This is the monologue for the latest episode of Why? Radio. The topic was “Equality and Dialogue in American High Schools” To listen, click here.
Everyone in America has an opinion on education policy; we all have the ways in which we want schools to change and improve. This is democracy at work and a good thing. But in the midst of all the debate and politics, one simple fact has been ignored. Almost all of us have only experienced school from one perspective: the student.
Think about what you remember from your schooldays, the friends, the teachers, a handful of meaningful, sometimes traumatic events, but how many of the individual hours do you recall and how many of the lessons? Very little for twelve years’ worth of schooling.
This may explain why tests hold such a sway over the American mind. Sure, test scores offer one way to compare students in different times and place, but it is their psychological impact that remains with most of us. When we remember school, we think of the stress, the burden, the judgment, but we forget the material we were actually tested on.
This becomes worse when we become parents because we want our children to get good grades. We want their positive experiences to be memorable and their negative experiences to be worth it. But as parents, tests provide the means, not just to compare students with one another, but to compare our children to ourselves. Tests put our kids in direct competition with us, and this, I think, contributes to why so many people hate teachers.
Americans do hate teachers. They blame them. They are suspicious of them. They want to circumvent them. Why? Because they are the face of the school. They are the ones we interacted with every day and the ones we blame for our feelings. Just as we get annoyed at the tall person who sits in front of us at the movies, but don’t blame the theater’s architect, we fault the teacher but ignore the people who limit his or her activities. The fact is, as human beings, we lash out at what we see and students see only a tiny percent of those things that make a school what it is.
The vast majority of school was invisible to us, from the complexities of class scheduling to the fraught world of staff relationships. Did you know that teachers have a tremendously high rate of urinary-tract infections? Most of them don’t have the time to use the restroom during the school day, so they get sick. We think of them as machines, not people. Is it no wonder that kids imagine that their teachers sleep under their desks at night instead of going home to their own families?
All of this is to say that I think that we need to begin again with a very basic question: “what is a school?” A school is not a classroom. It is not a teacher or a building, a principal or a district. It is not a state policy or a federal regulation. A school is just an abstract idea that fluctuates based on where we are when we ask the question.
Whatever a school is pushed to be, there are also multiple points of resistance. A federal policy may mandate certain behaviors, but the state can bend it. A district may purchase library books, but a building can make them hard to find. A principal may mandate certain behaviors, but a teacher can make them mean many different things. As my wife is fond of saying, the best thing about being a teacher is that when you close your classroom door, it is just you and your students. The building protects the people literally and figuratively.
With this in mind, and in anticipation of today’s discussion, I would like to propose that we stop thinking about schools as either places or people, but understand them as a process. That instead of thinking of them as things, we think about them as activities, as something that unfolds over time and changes as personnel and procedures nudge them in particular directions. If schools are a process rather than a place, education policy becomes a strategy, not an outcome. And policies are really just philosophies in disguise, so no meaningful change, frankly no meaningful understanding, comes without rethinking our philosophy of education.
If schools are a process, teachers can be properly recognized as the point of contact for students, but not as the designers responsible for the experience. We can stop blaming them for our unpleasant memories and start appreciating them for the profound ways in which they personalized the institution for each of us. What makes a teacher special is that he or she recognizes us as unique individuals. Processes don’t adapt, they just enable. Teachers, on the other hand, anticipate and respond. Politics and administrations determine curriculum and cultivate environments, but teachers imbue our experience with meaning.