By Monica Washington
Recently I asked my AP English Language students to write an argumentative essay about individuality and conformity in U.S. schools. They’re teenagers, so I expected some pushback about school, but I wasn’t at all prepared for the number of compositions focused on oppressive school culture. One student, Anna, wrote, “Public schools are no more than glorified prisons with pretty decorations in place of barbed wire. The tension created by overbearing and outrageous regulations, curriculum and conformity pull on students until they have been stripped of all individuality and feel nothing but exhaustion.”
Her scathing account of public school haunted me. I expected that Anna would find school freeing, even enlightening. And I wondered: How is it that a well-rounded, popular and academically strong student equates school with prison? Is this just hyperbole?
Looking for answers, I shared Anna’s words with some colleagues, but I got no love there either.
“Are you sure she is speaking about students and not teachers?” one asked.
“Wow. This is exactly how I feel as a teacher,” another told me.
Then this one: “I thought only teachers felt that heaviness.”
It’s one of the ironies of our profession, I suppose. Educators continually find themselves confronted with mounting contradictions, particularly if they teach in oppressive school cultures. For example,
we are often told that we are “valued professionals” who “change the lives of our students every day.” But we are also micromanaged to immobility, not trusted to make the simplest decisions that affect students’ learning and well-being. When students have to work in classrooms in silence because the teacher knows that the loud and messy learning is often seen as ill-managed instruction, the walls close in. That is the box in which many teachers teach and students frequently are expected to excel.
Here’s another irony that plagues us. Choose any school’s mission statement randomly, and it is likely to contain some language about valuing diversity. Yet, students often report that they do not feel their individuality is respected. They point to recent news reports of students who are suspended for having unconventional hairstyles and untraditional hair colors. When school officials require teachers to regulate every element of student diversity, students are bound to feel a disdain toward school.
The real irony is that what is said to support teachers is often belied by administrators and policymakers who are unable to walk their talk. On their lips, the word “professional” often feels not only empty, but like a word laced in condescension and mistrust. The differences between what we tell teachers and students we value and what we show them we value in fact squashes individuality and extinguishes the love of learning.
Education is a hard business, but in some places—schools not based on fear that teachers will mess up or students will stand out—school is a beautiful place. The leaders in those schools get it right by maintaining open communication with teachers to find out what students really need. They get it right by understanding that great learning can be messy. They get it right by listening to students and teachers about what is working and what is not working.
Monica Washington is the 2014 Texas Teacher of the Year. She teaches English in Texarkana Texas.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Pixabay
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