Education Opinion

Savor the Slump

By John G. Ramsay — April 16, 2003 11 min read
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In a dozen books written over a quarter of a century, Vivian Gussin Paley has labored to unlock the mysterious rhythms of the teaching life. This is how it is, her work tells us. We who teach are buffeted between joys to savor and slumps of frustration. The teacher’s life is a Sisyphean tale. We’re fated to climb to the heights of “real teaching,” then plummet to the depths of inaudible confusion.

This is the profession’s psychic predicament as Ms. Paley experienced it during her 37-year career as a kindergarten teacher, the last 24 years at the University of Chicago’s Lab Schools. Retired since 1995, she continues to craft webs of stories that inform and inspire, and also raise the question: Why does it have to be this way?

Educational policymakers are framing the “business of teaching” initiatives around student test scores and ideas like merit pay—the accountability agenda. Leaders of teachers’ unions focus on the “profession of teaching,” aspirations for more instructional support and the assurance of middle-class wages and benefits—the respect agenda. To the former group, the teaching “slump” is a dereliction of duty. To the latter group, slumps are a taboo topic, a bargaining liability.

We have no precise analytic definition of the teaching slump, let alone a consensus among scholars about how to use the concept for research purposes. And yet it inhabits the inner and public lives of teachers, cutting a wide emotional path between the “bad day” and “burnout.” Slumps have a life cycle. Often they’re the last station before cynicism: the settled conviction that my passion for teaching and yours for learning are beyond repair.

Vivian Paley’s slumps begin, she says, with her perceived failure to establish a working relationship with her students. This serious disconnect raises her anxiety, and propels her inquiry. Even in her first book, White Teacher (1979), we hear her struggling to understand a fragile relationship with a student: "[I]t was intolerable that a black child should fear me.” In You Can’t Say You Can’t Play (1992), her slump assumes a life of its own and envelops the classroom like a bad dream she and her children are experiencing together. She writes: “The classroom seems all tumult and tears this year. My disappointment floats above us like a dark cloud, raining upon one child after another but mostly on me.”

If there is anyone who could credibly distill and summarize the rich variety of Ms. Paley’s work, it would be “Blessed Vivian” herself (as the child psychologist Jerome Bruner has called her). Yet, I’d argue that one piece of the significance of her work is that it presents a serious challenge to both policymakers and union leaders. Ms. Paley has portrayed the rhythms of a teaching life that neither camp wants to face. One reading of her work is this: Embrace the slump, study the slump, even savor the slump, and you may discover which miracles teachers can work—and which are beyond their grasp.

By her own account, Vivian Paley spent the first 13 years of her career as an uninspired and uninspiring teacher. As she told a Chicago Tribune writer, “I wanted to get through the day as quietly and as quickly as possible.” Her conversion experience occurred in Philip Jackson’s graduate course Analysis of Teaching. Professor Jackson, the inventor of the concept of the “hidden curriculum,” had argued in his 1968 book Life in Classrooms that what kids really learn in school are the subliminal lessons about institutional norms and societal expectations.

How Ms. Paley became the first Jewish patron saint of schoolteachers is not entirely clear. But there is no question that she is admired for her bravery and tenacity in taking on tough issues: racism, meanness, insiders and outsiders in play groups, and more. She works with the assumption that she herself is part of the hidden curriculum, and therefore part of the problem. She places herself at the center of a critically examined classroom through the use of a tape recorder.

In her 1986 essay “On Listening to What Children Say,” she explains that these recordings jarred her somnolent curiosity about the idle chatter of the school day. What had seemed like the passing comments of kids became transformed, she writes, into “the sounds of children thinking,” when played back and transcribed. She pursued the question of why “participation zoomed” whenever discussion veered in the direction of fantasy, fairness, or friendship—"the three F’s.”

It was no longer possible to tiptoe through the motions of teaching, once she had established her regimen of rising at 4:30 a.m. to transcribe and ponder the previous day’s tape recording of her life with her students. “With its unrelenting fidelity,” she says, the tape recorder “captured the unheard or unfinished murmur, the misunderstood and mystifying context, the disembodied voices asking for clarification and comfort.” And she adds: “It also captured the impatience in my voice as children struggled for attention, approval, and justice.”

The recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” fellowship in 1989, Ms. Paley now travels the world sharing her insights and holding residencies in schools, where she can trawl for a few more good stories. A part of her mind is in continuous conversation with itself about the implied titles of stories and the children who tell them. She writes: “Meanwhile, the stories accumulate and with them my secret titles for their authors. Frank is the boy who slays dragons and Helen is the girl who saves kittens from pouncing mountain lions and Jilly must always be a spotted deer.” Among her book titles are: The Boy Who Would Be a Helicopter (1990) and The Girl with the Brown Crayon (1997).

Of herself she writes modestly: “Not until my 40s did I begin to color in the outline, surprising myself by deciding I was a schoolteacher who writes books.” But her talent extends far beyond her writing career. She rediscovers within herself, and reminds her readers of, the appetites for teaching we all felt when we were just out of college: “Each year I want to be reawakened by ... a something to ponder deeply and expand upon extravagantly.” She reminds us to savor the small joys of teaching, what she calls “the spontaneous theater of the young.”

She reminds us to savor the small joys of teaching, what she calls 'the spontaneous theater of the young.'

Vivian Paley’s classroom would probably make a high-stakes tester’s list of suspect kindergartens today. She was true to the Lab Schools’ Deweyan roots, and as the accountability movement accelerates, it may be that Ms. Paley’s books will become the last best sources of what progressive education looked and sounded like when crafted by a master teacher. She and her students set their own rhythm of play, storytelling, story acting, reflective deliberations, and conflict resolution—all feeding and being fed by each other.

“I need the intense preoccupation of a group of children and teachers inventing new worlds as they learn to know each other’s dreams. To invent is to come alive. Even more than the unexamined classroom, I resist the uninvented classroom.” (The Girl with the Brown Crayon).

And, most importantly, the rhythm had a purpose. Her rituals aimed to explore the strengths and limitations of a progressive vision of public life. Ms. Paley never made the mistake of thinking of kindergarten as a grade in a system of grades. She assumed that her kindergarten initiated the young into the problems of how to live in that smallest of tight spaces: the world between one’s urgent desires and the needs, spoken and silent, of those who seem to be strangers.

Her books have inspired those who are still stubborn enough to believe that schools are a form of civic life. And heartened those romantic enough to think that teachers have a contribution to make to a more intelligent, compassionate, and just public story than this nation has written thus far.

Her most enduring contribution to the teaching profession, however, may be the one that was hardest earned. It is the idea that teachers can think their own way out of slumps, if given the time, resources, and perhaps a “slump coach,” like Vivian Paley. Her work provides the raw materials for a potentially powerful model of professional growth and renewal. Here are some of its lessons.

In Kwanzaa and Me: A Teacher’s Story (1995), Ms. Paley pursues the daunting question: What if my integrated and privileged school is racist—is the wrong school for African-American children? She was part of a panel discussion in which an African-American sociologist had condemned the very concept of racially integrated schools: “I don’t want my baby spending all of her time trying to figure out what a white teacher wants her to be.”

This is a difficult issue for Ms. Paley, arriving at the end of her career and calling into question her long-held assumptions about the role integrated schools play in creating a racially harmonious society. What she discovers is that she has lost touch with and “underestimated the changes taking place in the black community.” This slump, then, is about something different, and more fundamental than crossed wires with the kids. Her social vision has been called into doubt.

Is this Ms. Paley's paradox of teaching: To savor the invented classroom is to invite slumps brought about by change, complexity, and conflict from outside of those classroom walls?

How she works her way into these misgivings is instructive. She sets up listening posts with African-American graduates, teachers, and parents, and places her assumptions in the path of answers she does not want to hear. Her prized alumna tells Ms. Paley that her lack of curiosity explains why she knew so little about the African-American celebration of Kwanzaa. The father of one of her boys tells her that they “are still pretty ambivalent” about her school because of the “subtle intellectual racism” that black boys, in particular, have to contend with.

When Ms. Paley tries to defend the integrated school by asserting, “The classroom is the first place where racism can be fought,” a colleague quickly defends the premise of African-American schools. “Here is something you need to know Vivian,” she says. “For so long there has been this sense that anything black couldn’t be good. Now we are saying: We can have something all black that can really be good.”

It would be useful to understand what else Vivian Paley knows about how teachers lose touch with the people and perspectives that might keep slumps at bay. Or are slumps a necessary part of the rhythm of the teaching trade? Did her relentless devotion to “listening to what children say” foster an obtuseness to the voices of adults she needed to hear? Is this Ms. Paley’s paradox of teaching: To savor the invented classroom is to invite slumps brought about by change, complexity, and conflict from outside of those classroom walls?

Now that she is retired, Ms. Paley has more opportunities to probe the slumps of other teachers, and of entire schools of teachers. She is a quick study, and after a few hours of observation and astute listening, she is able to identify an unnamed problem or locate a misplaced resource. Stories about teaching slumps, it turns out, share a common element with the stories kids tell: Someone is lost and wants to be rescued.

In The Kindness of Children (1999), we meet Rosalyn, a kindergarten teacher in Chicago’s public schools. She calls Ms. Paley seeking counsel. She’s in a deep slump, trapped in her own anger and frustration about five of her boys who are continually fighting one another, verbally and physically. She makes what Ms. Paley calls a “troubled confession": She’s thinking about quitting.

Paley's books may become the last, best sources of what progressive education looked like when crafted by a master teacher.

Ms. Paley goes to work. The dynamic among the five fighters seems irreversible. On the face of it, classroom-management experts would call for a swift intervention, possibly the dispersal of two or three of the troublemakers to different classes or schools. But as Ms. Paley illustrates, the difference between assuming incorrigibility and assuming pliability is a choice. Teachers in slumps need to choose the moral suasion of stories and their own ethical power as storytellers and listeners—however counterintuitive such a choice may seem. She writes:

“In the telling and recreating of the stories, there is a sense of the openhandedness of other children; the loneliness and isolation inherent in the schoolhouse is often relieved only by their curiosity and spontaneity. They are not always kind, as we know. They are, however, on the edge of kindness, ready and waiting for an opening.”

The “edge of kindness”? It sounds too good to be true, a Shangri-La that only a teacher from a private lab school could believe in. How does a slump coach get a teacher on the brink of resigning to believe that it really exists? Where to find that edge, when blinded by fury, sunk in exasperation?

Ms. Paley begins by telling the distressed Rosalyn her “Teddy story.” It is a galvanizing tale about a school boy in London whose classmates step off the edge of kindness to help him negotiate his wheelchair and participate in their stories. It is a story that exudes kindness and then gathers more each time it is told.

Rosalyn’s reaction is immediate. “It happened last week,” she says, “and I was so happy for a moment. Then I let myself forget it and sink into the gloom again.” Rosalyn’s story is about two of her five fighters—but this time it is about their best selves in action. One of the boys, Albert, is in big trouble with the teacher. They’ve caused a ruckus on the way to gym class, and she is furious with them. Albert cannot figure out how to answer her question about how he will behave differently—more quietly—in the future.

The teacher has blocked Albert’s entry to gym until he answers her question, but he is saved by Damone, a smaller boy he has frequently bullied. He is ready to explode when Damone places his finger on Albert’s lips and says: “Hey, man, my brother, watch me, sh-sh-sh, do what I’m showing you. Albert, my man, come on, you can do it, sh-sh-sh, do what I’m showing you, watch me, sh-sh-sh.” And Albert watches, learns, and saves himself—and his teacher.

This is what might be called Vivian Paley’s mitzvah cure. She uses kindness stories as counterweights to the unbearable slumps of teaching. This may seem a frail source of hope to all of the Rosalyns caught between the two dominant models of their profession’s future. But it is just one of many strategies she has used—good deeds she has done—to bring the teaching profession back in touch with itself: its craft, our children, and the calling to build a better world.


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