This past week has been a heady flight, but I am happy to report that my feathers aren’t ruffled. A few days ago I joined the nascent Badass Teachers Association. Today I left the group. On a personal level it has been the final step in my movement away from direct activism in the progressive education movement. This has been a long journey for me, but I can confidently say that my role as an education reformer is necessarily very different from that of many of my peers.
I have been both supported (mostly) and criticized for leaving the group. Critics told me that I was being premature, that the group is going through necessary growing pains. When I criticized the redundant messaging (preaching and venting) of many members, as well as the snarking, sniping and outright fighting among them, I was met with the justification that teachers have been pent up with rage for so long that they need to get this out. I find this argument weak to the point of being childish. In the group there were times when I couldn’t believe actual adults were saying these things.
Prominent voices (I won’t say leaders because this group was the purest form of anarchy to which I have ever been party) reassured me multiple times that it would eventually all come together. But I found myself scratching my head in puzzlement: aren’t we social animals? Don’t we naturally gravitate toward those individuals who naturally take leadership initiative? But there was no taking of such initiative. The founders of the group, as best I could see, were content to unleash a maelstrom and let it play out, only becoming anxious when it became clear that conflict was accelerating and cohesion diminishing.
I could go on, but it would sound like I’m complaining and I’m really not. In my post yesterday, I identified the problematic role of anger in the group dynamic. I would add that the essential difficulty here is not anger so much as it is the negative state of mind engendered by it. Anger can be either good or bad depending on how one uses it to good or ill effect, or by how much one is controlled by it. Teachers are an interesting lot. I saw the same problems manifesting in the BAT forum that I see in my work as an educator: too many nice, generally passive people who store up anger for too long before explosively letting out. Too many teachers are wounded birds. They entered the profession out of the goodness of their hearts. They give and give and give. And what are they met with in mainstream society? Indifference by many and outright abuse by those who would profit from hijacking their profession. When you care so much about what you do, helping kids develop their lives, this can all be a bit much.
On the other hand, American school teachers can be very weak willed at times. Last summer I posted here on the life of Janusz Korczak, the Polish educator in the Warsaw Ghetto who walked into the gas chamber at Treblinka with all of his Jewish students, even though he had been given numerous opportunities to save himself. And let’s not forget the teachers who gave their lives at Columbine and more recently, Newtown. If we can show that kind of resolve in the face of a drawn gun, why can’t we handle dialogue? Is a genocide or a school shooting easier than the process of listening, thinking, responding, listening again, re-thinking?
The truth of the matter is that teachers have always been the targets of power, for we hold the keys to the door that leads to power. We’re the first to be rounded up in purges and pogroms, the first to be silenced by politicians in less violent times. The public can easily be turned against us, especially by business interests. And our work is generally misunderstood and undervalued. All of these drawbacks to a teaching career should fill us with pride. These impediments should be badges of honor we wear on our hearts every day. Just think, what we do is so critical, of such social importance that the most potent forces in the world want to suppress and harness us!
There have never been such challenges to education as we see today. Certainly our role is daunting, but do we believe in ourselves enough to worry less about what the outside world is throwing at us, and consider more how to strengthen our own hearts? In another recent post, I quoted from an essay by Daisaku Ikeda on the role of teachers. I offer another excerpt from the same regarding the fundamental spirit to which we must hold true:
No matter how callous and indifferent the eyes of the public may be, the gaze of educators must always shine with an unwavering belief in the worth and potential of all students. No matter how fiercely society’s winds may blow, educators must have the compassion to staunchly protect their students and open the path to a bright future for them. When students know that their teachers believe in them and would never abandon them, it can become a source of tremendous courage, enabling them to achieve immeasurable growth (World Tribune, 6/14/2013, 5)
Ultimately, is this not the only thing that really matters?