As I continue to write stories about my professional world over the last 44 years, I want to understand the theories that emerge about the world I describe. In other words, what is really going on in schools? What generalizations can we make about learning? Poverty? Race? Social Hierarchy? Pedantic doctors? I used to suspect the things we see and are directed to see by our culture are a simply a socially induced veneer over our glasses, the proverbial filter that covers our perceptions. Telling my students about this though always seemed to draw yawns.
In fact, few “on the ground”really want to talk about such theories. When I was a Professor or Education teaching aspiring teachers or administrators, they told me that they hated theory. “We need practical help, not some weird theoretical ideas from some professor,” they might have said. Actually, some did say this.
Yet, this complaint was nothing new. I heard it long before I joined the university faculty back when I was teaching 8th graders. Those gangly kids possessed no end of disdain for ambiguity when I tried to teach them about American History. They demanded concrete and practical lessons. So I devised a manipulative strategy that hoisted them on their own petard(s) so to speak. As with all 8th graders, they hated to have anyone tell them what to do. In response I always tried to capitalize on this trait with a simple sell-job.
“The government will take over your life and take away all your freedom unless you know how to control it and get the best from it,” I told them.
“They will draft you into some war you disagree with, they will tax your money for all kinds of stupid projects and they will tell you where you can go and can’t go, and what you have to do and are not allowed to do.”
Positing the curriculum as a secret path for early adolescent freedom fighters always helped motivate those students to read the material and get involved with the class. And it was not a huge leap to transfer the same, or nearly the same strategy to the graduate students later in my career.
“So you don’t want to waste time on theory?” I asked baiting the trap.
“That’s right!” they would cry. “We need to know what to do on the job! We want practical skills, not some ambiguous, theoretical ideas! The new state standards even stipulate that Leadership Preparation Programs need to make us future principals and vice principals ‘Job Ready.’”
“Then you might want to understand,” I replied blithely, “ that you are now being controlled by the theories you don’t see. In fact you are slaves, pawns to the state and culturally constructed ideas about who you are and what you are doing every day. In fact you are merely functionaries in a great machine that is invisible to you.” (cue Pink Floyd’s anthem, “Another Brick in the Wall”).
I then followed this up with an assignment I called “J’accuse!” (and took the opportunity to mention Zola as a freebie, outside the reach of the program). I accused them of being simply unthinking followers, cogs in the machine, functionaries who didn’t need to think or use judgment because the hidden theories that actually controlled them had already taught them how to act in school. They were going to be just like the principal they disdained so much!!
This kind of provocation was my favorite kind of assignment. Many were insulted at first. Others already knew that something was amiss at school when they were ordered to provide scripted curriculum at a pre-determined pace to students who didn’t or couldn’t engage. When the graduate students turned in their assignments, they always contained a fair number of confessions, realizations that they were indeed, simply functionaries, just another brick in the wall. The course could then be re-constructed in a way that incorporated the students’ own challenges and issues within the framework of the content.
I’ve been collecting examples of this kind of jolting dissonance: examples of acceptance of the veneer of the culturally transmitted definition of schools, teachers and leaders turned upside down in ways that create a fuller understanding. And sometimes, I would find my own misconceptions about students were slammed against the schoolhouse wall as well. For example the middle-aged and slightly chubby math teacher from a rural school turned out to be a brilliant and insightful teacher, a radical thinker whose students learned in highly unusual ways. The quiet pre-school teacher morphed into a dominant, forceful class leader who out-read and out-thought the entire class; and was of course being courted by recruiters to sell pharmaceuticals. Exploring theory worked for all of us, students and professor alike.
But there is one example of jolting dissonance I’ll write about today, on my 67th birthday that is the most meaningful to me. I was 32 and a school principal, happily married to my lovely wife with two beautiful sons when I got the call from my mother. She mumbled and stammered on the phone and I could barely understand her. Her doctor then took the phone. He let me know she was in University of California, San Francisco hospital and I should come immediately. I called my wife and took off from work for the 4 hour drive into the big city. When I got to my mother’s bedside, I learned that she had just had a brain scan and had a significant tumor. The doctor explained that specialists would meet to make a specific diagnosis but this was a very serious situation. He told me she had been typing on her typewriter and only strings of letters came out, no real words. She had driven to his office and he got her in an ambulance to UCSF. I cried with my mother and waited at her bedside, holding her hand until the specialist arrived.
In the context of his role as a Medical School Professor, he arrived with a team of residents and announced, “This is a very interesting case. Here is a schoolteacher with a brain tumor. The tumor has swollen the brain so that she can’t speak. Are you a relative?” he asked me.
“Yes,” I said with trepidation, “I’m her son.”
“Fine,” said the doctor. “What kind of teacher is she?”
“She teaches English and History in a high school,” I replied.
“Good,” he replied. “Now, Mrs. Rich, as a History teacher, perhaps you could recite the Gettysburg Address for us.”
My mother held up her hand and tried to speak but only garble came out.
“What a fine example of the effects of this tumor, “ the doctor said.“You see, doctors, this teacher is unable to recite what must be one of her standard assignments due to the effects of the brain tumor.”
With that, he guided the other residents out the door and left my mother and me stunned, tearful and very angry.
An hour later the Dilantin prescribed to my mother kicked in and the swelling in her brain dramatically reduced. As her speech returned she looked at me and struggled to talk. This was the woman who was top in her class and recommended for doctoral programs in History by faculty at the University of California; but also advised not to waste her time since no university History faculty would accept a woman, no matter how committed or talented or productive. Barbara Tuchman would not have made it so how could she expect to be accepted? Still, words were my mother’s medium of love and tools for battle. When her speech returned she gave the following order,
“You go find that pompous son of a bitch and tell him I would never have been so didactic and unimaginative to give such a narrow and stupid assignment like reciting the Gettysburg Address to my students, who are much more open minded and most certainly brighter than he in his high status ignorance could ever hope to become. And then bring me a bottle of Scotch.”
“Yes mother,” I said, now a most obedient son.
I searched the halls of the hospital, asking for this doctor and hoping his gaggle of sycophants would be with him. I was now not stunned and not crying. I was a young man who often confronted bikers and drug dealers, child abusers, and drunks as a school principal in a public school deep in the heart of poverty territory of rural northern California. This piss ant of a doctor did not impress me.
As luck would have it, I found him in another patient’s room conducting a similar series of insults in the name of instruction. When he and the residents came out of the room, I stepped in front of him and said, “Excuse me. “ I have a message for you from my mother, Mrs. Rich.”
“Yes?” he acknowledged me.
“My mother has asked me to tell you that you are a pompous, stupid son of a bitch and that in her teaching she would never have been so narrow, unimaginative or pedantic as to assign the memorization of the Gettysburg Address to her students who are, to the last one, brighter and more open minded than you, in your high status ignorance could ever hope to become.”
I didn’t tell him about the Scotch. He and his troop stared at me for what seemed a long time but was most likely just an instant. I thought I should grab him by the throat but decided that would be a big mistake. Then, I turned and went out of the hospital looking for a fine bottle of Scotch.
I have long since forgiven this man who was no doubt a fine doctor if a poor clinician, and forgiven myself for attacking him in this way. He had been trained to see himself, his patients and teachers in the ways he exhibited. As far as I know he saved thousands of lives in his University Hospital practice, although not my mother’s. What was sadly not unusual was the fact that his shallow understanding of teachers and theories of teaching was only surpassed by his theories of communicating with patients. Medical school missed that part.
In future years when parents at my schools became upset or unreasonably angry, I told them my story about almost strangling a doctor, the man who was there to help my mother. So I understood their desire to strangle a teacher or me when things weren’t going well or when one of us school folk were insensitive. We were also there to help but sometimes missed the mark. This usually calmed them down.
At the same time, I wish teachers, principals and I had the courage my mother displayed on that day. Perhaps we wouldn’t be suffering from such state domination in education at this pass.
Ultimately the misconception of teaching and teachers that the specialist exemplified carries over to teachers themselves. And it is such misconceptions that I wish to confront, explore, interrogate and understand more deeply in my writing through Ethnography.