Mourning the War on Education

And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through” –David Bowie

For a few weeks now, in response to the union crisis in the Midwest, a video has been circulating around Facebook and You Tube. The video showcases teacher Taylor Mali, who is on a rant about the lack of respect given teachers in our society.  He’s right, of course. Unfortunately his very message helps convey why there is a pervasive “war on education” in this nation. [You’ll find a link to the video at the end of this essay.]

Taylor Mali says some things that are right on the mark. He makes a comment about how people say, “those who can, do, those who can’t,  teach”, which is one of the most ridiculous clichés ever known to man.  Basically, it encapsulates the “either/or” thinking of our society, a paradigm that has caused us many decades of misery. Back when I was in college I confided to a mentor in my family that I wanted to be a teacher.  He fed me that same line and shamed me for my desire.  I took it to heart for a few years, going in a completely different direction with my studies so as to avoid the “loser profession”.  (Ironic that my mentor was sitting in my mother’s house eating my mother’s food—all paid for with her teacher’s salary.)

I still ended up being a teacher, nonetheless. It happened when the California Poets in the Schools, particularly Chris Olander and Will Staple, befriended me.  Chris took me with him to Downieville to show me the ropes.  For the first time in my life I stood in front of a group of children and taught them.  The looks on their faces and the lights in their eyes hooked me instantly.  I realized then that teaching is alchemy, a sacred transfer of valuable goods from one generation to the next.  Teaching is doing, a very powerful kind of doing.

So, Master’s degree in hand, I headed to UC Davis to get an elementary education teaching credential.  At that time the program at Davis had national recognition.  (Since then it’s morphed into an ESL program, and I don’t know much about it.)  But back in the day we were taught by two great professors of education: Dave Wampler and Maryann Gatheral.  There were only 40 of us, applicants accepted from across the county through a competitive process.  On the first day Wampler told us to listen carefully and get ready to write something down.  “This is the most important thing you’ll learn all year!” he said.  We sat, pens poised, adrenaline pumping.  On the board he wrote:

Never tree a child.

I thought of Wampler and his mandate while I listened to Taylor Mali.  In his angry performance-poet voice, he says things like, “I make a C+ feel like a Congressional medal of honor,” and “I make an A- feel like a slap on the face.”  Why on earth would a teacher want to do either of those things?  In my world, a C+ is called “conference time” and an A- is hard earned, no head games attached. As if his academics weren’t torturous enough, Mali also supervises a study hall where, he brags, “No! you can’t work in groups!” and “No! You can’t ask a question! Put your hand down!”  Here Mali reveals the fact that he knows little about education, lots about training and control.  True, he also says he gets kids to question. Believe me, kids don’t feel free to question when they are immersed in an atmosphere of behavioral control.  And denying them use of the bathroom is not the best way to create a climate of academic freedom.

At UC Davis, they told us that only 3% of us would remain in the traditional classroom in ten years; the other 97% would be administrators or be teaching at the college level.  I am in the latter category, teaching both at a community college and a private university. At the college level what are the two things we try to coax our students to do?  Work in groups. Ask good questions. Our job is made harder by pseudo-educators like Mali who have intimidated students into acquiescence by their demands for control and subservience.  Taylor Mali’s goal—and I take this from his own words—is to control and manipulate his students into behaving the way he wants them to.  He mentions as well that he delights in manipulating parents, deliberately calling to interrupt their dinner and fill them with fear about what their kid had done at school that day.

A few days ago Mr. Lightcap and I were playing one of our favorite after dinner games, flipping between MSNBC and FOX to see what news was deemed worthy of reporting that day. On MSNBC the tag read: “War on Education.”  On Fox: “War on Education.”   As a teacher for over twenty years, I took this to heart.  I thought again of Taylor Mali, and how teachers like him had helped strengthen the cavernous divide between educators and the rest of society. I’d probably want to declare war on education too if I’d been denied use of the bathroom and been forced into silence and compliance out of fear.  (Come to think of it, it sounds a lot like elementary school,  and I’m still recovering from what a batch of bad nuns did to my psyche. )

Before I went to UC Davis to get my credential, I looked at a few other programs.  Most of them had extensive classroom management courses designed to teach behavior modification and other means of effectively controlling students.  Gatheral and Wampler taught us that the only effective way to manage a classroom is through good curriculum.  Bad behavior = boredom. The last education program I visited sported a sign on the desk that said, “What part of NO don’t you understand?”  I went from there to UC Davis where a sign on the window said, “Ask me, I might.”  As my hundreds and hundreds of former students will tell you, I’m the latter kind of teacher.  Having subbed or taught every grade from kindergarten through high school, I can also  tell you I’ve heard every excuse and con known to a teacher.  “Why did you let her go to the bathroom?”  I remember one girl asking.  “She’s faking.”   “Well,” I said, looking down at her skeptical face, “I’d rather be conned by 100 students that tell even one student ‘no’ when she really had to go. “  Mystified, she walked away.

My favorite memory is of subbing for a class of third graders: “We didn’t we say the pledge of allegiance!” they chorused.  “What does allegiance mean?” I asked. Thirty shrugs.  “Well, instead of reciting it,  let’s learn what it means.”  Dead silence as I headed for the dictionary.  Once they learned what allegiance meant I asked them if it was a good idea to promise something when they didn’t know what it meant.  Grave shakes of little heads.   Children do not appreciate being treed.

Being educated isn’t about memorizing, behaving a certain way,  or jumping through any sort of hoop.  Being educated is about seeing the hoops for what they are and learning how to navigate them.  In my years of teaching, I’ve increasingly seen training subvert education.  I’ve seen flocks of parents (including myself) choose home schooling or alternative education over the mainstream experience.  I did this because I did not want my children to be trained or controlled.  I did not want them to be in an environment where their integrity was constantly questioned and their questions seldom honored.  Tucked away at every school–public and private, near and far–there are dedicated teachers who truly believe in educating their students. They are consistently outnumbered by flashy trainers who manipulate students into busy-working themselves through the school day.

Often when I begin teaching a course I have students write about their best and their worst school experiences. Inevitably, these young adults remember the different feelings they experienced when teachers honored them versus controlled them. These feelings stay with them and become part of how they view education, how much respect they pay to  the idea of education in our culture.  When they’ve been taught by people like Taylor Mali, they are anxious to kick some teacher ass.  I can’t blame them. I would be too—in fact I once was. Teachers won’t be respected until they respect their students as whole, complicated people, and respect students’ families as sacred houses that hold those whole, complicated people. Hopefully the next time Mali calls a student’s home at dinner time just to intimidate the parents, the mom or dad on the other end of the phone will stand up to his bullying and and tell him his career change is appropriate: he’s hot and funny enough, and seems to be transitioning from teacher to comedian/poet.  Now he can finally  “do” and not just “teach”. More importantly, he’ll stop treeing children.

Here’s a link to Taylor Mali performing his piece “What Teachers Make”:

Taylor Mali What Teacher\’s Make


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Filed under Education, Essays, Polemics, politics

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