My personal mission as an educator is to not bore children. I believe that I must not get in the way of their learning, nor quash their natural curiosity. I believe that I must let students understand the power of language and to instruct them to exercise this power for the sake of what is good and just. If I can also get these lively teenagers in my classroom to not be rude and to not care about grades, then I’m likewise pleased. To exist gracefully at close quarters with one another and to fall in love with knowledge are wonderful.
At the beginning of every school year, I always promise myself and students that if ever I begin to hate coming to work, then I will do myself and them the favor of quitting. For the past twelve years, I’ve relished being a teacher. But recently, I’ve had a crisis of faith in education. Lately, I’ve been expressing my frustrations with and my students’ anxieties about increased accountability standards, a narrowing of curriculum, and the emphasis on test performance rather than deeper understanding.
One day, I shared with my students my personal reading of John Taylor Gatto, a former New York City teacher, who criticizes modern schooling. After our discussion of one of his essays, a bunch of my kids looked sad and said they were bummed that what Gatto said coincided with some of their experiences in school. I said, “Don’t be sad. If I’ve taught you anything, I hope that I’ve taught you subversion. I hope that you will forever question the powers that be. I hope that someday you will take control and change what is not fair in the system.” One of my students sat up, and some eyes widened. Did I just tell my students that they should try to overthrow institutionalized tedium? Yes, I did.
I am not opposed to high standards, for I want young people to wrestle with difficult texts and concepts. I want them to grapple with ideas and have meaningful conversations with me and with each other about what’s really important and what’s happening and what should happen in the world. I would like to not further prolong our culture’s infantilism of teenagers. Adolescents can struggle with and read the hard books. Most students will agree with Socrates that the unexamined life is not worth living. Some students will disagree with Ralph Waldo Emerson on the importance of the individual and come to their own definitions of self-reliance. Other students will empathize with Jay Gatsby and then find their own version of idealized perfection, their own conception of the American Dream. I’m reminded that autonomy is what I should be teaching by a poster in my classroom which reads, “The purpose of the teacher is to allow the child to be without the teacher.”
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