Thursday, January 24, 2008

Why do I teach and why does it matter?

Late last night, before turning in, I discovered that I had been "tagged" by Tenured Radical and The Constructivist to respond to the following meme that originated on Free Exchange on Campus, which was in turn inspired by Dr. Crazy's early January post "Why Teach Literature."

(Is everyone following so far? Many of the names I mentioned are links to the blogs and a definition of a meme for anyone who doesn't know what it is -- I had to google it for a precise definition).

I have to admit that when I found out that I was tagged not once but twice, and after reading the very impressive, inspiring, and articulate answers to this question, I felt (and still feel) a bit daunted. But I'm a teacher--let me rise to the challenge--so here goes:

WHY I TEACH _________________ & WHY IT MATTERS

I think the first thing I want to start with is


I teach because I have to: it is my calling. Like any job or career, there is a material benefit to this particular profession, and I enjoy the fruits of my labor in terms of a paycheck. But I teach because I can't imagine operating in the world in any other way. It's not just a job--it's not just a career--it's not just a paycheck. I happen to teach literature. Well not "happen" -- that's a choice and there's a reason. But if I think about alternative career choices, they all somehow end back in the classroom: teaching law, teaching cooking, teaching quilting. I feel I was meant to teach because I feel that through teaching I make a difference in the world. Yes, a grandiose claim, as is the claim that teaching is a calling for me rather than a profession (and I say I'm agnostic). But it's true. There you have it. The inner-cynic has gone to bed. I want to make a difference, a positive difference, in the lives of my students and my colleagues. I teach because I want to make my own life better and richer. There's a feeling in the classroom when you make a connection with students, it's magical--especially when they make a connection with something you've just said and they go further. I guest lectured today in a graduate seminar (on issues of cultural diversity in education) and it was so much fun! I love hearing the stories that students have to tell, and I love telling stories of my own (I don't mean personal stories, I mean that I have a pedagogical style that emphasizes narrative and discussion), and I especially love seeing how our stories meet-up, and how we produce knowledge together. Being a teacher is part performer, part critic, part analyst, and a few other things (at least for me). I don't really understand how I came to this understanding, that I was meant to teach, but I feel it in my gut. I am a teacher.


I am breaking this up into 2 parts because why I teach literature is a bit different from why I teach on issues of race, diversity, and anti-oppression. I teach literature because I love stories. I have a passion for narrative, and I believe that stories matter. I've actually already written about this in the post "Why Stories Matter" so I won't repeat myself here. Part of it seems completely self-indulgent--who wouldn't love to teach contemporary fiction to students? My job is easy--contemporary fiction is "fun" to read. And sure I do the usual close reading/critical thinking/research writing skills, but we also talk about larger themes--looking at the connections, for example, between F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby and the American dream and how that gets rearticulated over sixty years later in Chang-rae Lee's Aloft, where Long Island still continues to hold mythic sway on the American literary imagination (subdivisions and all). The skills for interpreting literature are skills for interpreting life. And perhaps even more importantly, stories let us imagine worlds beyond our own, not just to escape in (although there is pleasure in that) but to find hope and solace -- stories make us realize that we are not alone, that there are others, whether its the author creating the narrative or the characters populating that work, who just might feel the way we feel and think the way we think and live the way we live. Or perhaps these characters feel, think, and live differently from us, and that, too, gives us hope and solace for reimagining our own lives.

Why I teach on issues of race, diversity, and anti-oppression is perhaps what David Horowitz and crew are afraid of: that I have an agenda--that I am trying to "convert" my students--that I'm one of those politically correct, lefty-liberal, atheistic, vegetarian, tree-hugging, feminist, hippie, socialist, queer friendly type of professors who will oppress my students with my "revisionist" history of the world.

Well...maybe...although I eat my steak rare and am probably too consumer oriented to be considered a hippie. I have hugged a tree, a sequoia, but couldn't quite get my arms around it. All joking aside, let me clarify. I am not out to convert anyone. But I do believe in a basic principle: I want to work to end oppression. I believe that oppression is bad. And more specifically, I believe racism is bad. And when I teach a course on race in American culture or race in American literature, I am clear with my students that we will look at race, all races--white as well as "minority" (or my preferred term, people of color)--and we will think about the way "race" is discussed in these works of literature (or film or photographs or other forms of mass culture) and the effects of race on people's lives. And when I talk about racism I talk about white privilege. And I do this because I think there is a value to our society in ending oppression. And I have yet to find a student who didn't think racism was bad and who didn't want to end racism (the definition of racism and how to end it, that's a different story that I'll save for another day). I don't always do a good job--for example, I call myself queer friendly, but I don't know if my everyday practices are as in tune with ending gender and sexual oppression as they are with ending racial oppression. And certainly I hold my class and educational privilege quite casually and know that I take it for granted many a time. But I'm trying. And one of the ways I try is in the classroom with the courses I teach that address issues of race/racism (and other intertwined categories, because how can you talk about ending racism without ending sexism?).


Because I want to make the world a better place. Yep, we're back there. It sounds corny. It IS corny. But it's also true. I hesitated writing about this because it sounds so idealistic and a bit utopian, but I'm a glass-half full kinda gal. And the truth is, we have a lot of work to do. The world can be a dark and despairing place. But I have to have faith. I have to believe in the world I want rather than the one I have. And if I'm a teacher then I have a responsibility to do something about making the world I want.

So now I'm going to tag the following blogs/bloggers: CN Le Asian American Sociologist, Gilesbot 9000, Lesboprof, Prone to Laughter, and Sara Speaking. You can find their blogs to the right under the heading "Blogs I Like" and you can click on their names for a sample of their blogs. I look forward to hearing from them formally (since my charge is to tag 5 "teachers" for this meme) but I'd also love to hear from any regular commenters or lurkers who teach--Why do you teach _______ & why does it matter, to you?


Craig @ AFT said...

Hey Jennifer:

I was hoping you would join the meme for a number of reasons including those you identified about DH worrying about what you teach. Thanks for your post which we will add to the inventory of posts over at our site.

cps @ Free Exchange on Campus

CVT said...

Ooh. Such perfect timing. I read this post about two minutes after I read an article claiming that teacher is the second-highest "most prestigious" career, according to an annual Harris poll. Which made me think about "then why don't we compensate accordingly?" And when I looked at the rest of the list, I realized that those that get compensated poorly (or certainly not at a high level) were "more prestigious" (according to respondents) while those who made more money were much "less prestigious." Made me think of a theory I read once that jobs that pay more require more ethical/moral "cheating" of some sort of another, and the only way people would do it in this Capitalistic world is to get the higher salary to compensate for the extra moral justification. Interesting theory (although I don't exactly believe it).

But I get way off topic (as usual).

Why do I teach?

Well, first I'll say (again) that I teach Middle School Math at an alternative school for those who aren't successful in public school. This is generally kids getting expelled, but also kids who struggle socially in public school. Kids who are "underserved" (I hate that term, but I'm going to use it because most people know what that "means") in a number of ways - many of which cause them to have trouble feeling comfortable or safe or connected in public school. I also get to teach some electives (I'm currently teaching a Behavioral Pyschology class - some of the most fun I've ever had).

So - why do I do this? Easy. I like kids. I really just love being around kids. I love their energy and sense of play. Their blunt honesty and questions are refreshing, and I get an energy back from them that I don't get from adults.

I teach Math because I hated math as a kid. It meant nothing to me, and I got tired of people telling me how "good" I was at it, while they just "weren't good" at math. So my joy in teaching is convincing every kid that they ARE "good" at math and watching what happens. That's the cruz of my job - just convince them they can do it and let them fulfill that belief. It's almost ridiculous how well that works (no matter how else I teach). I also enjoy getting kids connected to math - making it RELEVANT to their own lives. The kids I work with aren't going to be doctors, chemists, or engineers (mostly), so why are so many math problems about that? I like making them realize that there are ways they're really going to use the math I teach in everyday life.

I teach WHERE I do because the public school system makes me want to cry. My program is a relationship-based program where I teach AND am an advocate (a littel short of a caseworker) for a group of my kids. And they really become MY kids because of the time I put in with them helping them work through their challenges, find solutions, and pursue their goals. I fail - often - but that's not the point.

My kids WANT to come to school (mostly). They complain and don't want to work when they're there - but they show up most days. And these are kids who never showed up to public school and have a million valid reasons NOT to make it to school. But they do it, anyway, because they feel the difference. And that's why I like to work where I do.

Finally - why is it important? Now - I am no idealist. I don't believe I "make their lives better." I don't believe I make much of a "difference." No matter what I say or do at school (or afterwards) with my kids, they still go back to their f-ed up home lives and have to deal with it. I don't keep them out of gangs. I don't prevent them from turning to drugs, violence, sex, or crime (remember - these are just middle school kids, too). I don't change any of that. And I'm not going to pretend that I do to get some sort of vicarious thrill to make myself believe that my own life matters as a result.

And that's why I do what I do. Because there are far too many idealistic, "Save the World" teachers out there doing it for all the wrong reasons. Teaching because the kids "need them." Doing it to "make lives better." And that selfish need to pretend that they are saints causes them to completely lose the point and treat the kids in either a condescending fashion. or to blame the kid when things don't change. I see it all the time. And then they burn out and leave the kids behind (especially in middle school) like everybody else in the kids' lives. So I'm happy to take the spot away from one of those teacherst. I teach simply because I get a kick out of it. I have fun doing it (even when the kids are having a rough day). I like the "performance" of it. And I just like my kids. If I was doing it for any other reasons, I would quit.

I'm sure my little tirade probably set a lot of the other teachers out there off, but I don't really care about that. In the name of understanding - for those out there that do it "to make a difference," think about what that means. We don't do anything that doesn't bring us some selfish gain. I wouldn't do my job for a second if I didn't have fun and like the kids. On the other hand, if you wouldn't teach if you felt like it didn't "make lives better," then maybe you should think about that. Is it really about them? Or is it about you?

All the best teachers and youth workers I know are the ones who have come to an understanding on that level. Because once you realize that the kid is just a kid and you aren't going to be able to "save them," you can start looking at them as a real person and treat them as such. And relationships are what make teaching work.

Okay. I'm climbing off my soapbox now because I have to get to school and teach some Math.

Jennifer said...

Glad to join the meme (my first) and to be part of a chorus of voices to battle against Mr. Horowitz & Co. I figure when the day comes that I find a student "planted" in one of my classes, it will be the day when I know my teaching has hit a nerve (and I'll take it as a compliment, if it does ever happen).

I was really hoping you'd respond to this meme--and as usual, you offer many wonderful insights into your teaching experience and interesting observations about your students and your own presence and motivations in the classroom.

I do wonder about the vehemence with which you write about teachers who "want to make a difference" or "wants to change the world." In some ways, this seems like the quality that most teachers have, K-University. Most of my experience with teaching is at the college level, and I do think that K-12 and college-graduate education are different spheres in the sense of choice. Law mandates students to be in school (there are exceptions and exemptions but by and large this is true). Whereas college is a choice (and for many not a choice unfortunately, due to finances or other social obligations/pressures).

I guess I have to admit that as someone who has so sentimentally declared myself as being in the "Making a difference camp" I felt confused reading some of your comments--and, again, perhaps, this is a difference between college vs. middle-school. Because I don't want to save my students and I don't think I "enlighten" them. I don't prescribe to the "empty vessel" model of education where I "fill them up" and it's all about picking the right liquid to pour in (this, of course, is what Mr. Horowitz is worried about--that there is a "right" ingredient for education, one that has a male European/Western Civilization flavor only or predominantly).

Can we want to save the world and be idealistic and still be good teachers? Can we be idealistic and realistic at the same time?

I've been thinking, a lot, about my impact on students in and out of the classroom. Because I think, for some students, it's huge. The time we spend with students is huge. I still hear from former students while I was a grad student. They tell me stories that they remember from the classes I taught--lessons I didn't intend them to take away that they've used in their lives. A casual comment I made in office hours that they took seriously.

I'm not trying to overinflate my importance--I think that there are MANY factors for students of any age to consider, and their home environment, esp. pre-18 is key. But, I think we often underestimate the words and import of adult teachers in their lives. I say all this because as much as I say I want to change the world, I've often thought that teaching was not going to do it or that, really, if we need to work on global climate change issues, what difference will my teaching an Asian American lit class make? But I once made the comment, in an Asian American lit class, that while I couldn't go back to get a PhD in climatology, one of my students may take this up as his/her life's work and realize how important this issue was (I had just seen Al Gore's INCONVENIENT TRUTH and it scared the hell out of me and made me change all the lightbulbs in my house, a stupidly small change act, I know, but I felt I had to do SOMETHING immediately).

Anyway (GOSH I'm RAMBLING, but hell, it's my blog) a year later, this Freshman student in my class asks me to write a letter of rec to transfer into the School of Public Health's environmental policy program because she said that my words stuck with her and she started to research global climate change and became convinced that this is what she wanted to study and that she DID want to be part of the solution.

I am not trying to pat myself on the back with this story (and of course I wrote the letter of rec) but I am sharing this because I think the throwaway comments we make in our classes, or just the TIME we spend with students during office hours or trying to get to know them beyond a name on our roll call sheets sticks with them--they remember, it makes them feel good--they take that away with them. Not every student, and not every teacher, has this impact. But many do. And certainly the bad ones do--we all remember the bad teachers and the ways that we carried around the hurtful things that they said or did.

So I guess I'll end by saying, yes, having a savior complex is hugely problematic and troublesome and it is right to call people on their stuff when they are doing missionary-type work with their students (ie: treating them like empty vessels who should be grateful for the fount of knowledge being poured into them). But even with these types of teachers, they can be talked to and shown how, pedgaogically speaking, it's not what's needed or most useful.

Again, I'm a glass half-full kinda gal, so I naively do want to see the good side of people. And I want to make a difference, damn it!


s-fizzle said...

It's good to have teachers passionate about what they teach and that they truly believe they are making a difference. You can always tell which teachers are there for the reasons aforementioned and the other teachers who aren't. You really get to appreciate the teachers that want to make that connection with students. =)

CVT said...

Okay. I'm going to apologize (somewhat) for my typing tirade from this morning. I just read through it, and I don't really think I did a good job of explaining my point - got all caught up in "passionate monologue" land without thinking that most of the people reading have no idea what I'm talking about.

So - some explanation. The first is that I am strictly speaking about the kind of social/youth work that I do. Working with youths from a (mostly) sidelined socio-economic background. Usually, this entails a high percentage of kids of color. "Urban youth," if you will.

My comments have NOTHING to do with post-secondary education, of which I know little to nothing at all. I imagine that is a whole different ball game - as well as teaching in schools catering to a different demographic than that which I teach.

I also shouldn't have been using the term "making a difference" as my little catch-phrase. Of course we all make a difference (for good or bad), and any teacher unaware of that would have to be a little crazy (although I would argue that all of us ARE a little crazy, to begin with).

What I was trying to get at is this: in my line of work, the vast majority of people attracted to it are white, liberal . . . I don't know a PC term or one that isn't loaded. Usually middle-class. Usually a kind of pacifist/"all we need is love" mentality.

Now - I have no problem with any of those things as-is. I don't. The problem is that we get a lot of people who come in, and the first thing they say about why they want to work with (specifically) our kids is that they "want to help people" or "want to make a difference." And it is most certainly tinged with that sort of naive sense of missionary-type "save the heathens" connotation. Like all the movies you see about teachers in my demographic: well-meaning white folks that "save" the kids of color through sheer will and love.

And guess what? Those particular applicants never last. Because they don't see reality. They are usually the most blind to their own biases - and unable to take a real look at it because they "do good work" and "help change poor kids' lives." That kind of thing. And the KEY red-flag statement: that the kids "need them." That's the one that really sets me off. Because our kids don't NEED anybody - almost literally. They have survived all on their own for years - as kids - and yet STILL make it to school without any of our help.

So these folks watch the movies, and when their kids aren't "saved" and don't love them within a year, they get burnt-out, frustrated, and quit. And then it's up to me and a handful of the rest to clean up the mess they leave behind.

There is no room for naivete in the work I do. You have to come with some sort of hard edge and a strong sense of reality. And you have to be AWARE. You need to be able to identify with the kids. And love them in spite of the fact that they won't ever really be "saved." And when they spit in your eye every day that you try to help them because they have learned not to trust adults. And love them for that fire, too. Because you know what that tastes like.

Those who do it with that overarching sense of how the kids "need them," or how they just "want to help kids" go in there with the assumption that the kids need helping. That the kids aren't capable of it on their own without the help of the enlightened savior. When the fact is that these kids have survived and pushed past a million things that the adults "helping" them could never survive or even comprehend. But when the teacher is stuck in "helping them" mode, it becomes about the teacher, and not the students. So when the kids push back or don't "get it," it's because they don't "appreciate all the work the teacher puts in for them."

And that's a terrible thing.

I can't possibly explain everything that this conjures in me without keeping anybody from reading these comments due to length (I probably already went there).

Let's see if I can sum it up: it's just one more example of people in a position of privilege trying to "help" people without thinking that it's worth truly understanding and appreciating those people beforehand. It kills me that the staff I work with is predominantly white. How can they possibly reach our kids of color? How can they possibly know the myriad ways they are pushing those kids away? Race does matter - ESPECIALLY in education. As does economic status and other privilege. And too few people in the field really get that . . .

And it frustrates me to no end. I'm constantly battling the ignorance of well-intentioned folks that think that intentions are enough. That are blinded by their belief that - because they have these intentions - they can't possibly have anything to learn.

I'm stopping here because I am getting myself worked up and frustrated because I can't possibly explain it to people that don't work in my field. People that haven't SEEN what I am talking about.

Hmm - sort of like trying to explain the frustrations of being a person of color to a white person. You all think I'm crazy and "overreacting" while I experience craziness . . .

ARGH. Stop there. I tried, right?

Jennifer said...

I, for one, always like your comments and especially the length you go to talk about the things you feel interested in and impassioned by.

And after I left my comment I felt sort've sheepish because I actually figured you were speaking more to a particular situation--at least to the situation of people teaching in a K-12 public school rather than a post-secondary situation.

I loved your analogy about trying to describe the atmosphere of your teaching and your kids to others like people of color explaining to non-people of color what it's like to live the day to day--and to experience the subtelties of discrimination and racism.

Because I think you're right. There's a way in which I get it and a way in which I very profoundly don't. I'm very privileged (yep, I love throwing that word around) to be teaching at the university level at at SOuthern U. in particular because it is a situation in which most of the students are also coming from pretty privileged backgrounds--and I don't mean in terms of socioeconomics, I mean they got nurtured and mentored in the ways that allowed them to apply and get accepted to a university.

At any rate, keep fighting the good fight. I wish that someone who had the power to really change things at the secondary level could read your comments about the kids you teach and, especially, the problems of the "missionary" mentality of some of the teachers.

And I'll keep trying to "get it"as best I can because dialogue is important and putting myself in a different perspective is important too. As well as appreciating the hard work of teachers.