School Climate & Safety Opinion

Lessons of Citizen Teachers

By Harry C. Boyte — October 18, 2016 3 min read
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Harry Boyte continues his conversation with Deborah Meier. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Deb and colleagues,

I’m struck by how powerless people feel in this election—and how much powerlessness breeds irresponsibility, a purist sense that “we’re not part of the mess.” So people also look to saviors to fix things—Trump is a very dangerous example, and Hillary is not at all dangerous, in my view. But voters also clearly want her to be a radical change agent she’s not.

I see her limits—her conventionality as a politician, constantly calculating and compromising—as positives. She brings to mind the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who said a big division in society is between those who want to be pure and those who accept responsibility for our common fate. Looking to someone to save us allows us to be pure. If Hillary Clinton is in office, we will have to claim responsibility if we want to see real change.

Educators are usually better at describing the world than at cultivating skills of action to change the world so we need transformation in both pedagogy and content to emphasize skills of civic agency. I agree with you that democracy “assumes locations where we are citizens,” communities which we co-create, and schools are crucial sites.

Over the years in Public Achievement, the youth civic empowerment initiative we launched in 1990, I’ve come to understand that teachers, as well as students, need to be “citizen teachers,” co-creators of schools, who develop skills of making change. They also rarely have this identity, along with practices and habits that develop their agency.

What does citizen teacher look like? A piece you wrote, “What’s Democracy Got to Do With Teaching?” is full of insights, describing lessons you’ve learned about connections between teaching and democracy. Let me start with some of your reflections on teaching. You also have other important lessons about learning to act powerfully in schools and systems.

“What I liked best was helping kids enjoy their ideas and develop well-earned convictions,” you say. Students learned to sort through evidence, what became your “habit of evidence” whose importance can’t be overstated in a world of “post truth” politics (Marie, my wife, and I went to the movie “Denial” on Saturday about the Holocaust denier David Irving, who took the historian Rachel Lipstadt to court in England. The movie showed the court system in its best light, establishing the empirical basis of the Holocaust. Irving had eerie and disturbing resemblance to Donald Trump).

You say, “At its best, learning involves a triangle with the student, the teacher, and the subject of inquiry joined together in a common investigation. I loved such one-on-one discourse with budding five year old intellectuals ‘at play’ in a world we both inhabit.”

Relations with adults as well as children are part of being a citizen teacher. You describe a balance between “private” (or semi-private) dimensions of teaching and the work of making teaching public. “I knew I needed to close the classroom door for my own protection. Open the doors by force and new walls will appear under new guises, as the inventors of wall-less schools discovered.”

You make the great point that “resistance to imposed novelty is an important part of the humanity of students and not to be dismissed as ‘naughty.’” This is a lesson that progressives generally have not well learned.

Though they aren’t best developed through coercion you also stress public relationships. “Isolation from each other as teachers or as parents made us less competent and less trust-worthy.” You describe how much you appreciated collegial exchanges with other educators. “In the beginning [of your career] this mostly occurred through the literature of working teachers” like John Holt, Herb Kohl, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Jay Featherstone and others.

You also highlighted the necessity—and difficulty—of building relationships with parents: “The stance of collegiality was harder but just as necessary in our relationship to parents. To assume that parents were my equals, involved in a more central but different aspect of child-rearing, was a struggle even for me who was in the midst of living both roles.”

So you reminded yourself “how unnerving I found my role as a parent when I had any disagreement with my own children’s teachers—the uncomfortable status tension involved in our relationship. What must it be like, I thought, to be a far more powerless parent?”

At Augsburg we’ve been talking about what teacher education for a democratic society involves. Do you know any teacher education department which stresses building public relationships with others including parents? If so, how do they do it?


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