Teaching Profession Opinion

The Constructive Work of Teaching and Learning

By Deborah Meier — November 29, 2016 4 min read
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Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Harry Boyte. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Harry and friends,

Yes, democracy is not just voting—deciding who has the power to do what. Yes, it’s not just protest. The “this is what democracy looks like” chant at many protests is far from true. Yes, both may stem from a sense of self-agency: “I make difference” and “I make choices.” Even if I’m just one vote, just one protester, one member of my class. .

I like your distinction between organizing and mobilizing. But treasuring mobilization as an act of democracy does not diminish the organizing part, or the everyday acts we engage in—or don’t.

Organizing at its best comes before and remains after “the event"; it’s about our common WORK, as you call it. Not all the teachers at Mission Hill may have been friends, but what kept us together was our dedication to a shared piece of work—the endless time we spent together listening to and responding to each other to make the school a more effective setting for children’s empowerment—the knowledge, the wisdom, and the habits of heart and mind we hoped we were together strengthening. In ourselves and our students and their families. It was as teachers of the kids we shared that we grew to care about each other.

We are born with the strength to act—as well as to think. The capacity is there from the start, and it is through action and thought that babies learn the world they live in. We are born theorists and activists. It seems so “miraculous” in those early years that we tend to imagine it’s pre-programmed rather than the willed act of a human being. We may be innately a speaking animal, but what we speak is learned, neither simply copied nor innate. It’s our brains putting the world into order.

It requires human agency then as it does now.

But we are sometimes more easily discouraged as we grow older, doubtful of our strength and our will. (Could we cry without stop for hours to get our way, as my son Roger did when I read the new Spock and followed his advice?) We’re more easily cowed by experts (like Spock) perhaps? More easily led to believe that this is just the way it is. How often do we as teachers imply that “It’s the rule”? No wonder we are often so angry at the student who ignores the rules and gets away with it—or tries to. Part of our annoyance is envy at a freedom we think we have lost.

The way teachers’ unions are organized strengthened their collective power, but they didn’t do what they could have done in terms of the power and time that working teachers need to do their best work. When we have to fight for ourselves we often become mad. At the union.

If teachers thought of the school as belonging to “us,” if it helped build relationships between each other that rested on knowing that we would back each other up, we wouldn’t depend on the union’s permission. So many lacked prior experience and didn’t imagine that they could fall back on their colleagues when scared or angry.

This was more true for elementary school teachers, often women facing a male authority. Yet, when finally roused, these women could be fierce defenders.

Schools are not designed to break down such bad habits, but to strengthen them. It was to change this, first and foremost, that I vowed not to be intimidated. If I intimidated anyone, it should be someone more powerful than ourselves. Starting CPE in 1974 was not my act, but “our” act. I was a fulltime teacher. We decided everything together including delegating tasks. We came to this with our past experiences and often fell into allowing me more say-so than others wanted me to have. I had to stop calling CPE “my school” but ours. My classroom was “ours” as well. All of us had to get used to this strange arrangement. It changed not only our relationships to each other though, but how students and families related to us.

The kids started calling us by our first names. They hadn’t known the first names of other teachers who had referred to their colleagues by last names also. But sometimes they allowed themselves to be bullied by colleagues. Changing habits takes time and lots of reinforcing experiences.

None of this denies the importance or casting your ballot. Democracies have elections to avoid worse ways of deciding things. That goes for schools as well. It’s why we sat around a big table or circle so that when it came time to vote no one could hide unseen, buried in another task in the second row, etc. At Mission Hill we adopted a system of consensus that required everyone’s participation as well as everyone’s willingness to compromise. Such meetings were more important than any other time of the week—better to make a dentist appointment during teaching hours than during meeting hours. Responsibility comes more easily when one has had a part in the decision-making.

So too in our society at-large. It’s why voting should take place on weekends, over more than one day as well as by mail. There should be no good excuse for failing to speak up. It would be nice if we had plenty of opportunities to hear each others views, argued, civilly tried to persuade and brought to our gatherings “evidence” to share that backed up our positions. In a strong democracy that’s part of what voting means. In most large schools voting is probably farce, as it often is on November 8th. But it doesn’t have to be.

Yes, Harry, organizing the American publics, not just civics courses about government, but experiencing democracy in its many forms. This must include the culture of the school every child spends so many of hours of their impressionable youth.


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