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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Subversive educators in action

By Larry Strauss, Veteran high school English teacher, novelist

Amid the very contentious debate about reforming public education, some of us have to enter classrooms every day and deliver instruction to students who cannot wait for systemic change--and while I greatly admire the passion and knowledge and intelligence sometimes represented in this ongoing debate I have little faith that any of this will be resolved any time soon and, alas, even less faith that it will be resolved to the benefit of my students.

So for now, at least, and probably for some time to come, I pledge--and hope other teachers will join me--to be a subversive educator. That is, to provide quality education for our students, by any means necessary.

I am not suggesting rebellion for its own sake. Where policy supports quality education, I will obediently adhere. But, like many of you reading this, I have been doing this long enough to know that (notwithstanding the many fraudulent claims of those who have no direct contact with our students) putting students first--I mean really placing their interests ahead of all others--is very often at odds with what we are told to do in our classrooms.

Subversive educators have for decades toiled in secrecy, sometimes at great risk, to provide their students with an education that is enlightening, awakening, and inspiring. I would not be the teacher I am today without the inspiration of my subversive colleagues. I would not, in fact, be a teacher at all.

Putting students first often involves great risk. I have had the good fortune to spend my career in South Los Angeles where many high schools have a significant number of unfilled positions and where, barring serious student or parent complaints, administrators rarely keep track of the antics of their teachers. I understand that many teachers in other places operate under much closer scrutiny and far more stringent limitations. To those I say, do what you reasonably can.

Administrators and politicians and union leadership may claim that there is no disparity between what they tell us to do and what is best for students--but we know that is often not the case. When I began teaching I had a colleague who--whenever he was asked to do anything outside his classroom, professional development or otherwise--would ask, "How is this benefiting my students?" A simple question but a profound guiding principle. He did not show up to work each day to support the ambitions of administrators or politicians. Neither do I. Therefore:

•I will teach students. I will not teach "testable material." Increasing student test scores has never been a morally defensible goal. What students need is to become culturally and scientifically literate, to learn to think critically and do research and synthesize data, to become both open-minded and skeptical, to respect themselves and others and love learning, to understand whatever they read and be able to articulate themselves with clarity and confidence. Some of that might be measured, to some degree, by standardized tests but when their scores become ends unto themselves, then we have sold out ourselves and our students.

•I will not recognize so-called sub-groups. I may differentiate instruction in an attempt to address different ability levels and learning styles and temperaments, but I will not calculate a moment of instruction to address the specific movement of any particular students between so-called achievement levels. I will work with equal ambition toward the advancement of all students, even those who have already demonstrated mastery (and whose improvement, therefore, would not boost my school's API or AYP).

•I will teach with the same dedication regardless of whether what I am teaching will be tested at all. Originality of thought, for example, cannot be measured on a multiple choice tests. Neither can the development of a literary or rhetorical voice. Wherever possible, I will let student interests and passions influence what I teach them--indifferent as standardized tests may be to such considerations.

•I will not permit those who know nothing about my students to dictate how and what I teach them. This includes people in government and in the text book industry. I remain open-minded and will consider any and all suggestions that might benefit my students.

•When I do use a text book (as opposed to an original source), I will teach students how to critique the text book and understand the political and economic context within which it was devised and guide them to recognize bias in everything they read and see and hear, including what I say.

•I will spend my own money and resources on what students need--to the degree that I can afford to--even if my union encourages me not to.

•I will not, except in extreme circumstances, withhold instruction from my students in order to advance the interests of my union. I will stay at school late to help students though I am not paid to do so. I will be available via Email and telephone to assist my students, also for no additional pay. If my colleagues and I vote to strike, I will not cross the picket line, but I will remain accessible to my students via Email and telephone and continue to write college recommendations and assist seniors with their personal statements, etc.

•I will assist struggling teachers--whether or not I am assigned to or paid for it--but I will also assist my administration in any way I can to purge my school and the system in general of egregiously and intractably incompetent colleagues. It is a crime not to report child abuse--the same penalties should apply to educational mal-practice.

•I will not treat my students like inmates. I will not enforce rules that are unnecessarily oppressive. I will respect them and empower them with a voice. I will be demanding. I will insist on decorum. But I will be reasonable. I will encourage students to question authority--mine included.

Teaching should be pure joy. That so many of us are frustrated and alienated--some to the point of despair--is intolerable. We can end the suffering by making 2011 the year of the subversive educator. And if we can all conspire together on behalf of students (why not make this the decade of the subversive educator?), then maybe we can save the system; we can be the reform.

Taken from the Huffington Post:

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