A Teacher's Reality Check
On the distance between the ivory tower and the trenches.
There is a common complaint among student-teachers that what they learn in university methods courses does not prepare them for the "real" world of the classroom. The line is characterized as between theory and practice, and students draw it between their education professors and their classroom cooperating teachers. It is the divide between the ivory tower and the trenches, the educational front lines.
As a clinical supervisor, I observed student-teachers taken under the wings of cooperating teachers who inculcated them into the "real world," a world critiqued regularly in the seminars. While student-teachers were clearly disturbed by the dissonance between the classroom and the university seminar, the tension was never addressed directly. This divide persists in education, and, as a result, theories and research findings seldom reach the classroom; and classroom practice and experience seldom inform university rhetoric. This is the chasm that prevents true school reform from happening—reform that is grounded in theory and informed by practice.
I taught high school English for seven years, and loved it. I entered graduate school with a desire to learn why things were the way they were, and how they could be. The classroom would be my text, and surely the point was to reconstruct education. I knew changes were needed, but I had become tired of the platitudinous rhetoric of government-mandated school reform, justifiably greeted by veteran classroom teachers as another swing of the pendulum—been there, done that. Always cosmetic changes, always panaceas, no rationale other than the incantations of what will be and what will be measured.
For classroom teachers, school reform, restructuring, redesign—whatever the particular buzzword—is still disseminated in PowerPoint presentations from administrators. But after the meetings, nothing changes in the classroom, when the door is closed on "constructivist" and "transmission mode" practices alike. Education professors note each cycle of reform prescriptions, but their discourses on the lessons of research and theory seldom echo down from the tower loudly enough to penetrate the din of thousands of teenagers changing classes, every hour on the hour.
After five years in graduate school and with a dissertation in progress, I returned to the high school English classroom, eager to do well by my students and armed with a language to describe what should happen there. But for the first six months I was in deep distress. For all the grand ideas, what I was doing wasn't working. For some students, yes, and sometimes for many. But often for most, no.
It wasn't just the disconnect between theory and practice, nor was it simply the dichotomy between what I knew about best practices and the quotidian reality of the classroom. I knew this wasn't how it should be, or could be. That I was unprepared for the rudeness and resistance of students in my classes wasn't the whole story, either: I knew why they resisted schooling, but I didn't want them to do it in my classroom. And it wasn't just that, in my first few weeks back, I knew viscerally that schooling in this factory atmosphere that produced drilled and disengaged young people was no way to educate students. It wasn't even the suffocating and pervasive ethos that students have learned so well and deeply through the years: that education is irrelevant except for the good grades that get you the good job.
It wasn't any one of these things. It was all of them, lurking menacingly behind my daily lesson plans, screaming behind my failure, fueling my anger and frustration, disorienting me into confusion, wounding me terribly.
One day, I bumped into my adviser in the college of education, a surreal place for me by then. I told him it was hard, that it wasn't the curriculum or the pedagogy, but it was the thing itself. He suggested that I read an article by Larry Cuban, written when he taught a high school social studies class after 16 years as a professor of education at Stanford University. Though Mr. Cuban had only one class, with 17 students, he expressed in the article the unexpected challenge of teaching and its all- consuming, emotionally demanding nature. This was a whisper to affirm my distress, a light touch as, bereft of helping hands, I raged and searched alone. I tried to process the experience, but I could only chronicle my confusion. And I thought about my future. I wanted to work in a teacher education program when I finished my Ph.D., but how could I work with student- teachers again? How could I encourage them to do their best, to be inspired, to love what they do, when I would have to admit that I didn't like it, that it didn't work, that it's a mockery and the students as well as we ourselves know it.
Then something happened. One morning, just before the first period, I suddenly felt different. It was as if something had shifted and aligned itself, and I had suddenly found my feet. The distress went away. In my classes, I was absorbed in what I was doing, I could roll with the punches. I could see the imperfections without their being an indictment of all I was trying to do. I was no longer angry and ashamed. I hadn't failed. I was doing the best I could.
Relinquishing the university lens through which I had been trying to teach and becoming grounded in the classroom was liberating. But that liberation came with a price. After six months of hell, I had become sane again, but I had also lost the critical distance I brought with me from my graduate studies. Critical distance. The phrase kept echoing in my head in the days that followed my release. How could one teach from that distance? The relief was in not trying to. That critical distance put me on the warring border, messed with my head and my heart. Now I am a teacher again. I am necessarily submerged in the myopic world of daily advocacy, overwhelmed by student needs, and accepting my inevitable inadequacy.
Now, as teacher, I deal with what is, doing the best I can without blaming myself for the burden of agonizing systemic contradictions. Being in the classroom and seeing from the critical distance of academic theory was like trying to walk with binoculars to my eyes. Yet, how can I still see clearly enough to keep the vision of how things should be, while living in the daily reality?
I am still working on that. I want to find the intersection of theory and practice, a place where I can keep my theorizing honest and my practice effective. But during my re-entry dilemma, I found myself in a space that hasn't been adequately scrutinized: the space between how the classroom really is and how it could be—the heart of the matter. I know that this is not just my dilemma; other graduate students back in the classroom feel this same anguish of disconnect. And neither is it just our dilemma; it is education's.
We need a critical exploration of this paradox. But that is something that's not happening—in the schools on professional-development days, or in education classes at the university, either. I can envision discussions among professors, education researchers, and classroom teachers, meeting as equals. Professors who escaped the classroom years ago, who dismiss the mention of classroom management as though it were an authoritarian defect, could benefit a lot from teaching in a public school classroom, from examining theory in practice. And teachers who disparage academic rhetoric could benefit just as much from seeing the classroom in context, trying on theoretical lenses, and naming their practice.
The "critical distance" must be made familiar, habitable, or it will remain an alienating chasm. Out of such discussions could come ideas that challenge the intractable status quo in schooling, making real reform possible.
Anne Fairbrother, a high school teacher in Albuquerque, N.M., is also a doctoral candidate at the University of New Mexico in that city.
Vol. 23, Issue 13, Page 27Published in Print: November 26, 2003, as A Teacher's Reality Check