Who feels it knows it…maybe

May 14, 2008

Who feels it knows it.
A popular adage.
Experience is the precursor to knowledge.
Experience is the essence of knowledge.
Experience defines the limits of knowledge.

So, yet another “Silver Pen” award is given by the Gleaner to someone offering insight into the obstacles to achieving the elusive “law and order” society that we so dearly want. This time, its a teacher who argues that
teachers are left to fend for themselves in the classroom cum battleground, and to “deal with it” when children are unruly, misbehaving and downright hostile to the enterprise of education; after all, the kids come from shitty homes and communities so what else should we expect? We’ve heard this all before, so no surprises here.

Beyond the highly emotional repetition of what is fast becoming a truism – its the children’s fault — I can see why she got the Silver Pen; the poor thing is drowning in the ocean of chaos and mismanagement, and feels like bricks have been tied to her ankles. At the very least, the award works as an acknowledgement of what her and other teachers are dealing with, even if there’s not a drink of freshwater nor a lifeboat available in sight.

I returned to the original letter, and realized that it is one that I had put off responding to. Too much going on there, I said then. I still say that. But, just to offer another viewpoint besides this whole “you can’t know if you are not in my shoes”:

My first thought: Ms. Moore’s shoes are ill-fitting. Based on all that has been shared in the letter, she needs to leave the profession. Pronto. Either that, or change her thinking and approach immediately. If she can’t figure out how to do her job to the best of her ability within the constraints placed on her, and not expect to be thanked and lauded by all and sundry, then she needs to leave. Nobody will fault her for that. If I was that frustrated and hated my job and felt unsupported and mistreated, I would not be sticking around for long, I can assure you.

In the recent article, Ms. Moore tells the Gleaner that “since corporal punishment has been removed or is seen [??] as illegal, it’s like the teachers have lost power. Removing this as a means of discipline, not abuse, is as if you are removing the motivation, because of I know if I do X and I’m going to be scolded for it, then I’m not going to want to do it.” Teachers have had enough, and according to Miss Moore, want permission to do more than “deal with” the bad treatment meted out to them. They want permission to beat our children, when they do not humbly or dutifully comply with the teachers’ wishes.

Can you imagine what would happen if, with all the anger and pent-up frustration that she clearly has, she felt free to beat her students? Lord have his mercy on these children.

However, if one looks more closely at the sources of frustration that Ms. Moore describes and which have caused teachers to “have enough”, as she says, you also see some very familiar signs that tell us that its not all the students’ fault, and certainly not in her classroom:

There’s the obvious failure in the training that she received as a teacher, which does not help her to deal with the conditions that she is facing everyday. Apparently, to be a “teacher” is to TELL the students what to do, and they must dutifully comply, ie. LEARN. Why on earth would you be telling students “don’t use indecent language in public” if you are not also providing some context for a discussion about what is “decent”, ïndecent”, etc. and some kind of reward for following through on what was agreed?

She says: “you give them homework and there is nobody home with them to assist them”

Ah, how is this new? It’s the job of the teacher to come up with something else to make the learning possible. Lesson plans need to be based on what you can accomplish. Sometimes you need to get rid of the lesson plans. Yes, I know what the Ministry says and all that. Drastic situations call for drastic measures. Maybe Ms. Moore shouldn’t give homework during the week. Maybe teachers should organize homework sessions that children can go to. Maybe teachers should try doing a buddy system for homework. Maybe Ms. Moore should do a little research on this issue – I know, she doesn’t like surveys or whatever — to find out how teachers elsewhere deal with this.

Ms. Moore says “the fact that you don’t have parents taking an active part, calling to find out the development and the progress of their children.”

So, again, how is this new news? Ms. Moore hasn’t been paying attention to what’s going on in the country and in the urban communities of the US, Canada and Britain I see. Again, one’s ability to teach is not being supported by the environment; but that doesn’t mean you don’t do your job as a teacher. You redefine it to make it work within the constraints; there’s what you have control over, and what you don’t. But you don’t stop being an advocate for your students because you don’t like the conditions under which you are teach. Nor should you assume that just because you tell a student something that it is going to stick and radically transform them. If you are not going to take the work of being an educator seriously — and noone said it was going to be a bed of roses, if someone told you that, they lied to you — then get out, change jobs, schools, whatever.

She says: “Not only are teachers expected to facilitate learning, but they have the responsibility of instilling discipline, conducting regular assessment of students’ performance, writing regular plans, keeping and updating records, tending to their needs (this includes support financially, emotion-ally and otherwise) and being role models for tomorrow’s people. Needless to say, there are many other roles.”

You see, this is how I know she did not receive proper training, and is also profoundly inexperienced and clueless about what the work of education is about. And this is where her experience should count for something; she didn’t do her homework before she took the job and now she’s finding out what its really like.

Then there’s her inflexibility and lack of innovation. When, as she argues, you are faced with 35-60 students everyday, I would think that one would want to – by virtue of sheer willpower and desire to survive – figure out a way to deal with a condition that is not going to change anytime soon. In other words, she would need to adopt the appropriate PEDAGOGICAL tools to manage a large classroom while making some learning possible. Despising the students and their families is not enough, sorry.

Then there’s the absolute disregard for the humanity of students. Apparently, being respectful and pleasant towards students is not a requirement; its conditional. If they don’t do what you want, and behave how you want, you belittle their backgrounds and dismiss them as hopeless curs. Yes, Ms. Moore definitely has a successful career ahead of her in Jamaica’s public schools.

So, Ms. Moore, if you think the kids are hellbent on sliding into delinquency and criminality with the aid of their absent parents, and you treat them as if that’s the only outcome possible, and then you set up a school environment that’s a model jail with teachers and principals as wardens and corrections officers, well, I don’t know what you expect except what we’re getting.

Then, there’s her difficulty getting a handle around the concept of “discipline”. I can see why most of our students lack creativity and the ability to think critically; the teachers don’t have it, and they beat it out of our kids.

In our western-trained minds, discipline – learning how to act in accordance with rules and regulations – is always paired with punishment – methods of correction and otherwise penalizing one for failing to comply and act accordingly. I don’t think Ms. Moore is up to reading Foucault, Bourdieu or Freire yet, or she would probably have a very different attitude about the notion of power, her relationship with her students and the work of education. But she doesn’t need to read those lofty tomes. She really just needs to think, just a little bit, about what she’s doing and what outcomes she’s getting vs. what she/rest of the society thinks is desirable.

It bears repeating that telling today’s students that they must behave and comply with the rules of the school and the classroom is pointless and a very useful exercise in how to frustrate yourself to the point of homicide. Contrary to what most of our teachers and parents think and practice, it is much more meaningful – in the short and longterm – to get students to ask Why? What’s that about? What does it make possible that other strategies can’t? What do I get from doing it this way? What don’t I get from doing it this way? etc. etc. It is also more useful to have rewards that are meaningful to them. These children probably get beaten all the time. How does being beaten by a teacher do anything different? Its the same shaming, the same system of punishment and degradation that is being visited on them. And when they get a chance, they will fling rockstone pon yuh car and fire shot after you the same way they would in other situations.

Classroom education of poor and working class students in Jamaica is a strange exercise in disrespect of those students, and is merely an extension of how the rest of the society views them. So, Ms. Moore, don’t be so put off that they cuss and carry on the same way that they might outside the classroom. Do you act any differently towards them than any one else does? What kind of classroom environment do you cultivate?

If the teachers and principals are too busy complaining and running for cover and not taking charge of the schools in ways that make education priority and possible, not much will change. I have yet to hear a principal or teacher articulate an analysis or offer policy solutions that do not rely on the state and on turning the schools into prisons.

In fact, I have yet to hear a principal or teacher speak in a way that is intelligible and reflects their status as educators! Beyond saying that one is a teacher, I can’t see how the perspectives offered tell us anything about what unique skills and viewpoints that teachers offer. Frankly, it is impossible to distinguish between the armchair musings of an ordinary citizen writing a letter to the editor and what our principals and teachers offer to the public in the way of analysis of school policies and education practices. Maybe our educators who want change should take some time out to think, and talk, and strategize. The unreflexive bitchfest that happens in the newspapers is just ridiculous and getting us nowhere.

I am pretty unapologetic about advocating for children and for better educational experiences for them. While recognizing the ridiculous conditions under which this work is being done – where our political leaders play dutty football with our kids’ futures; our parents, along with the majority of our institutions and citizens have taken a hands-off approach and completely checked out – I still see that where there’s a will, there’s a way. And while there’s no political will, educators need to develop and sustain their own will. Without that, we are all as good as dead. Sitting down and waiting for a government handout and decision is not enough. Nor is wailing and crying out of selfish motives. What about the teachers? you say.

Yes, what ABOUT the teachers? we say. What do you need to have in order to make our schools work? What is your vision? If you can’t get past the “law and order” and “gimme gimme” approaches to articulate something more lofty and yet more meaningful in this time, then nobody is really going to give a shit about your problems at work. So far, teachers are making it pretty easy for folks to dismiss them: we all have hard lives, Jamaica is fast becoming a pit latrine; deal with it.

But if the more progressive ones among our teachers can start – quietly even! – doing some thinking and strategizing work, freeing up themselves from the JTA, trying out a ting or two in their classrooms, and building support for what they are doing through partnerships and innovative programs, then we’re behind them. But teachers have to lead. Yes, you, YOU teachers, do have to lead. And right now, they still haven’t figured out that part of their role is to offer leadership. They’re too busy saluting and begging the Minister for favours. It would be really nice, uplifting even, if teachers began to show the students – and the rest of us — that they really do know what it means to be educators. Maybe our students and parents and everybody else might start paying attention to such responsible, ethical leadership.


2 Responses to “Who feels it knows it…maybe”

  1. R Moore Says:

    I didn’t have to peruse the letter long enough to know that you are one of those on the outside looking in. You seem to so eloquently express your subjective views. I wonder though, that with “such eloquence”, if you could share strategies or some of your “brilliant” ideas with teachers, like me who seem to be ill equipped to face the challenges in education. More over, why don’t you join the profession? The education enterprise seems to be hungry for someone like you. Advocating for better educational experiences for children is good but sitting on your rump and dictating what you expect to see makes no sense. Until you, whether you are male or female have a child of your own you are always going to be the BIG CRITIC. When your children start to roll their eyes at you and push you aside as if you mean nothing then you will feel it so YOU will know….maybe…maybe not! You say that what you have written, you have written and you are not apologizing or your harsh comments but have you ever stopped to think of how much time you are wasting trying to set your complex mind at ease by writing your reply in the first place? Please, you need to get over yourself and your bitterness towards teachers. Had bad experiences did you? Well guess what,no one cares about that either. Get off your high horse and into the classroom otherwise I would recommend psychiatric help.(Visit a shrink!)

  2. longbench Says:

    Here are some things that I know for sure:

    1. I am a teacher.
    2. I teach people how to teach.
    3. I have children.
    4. You didn’t read the information [on Paolo Freire] that I sent to you.
    5. Your views are also subjective. That’s why they are yours.
    6. By the tone of your comment, you are acting just like your students and the children you seem to have such little regard for ie. lashing out without stopping to think.
    7. No self-respecting educator or informed citizen would ever say “have you ever stopped to think of how much time you are wasting trying to set your complex mind at ease by writing your reply in the first place?”
    8. If you want to know what to do, you can do some research of your own.
    8. I would be glad to share what I know. But you would have to change your attitude dramatically. Being unwilling to reflect on what you are doing, and to learn new ways of approaching old problems is not a great way to begin a conversation.

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