Teachers Act Up!

Thoughts on Teaching, Language, and Social Change from Melisa "Misha" Cahnmann-Taylor

Public schools and academics in education

Fire and ice;

oil and water;

match and flame?

When academics in education (re) enter public schools, do we set ourselves up for explosion? Can explosions ever be good? I remember when I was in graduate school and learned that one of the faculty had had a major conflict with a public school, never to return again.  Ha, ha! my  younger mind went. I was closer to public school teaching life–I would always connect to the real, nitty gritty, I thought.  I thought wrong.

When you don’t have to wake up everyday in the dark and drive in the dark to a public school and prepare for an enormous variety of challenges every minute of your day that include adults and students,  concrete and abstract policy, individuals and institutions, then you can’t possible keep it real as an academic.  Our lives and expectations are fundamentally different. We academics get up everyday  at varying times, make coffee, and often have as our task of the day to write, to think, to learn, to think again.  It seems privileged and it is–that is not to diminish the hard work we do  as well as acknowledge some of the less glamorous aspects including meetings, policies, advising, meetings, did I say meetings?

But we academics are not accountable to the public in the same daily, rigorous manner that teachers and principals and district folks are.  Academics, for instance, can think about an assessment for days, months, analyze its biases, make recommendations.  But the district and principal must insist on the tests and the teacher must give them (substitute test for lesson plans, discipline, etc). While I adhere to what Boal says about the “cops in our heads” vs actual threats, I also believe there are actual sanctions when one doesn’t adhere to what one is supposed to do.  Academics are often rewarded for novelty and risk-taking; public school professionals are often reprimanded at best.

Does this mean academics and public school faculty and staff must remain separate, leave one another in peace and amuse one another only when necessary? No.  While it may be the convenient road it is not the most rewarding.  It’s clear that academics in education need collaborations and engagement in public school.  We need to ground ourselves in what is real.  We need to feel the thrill of a child’s lightbulb and the dim grief of giving a standardized test to a child who is below “grade level” and watch their/our spirits crushed.

This works the other way too.  Those in the ‘real’ world need academics to question what is reality, to borrow from the time they have to dream in theory and put it to good use in practice.  We need to be inspired by what is possible while grounding ourselves in the day to day realities of public school life.

I am lucky.  I have been invited to the public school table again this year. Based on mistakes from last year, I wasn’t sure I would be.  Many times there isn’t time to have the conversations I want to have happen; many times my dreams and questions meet with deaf [and BUSY] ears.  But I learned at a meeting recently that some magic happened over the summer break from one another, that we’re attentive in new ways now to the demands, the possibilities, the hopes and realities.  May I be lucky enough and patient enough, humble enough and observant enough to remain in the conversation, to keep dreaming with feet on the ground.


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