The Real Mr. Fitz: Who Do Teachers Work For?                                                  

Who Do Teachers Work For?

If there are a lot of Dolores Umbridges in the educational world, people who do exactly what their bosses say in order to get ahead professionally, this raises the question: who or what, exactly, should educators be working for? 

I have many supervisors: 3 assistant principals and a principal, one of whom will be my evaluator each year. As a district employee I am also supervised by a district Language Arts office, district curriculum people above that office, an area superintendent, right up to our new superintendent. I am also supposed to follow edicts given by the state, which controls my certification. I suppose if I followed the money trail high enough, I am even under the auspices of the Federal Department of Education. 

As if this wasn't confusing enough, many of the edicts and suggestions I see filtering down contradict each other and change over time. 

Just Read! Florida tells me to promote reading for fun and pleasure. Florida state tests promote reading with skill and drill activities to "raise student achievement" on standardized tests that clog up our media center and make it impossible for many of our students to check out books for weeks on end. Just read indeed. We are told to help nurture creativity in our students while being told to stifle our own. We are told to use students' personal interests and life stories to engage them, but we are also told to follow standards written by a man who doesn't value students' stories and wants them to read without making personal connections and write about other people's writing. 

We're told to make students pass the FCAT writing, but the passing score keeps shifting, even though not a word of the rubric has changed. Then we're told that the FCAT writing was actually kind of useless and that what matters now is "writing to text" (writing about what you read).

If I were new to the profession and hadn't developed my own criteria for what's worth doing and what isn't, I would either quit or get terrible headaches each day from all the cognitive dissonance. 

Who should educators work for? 

Maybe we should work for our students. This is, of course, somewhat problematic, because we ask them to work for us. 

Some teachers say they don't teach subjects, they teach students. Obviously we should be there for our students. Who else are we really there for? But what exactly does it mean to teach students, not subjects? Some teachers I've talked to see it as their duty to teach students that the world is going to screw you over, and you better get used to it. On the other hand, I've seen teachers so anxious to put students at the center of the everything, education becomes all about the student--a kind of narcissistic exercise in self-discovery. 

So much of what we do in education, and what is done to education, is a desperate attempt to give us a clear focus. Put students first. Put what is measurable first. Put standards first. Put certain classroom practices first. Put following the edicts of this person or that committee first. 

But tests come and go. Standards come and go. Administrators and school boards come and go. In the end, students come and go. We like to think that whatever is happening now is the be all and end all. But whatever seems to be the Big Thing in education eventually fades. Or, worse, if it doesn't fade, it becomes so ensconced in its place of influence that it distorts everything around it. 

I wish I could claim this insight as my own, but I owe a great debt to Parker J. Palmer for his insight and wisdom in his book The Courage To Teach. He says, on a page I have dog-eared and refer to often, that "to teach is to create a space in which the community of truth is practiced." 

We should be working for the community of truth. That may sound esoteric and impractical, but I assure you it is not. 

Truth is a complicated, elusive, and slippery word. We all know it matters, perhaps more than anything. That is what makes it valuable. We all know it can be paradoxical, context-specific, and hard to pin down. That's what makes the educational enterprise so thrilling. 

Some might dismiss Palmer's definition of teaching as flowery or soft. It is anything but. In fact, what is lacking in so much of education reform and educational practice these days, is any real thinking about the truth.

To be part of a "community of truth" is to debate, to question, to grapple with ambiguity and paradox, to really think about things at a deep level. It's a very different thing than a "professional learning community," where we are often handed "best practices" and told to talk about how best to implement them. If our schools were communities of truth, we would be questioning our own practices as teachers, and even questioning whether a focus on "practices" and "strategies" is really wise. We would be questioning the fundamental nature of how education works and what it means to know our subject areas, and discussing how best to reach the students in front of us. 

If we all considered ourselves part of one vast "community of truth," it doesn't mean we would agree. The community of truth is not a place to always agree on the truth, but a place where we agree to keep searching for it, a place where ideas that seem untrue are brought to light and questioned. Truth looks different in different disciplines. The truth of a poem is different than the truth of a Geometry proof or a scientific experiment. 

We wouldn't limit our students to certain ways of looking for truth. We wouldn't tell them "stay in the four corners of the text" every time they read. We would give them different ways of thinking about what they read, and let them decide the best way to approach a given text. A community of truth creates flexible, not rigid, thinkers. 

If we worked for the community of truth, we would encourage teachers and students to question. We wouldn't accept everything that was handed down from above us on authority and follow orders blindly. The people influencing education wouldn't find it so easy to engage in propaganda, which I recently heard defined as communication designed to have just one outcome. How long have we been hearing that getting rid of bad teachers, testing more and more, and standardizing curriculum will make schools better? These ideas have no space in the community of truth, because all of them fall apart under scrutiny. 

Many of the edicts that filter down to the classroom arrive there because somebody bought something--a program, a piece of technology, a textbook--and feels the need to see it used. Much of what gets recommended in education is really pushed on teachers so that someone else can make money. When truth is our goal, we question profits as an educational goal.

So who should teachers work for? We should work for the community of truth. Doing so gives ourselves and our students something outside ourselves to focus on, something bigger than testing, bigger than standards, bigger than school itself. It gives us the highest aspirations possible, and at its best, protects us from the corruptions of lesser goals. We don't work for money, evaluation ratings, merit pay, promotions, or pats on the head. We work for the truth, no matter our subject, no matter our grade level, no matter where in the world we teach.

At my best, with no disrespect intended to any of my supervisors, I work to create a space where the community of truth may be practiced. It is what everyone in education should strive for. Anything less is an affront to the idea of education itself. 

I'm not doing Palmer's concept justice. If you haven't read it already, go buy The Courage To Teach and read it while there's still some summer left. If you've read it, re-read it. It makes me remember why I'm in the classroom in the first place.