. I’m beginning to map out my new book and there are lots of important decisions to make. Like— who do I really want to write for? What is the root purpose of my experiments on truth in education? How can I capture everything I’ve experienced over the last decade in a way that really speaks to the people who need to listen the most?
Looking back at my own varied education experience, I realize I’ve had minimal exposure to Kant. Nevertheless, I have read his essay, What is Enlightenment? and I believe that he is absolutely correct when he writes, “Enlightenment requires nothing but freedom.” I have been obsessed with freedom for what seems to me a life time, even though I’ve been told that middle age is hardly a lifetime, yet— So, it is only my greatest hope and challenge over the next couple of weeks that I can find a way to take this great gift of freedom that I’ve been given and use it wisely.
It is June, comrades. June, finally.