Thanks to those who took the time to read and offer feedback. I genuinely appreciate it. As I’ve mentioned, I’m approaching this blog with a kind of “write to figure out what you think” approach in preparation for trying to write a book. And your thoughts help me reconsider / revise my own.
I was asked about how I think GDS has gotten away from its principles, at least the ones I took from it when I was a student there – complete with the plaque announcing the GDS was the first integrated private school in DC. I was asked to speak at the groundbreaking of the new school, and my efforts to say something about how we seemed to have drifted away from what that plaque represented were squashed. Granted, I could have been more transparent in my intentions to make those comments. But why weren’t they welcome? Encouraged? A groundbreaking ceremony still seems like the right time to recommit to ideals unless what is desired is just a celebratory, superficial event. All this time I’ve regretted not including the part of my speech referencing the absence of black males from my graduating class (and the general absence of teachers of color in the school). Maybe what I should regret is accepting the invitation to speak.
I have not been the most engaged alum, I know. Shortly after I graduated, I started getting invitations to fundraisers. The amounts involved, the prices involved – I couldn’t see myself in them. I knew the school had ambitions and continues to do so. And that’s fine. But what did money do to ideals? I don’t think it’s “nostalgic” to say that it changed them. I’ll leave it there – not better, not worse, just different.
I caught somewhere that GDS had started a teach-in day for Martin Luther King Day. It has long been mysterious to me that MLK day has become a day off of school. While I know churches and other institutions have taken on the day, even that has made me uneasy; I thought the teach-in approach made more sense. King has been whitewashed; I thought taking the day to go into more depth about his work was an outstanding idea. I was teaching at my second private school and was frustrated that people seemed protective of the holiday, not out of much reverence for King, but because it was a good skiing weekend (a bit snarky that). So I contacted GDS and asked how the teach-in day worked. The response I got? I was placed on a mailing list and asked for. . . money.
In my experience as a teacher and administrator – no, I’m not going to qualify it. I am, of course, only speaking from my experience. Take two.
There exists at private schools a kind of unspoken disdain for the route public school teachers have to take to be licensed to teach. While I’ve seen it more clearly in the words and actions of some private school teachers more than others, I try not to blame any of them. What, after all, is a private school saying by definition more than, “We are outside of / above the petty bureaucratic entanglements of public school. We have freedom. Freedom is better. We charge tuition. Money means value. We must be better. We must have better teachers.” The disdain comes with the territory. You can see it in the way teachers shift roles: “I can be a counselor, a librarian, whatever. I’m smart enough to do any job here.”
While I know some private schools encourage certification, they, by definition, reject the public school model. Who were they first invented for? Maybe what I will call the democratic principles I experienced at GDS could never really co-exist with the need for the school to compete for students – that is, with capitalism.
While the freedom of private schools has many advantages (freedom from a fair amount of testing, attracting people who might not otherwise pursue teaching – which is huge), it can promote a sense of entitlement and, in terms of teaching, it can leave gaps.
One teacher I helped hire said that the next department head (I was moving on – there is more to this story) should come from more of a literature background and less of an educational one. First of all, I defy anyone to find that many people more passionate about literature than me. A look at my book review blog should suffice. The teacher, whom I’ll call Tara (look at me, I’m trying pseudonyms) certainly wasn’t better read or more widely read than me. She often mistook enthusiasm for teaching.
Second, what Tara, with her, um, short-sightedness failed to recognize (among many, many, many other things) is that I raised educational questions with her because I thought her foundation in literature was so strong. Perhaps I should have said that to her more clearly and more often. Her planning and pedagogy were her areas “in need of improvement,” a notion she, with a great deal of that arrogance I mentioned above, rejected.
Instead, Tara, and other private school colleagues I’ve encountered, thought they should really just teach themselves. (I’m aware of Parker Palmer’s words on this; I think they are worth less time than I just took to write this sentence.) By this, they presumed that the sheer forces of their personality covered any holes in their education.
And, as with any art, some could do it. I worked with amazingly talented teachers in both PK and 12th grade and in between. Still others, by dint (did I use that word correctly? I’ve always wanted to use that word) of hard work made themselves into well-rounded teachers.
Others forgot that the students they were teaching brought a fair amount of firepower to the table.
How did this lack of preparation manifest itself? When asked why a unit or a lesson worked (even when I agreed with them), teachers were often unable to say more than, “It worked because I say it worked.” Therefore, if it didn’t work for all of the students, the natural corollary would be for those teachers to blame the students. The repertoire of these teachers, their vocabulary was so limited that they didn’t have the conceptual foundation of what had worked, so they weren’t able to transfer it into their next unit plan, let alone consider how to improve their current one so it reached more people the next time around.
They, as my first principal at a private school said of a former teacher, simply “taught their day.” As for what the students did, well, that was of less concern.
Does a teaching license, therefore, make a teacher better? Of course not. Do I know what makes a good teacher? Like a lot of teachers, I have some ideas. Those ideas, together with 25 years of teaching in all sorts of circumstances, should give me some credibility. But that’s another topic for another time. I will get to it, though. As I said, the blog is just about trying to get out what’s on my mind. I’m sure that (and other topics) will come to the forefront at some point.