I never thought I’d become an educator, in any sense of the word. When I was an undergraduate, I wanted to be a marine biologist, not an educator. Well, chemistry really did a number on me, so I changed majors, moving from biology to secondary education with a focus on biology and minor in English. I am, for the most part, an introvert, and that is partly why I never imagined myself as standing in front of a class teaching students, of any age. Yet, here I am, after almost twenty years, continuing to teach. As I look back on my career, so far, I constantly think about my views on teaching and pedagogy. This blog provides insight into my shifting views, but I don’t think I have ever really written about the core of my teaching philosophy, what drives me in the classroom.
Talking with some individuals about the ways that college opens us to new experiences and, in some ways, causes rifts between ourselves and those in our family or circle of friends who did not attend college, we discussed whether or not college indoctrinates students with liberal thought. As I thought about this, I reflected back on my own undergraduate experience at a small regional university about ninety minutes from my home.
My time as an undergraduate student didn’t really challenge any of the views or perceptions I grew up with. If anything, my time as an undergraduate solidified some of my views. It wasn’t until I started teaching that my opinions on certain topics began to change and become more liberal. During our conversation, someone said something that really jumped out to me. The person stated, “I felt like I grew up during college, but teaching brought on a new phase of growing up.”
I can relate to this comment. I did grow up during college. I became independent and learned to survive on my own. Those are important skills to learn during college, if one has not learned them earlier. While I grew up during my undergraduate college years, “teaching brought on a new phase of growing up.” Teaching, more than merely sitting in a class as a student, has taught me more than I ever learned in the classroom because as a teacher I need to know the information that I relay to students. As such, I have to continue learning. I can’t merely rely on simple facts. I have to think about every aspect of a topic, which is what we want students to do as well.
I always tell my students that I learn right alongside them. There are topics I do not know much about, and I am honest with students on this fact. One example, as I’ve discussed on this blog, is my knowledge of Islam or the experiences of Arabs and Southwest Asians in the United States and elsewhere. Not having a firm grasp on a topic does not mean that I can’t teach it. What it means is that I learn it right alongside my students. We actively engage, together, in the learning process. I bring my knowledge to the topic, and they bring their knowledge, and in this way, we create new knowledge.
That is what I love about teaching. I never stop learning. When I stop learning, then it will be time for me to stop teaching, and I hope that never occurs. Lillian Smith talks about the continued importance of learning in our lives, and she concludes her “Letter to Mr. Hartley” by writing, “I don’t know when learning stops. But I know a writer [I’d say teacher here too] never stops learning, not ever–until she is dead as a creative being. When you stop learning, stop listening, stop looking and asking questions, always new questions, then it is time to die: time to crawl into that small room and put the cover over you.”
I’ve always been a firm believer, and it’s a belief that has become stronger over the years, that one must be open to experiences and learning. When one is open, then their views will either change or strengthen. I’ve also come to see, as others always point out, that teaching and education are extremely political. One need only look at all of the proposed bills in various states to teach the 1776 Commission and stay away from “divisive concepts.” As the NCTE put it in their 1974 statement “Students’ Right to Their Own Language,” education, notably in K-12, reflects the values and prejudices of the community: “And through their representatives on Boards of Education
and Boards of Regents, businessmen, politicians, parents, and the students themselves
insist that the values taught by the schools must reflect the prejudices held by the
Henry Giroux states,
The issue is not about whether public or higher education has become contaminated with politics. It is, more importantly, about recognizing that education is already a space of politics, power, and authority. The crucial matter at hand is how to appropriate, invent, direct, and control multiple layers of power and politics that constitute both the institutional formation of education and the pedagogies, which are often outcomes of deliberate struggles to establish particular notions of knowledge, values, and identity. As committed educators, we cannot eliminate politics, but we can work against a politics of certainty, a pedagogy of censorship, and institutional forms that close down rather than open up democratic relations.
This does not mean that as an educator I impart my views on students, no matter what those views may be. Rather, it means that I must realize that teaching, and I would argue everything we do, is political at the core because it deals with the creation and dissemination of knowledge. Remember that the start of Black Studies and Women’s Studies departments occurred with political, grassroots pressure. Think about the United Daughters of the Confederacy and their control over education in the South. One need only look at their pamphlet “A Measuring Rod to Test Text Books, and Reference Books in Schools, Colleges, and Libraries.” They formed a committee and charged it “with the dissemination of the truths of Confederate history,” even calling upon them to “adopt none which do not accord full justice to the South.” They instructed libraries to write “Unjust to the South” in books that do not adhere to their positions. Today, lawmakers in states such as Louisiana, Iowa, and South Carolina are making similar arguments, this time substituting “South” for “United States History.”
As an educator, my job is to, as Giroux notes, “open up democratic relations” by allowing for conversation and discussion in the classroom and actively engaging with students in the creation of knowledge. At the core, I learn right alongside students. My views and positions change, shift, morph. Sometimes my positions solidify. Sometimes they get obliterated. This is part of learning. This is what it means to engage in “democratic relations.” When there are continued pushes to hinder these types of discussions, pushing the, as the NCTE put it, values and prejudices of the community, then issues arise because one side merely seeks to retrench itself, denying any voice to those that oppose it.
All of this, as well, comes down to openness, something I cannot teach. What makes someone open to discussion? What makes someone open to new ideas? What makes someone open to looking at themselves? What makes someone question themselves? If I had the answer to this, I think we could make a lot of needed progress, but I don’t have an answer. I sincerely do not know what makes someone open to these things. I wish I did. All I know is that I continue to learn. I continue to seek. I continue to educate myself. When I stop doing that, I die.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.