Budget & Finance Opinion

Where Can Teachers Find Collegiality Today?

By Deborah Meier — December 02, 2010 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

Sometimes the outrages of our wealthy fellow citizens stagger me, and I feel incoherent in face of the offenses they commit on a daily basis. It hurts most of all when I see decent people caught in the web—as victims or even winners. The events in New York City are shameful. Enjoy the fact that Bill Gates sees you as the worst of his adversaries. Still, we’ve got to stop agreeing so much!

It’s a relief these days to shift from contemplating the ugly takeover of our public institutions by private wealth—at a time when these very same people have undermined the economy of the nation itself—to talk about what fascinated me for 45 years. It was not the politics of schooling.

A new book by Ryan Teves that just arrived in my mailbox is worth reading. Teves is a math and science secondary school teacher who now runs a tutoring service in Scott Valley, Calif. It’s called In Defense of the American Teen and was published by “authorhouse.com.” He tells the same story Ted Sizer told 30 years ago in his Horace trilogy, about the “inefficiency” (at best) of our high schools. It’s told as seen through the eyes and ears of an alert and sensitive teacher witnessing young people’s wasted teen years.

Teves and I part company in the final two chapters on promising developments. He sees hope where you and I see danger. But this fact gives me hope, not the opposite! I realize that some of the supporters of charters and opponents of tenure are smart and caring people who can’t be accused of having a different agenda. We need to converse more, not less, because our own particular personal experiences have a lot to do with how we arrive at opposite conclusions! I thought Ross Douthat’s recent New York Times’ column, “The Partisan Mind,” made a good point that needs repeating: our partisan mindset sometimes blinds us. While some of our opponents have an agenda that I do not share—and even abhor—others are on our wave length, and we may find a meeting point if we keep pushing them and ourselves.

But Diane, I’m sick of it all. I think back to what excited me about teaching in K-12 schools. What are the Teach for America types excited about these days? What book? What idea? The first book I read that got me thinking that teaching might be a lifetime endeavor was John Holt’s first—How Children Fail (1964)—just when I began my own adventures as a parent and teacher. It was an eye-opening account of a colleague’s classroom in a good progressive private school. Like Teves, it led Holt to becoming an advocate of home-schooling. I regretted that, but I followed his work and learned a lot from the magazine he sponsored, Growing Without Schooling. At the same time I became a regular at Lillian Weber’s Workshop Center at City College of New York, which put out monthly “Notes” mostly written by working teachers. In 1974, the North Dakota Study Group under the leadership of Vito Perrone began publishing occasional essays that teachers could get their teeth into. Plus a plethora of others, like Pat Carini in North Bennington, Herb and Ann Cook’s Resource Center in Manhattan, and the exciting science and math work done in Boston by the Education Development Center, especially the Elementary Science Study under David Hawkins and then Philip Morrison that led us also to some of the classics of earlier times and places. These constituted the heart of my professional development in the early “open classroom” communities that came into being during those years. A network of networks of teachers who were challenged to get to the bottom of “it,” and discovered “it” had no bottom. It was endlessly fascinating—to adults and kids.

Where can teachers find such collegiality today? Where are the institutions or publications that are built around deep respect for the intelligence and inventiveness of teachers—and kids? Are they there, but I’m missing them? The teachers I run into seem instead overwhelmed with study groups and programs driven by contextually empty data. Garbage in, garbage out.

The foundations that supported these efforts got impatient and are on to other things. They are chasing rainbows looking for the pot of gold, which they will never find until they study the rainbow itself more closely. All those little drops of rain producing a miracle to the human mind cannot be only for the purpose of finding financial rewards.

It’s why when I started Mission Hill in Boston we began not with an Outward Bound ropes course, but with a course run by Eleanor Duckworth of Harvard (read The Having of Wonderful Ideas) with 10 parents, 10 Harvard students, and our original 10 staff members. It exposed us all to the risks involved in sharing our ignorance with others and the intellectual power of struggling together over matters we never had thought about before! It took me back to 1975 when an 8-year-old at the newly founded Central Park East School said aloud, “You mean it, don’t you? You want us to tell you what we don’t know, not show off what we do know.” I remember the thrill of that moment for both Wayne and me.

Will teachers still find such thrilling moments today? Probably even Bill Gates once did, before he thought he knew it all.


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