A friend of mine thoughtfully and insightfully responded to my last post, and her words got me working through some of the ideas that are struggling to find shape in my brain these days. I’m spending a lot of time reading works by people that question established ideas of schooling, both in practice and in theory, and much of it seems to revolve around the ethics of what teachers do.
I don’t think I have this all figured out yet. I’m pretty sure that I never will. I know for a fact that what I am studying now will inform a broader, more comprehensive theory of schooling that I hope one day to be able to share, but that theory is very, very roughly formed right now. It isn’t comprehensible from very many angles. There is a lot of ambiguity, too many questions, too little solidity and not enough support to make it all something worth expressing.
But there are two solid things that keep informing both this developing ideology and my own practice in the classroom.
The first is Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” I’m sure that I encountered this in my first-year philosophy course back in undergrad, but I had a bad habit of falling asleep during those lectures.
It came up again in one of my courses last term, in a Nel Noddings textbook that helped me to finally value philosophy and its place in policy development. Since revisiting it, I often cite the imperative in my classroom, offering it up to students as a way to evaluate their suggestions to others and their kneejerk responses to injustice, anger, or violence. Simply put, I ask them, “Do you want everyone to act the way you suggest, in this kind of situation, even if you are at the receiving end of it?”
The second informing idea has been the golden rule, with my favourite version being the one from Luke 6:31: “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.” With my kids, I usually simplify it to, “Treat others the way you want them to be treated.” (Often, I end up following this with, “Not treat others the way that you think they deserve to be treated.”)
I think that most teachers have posted something like this somewhere in the classroom, or that most teachers have, at least at some point in time, cited this when dealing with a student. I know that I have.
But here’s the thing that has been eating away at me recently: As a teacher, I don’t often follow these rules myself. I’m trying harder these days, but I have been very guilty of acting like a certain set of behaviours are okay for me but not for my students. I have been very harsh with kids when they act out, verbal dismantling their actions in ways that are not particularly pleasant, and I know that I am not the only one to ever do so.
But holding up the justification for my actions (“laying down the law,” “waking them up,” “setting an example”) to either of the above maxims proves just how flimsy they are. I don’t ever want someone to dress me down in front of my peers, to make me feel bad by verbal ripping into me, to yell at me, belittle me, or tower over me. I want people to assume some measure of inherent goodness and humanity in me before passing judgment. As a teacher, I need to do better at asking myself if I am treating my students in the way that I want to be treated.
But this is just the baseline application of the rules. I want to be involved in policy making, in changing paradigms, in shifting what schooling is to something that it should be. In the wider lens of schooling and curriculum, how do these maxims inform an ethical policy of education?
My friend cited her bad experiences in gym class when defending a subject-based mandatory curriculum. (She cited other things too, and you can read them in the comments here, but I’m just going to address this one as an example.)
“I absolutely had a better experience than most in school. It came pretty easily to me, I loved to read, and I went to a great school for the arts for a few years. There were subjects that were mandated, however, that I HATED. Like Gym. I was terrible at it, I’m not competitive in the way that you need to be in order to enjoy sports (I consider this a major flaw in my character, by the way), and I didn’t see the point. But, there WAS a point. It was a way to get us moving around a few hours a week, and I got to know stuff about myself that I wouldn’t have bothered to otherwise. I did get better at some of the skills as time progressed, and feel some kind of accomplishment. I got to admire the other kids that were good at it, and have an appreciation for skills that I know I lacked. Maybe it’s not the worst thing in the world to have to do stuff that we don’t like, because there are aspects of every job, even the best job ever, that nobody likes to do. I’d love to be a teacher and not have to read 60 essays and mark them or write stupid report cards, but it’s a part of life and I have to do it. I did feel stupid a lot of days though. Like when I was the only kid who couldn’t do a cartwheel during gymnastics, or when it was the 6th week in a row of the baseball unit and I still didn’t understand the basic rules of baseball, or when I realized that I am incapable of throwing a ball properly. I did feel stupid, and feeling stupid SUCKS.”
I too hated gym. I didn’t take it in grade 9 because I just wanted a year off, but I had to take it in grade 10, and it was infinitely worse to be in a class full of kids that actually wanted to be there instead of a mix of useless gits like me. It was full of bullies, both physical and emotional. I failed at all of the sports. I was weaker than everyone. Slower than everyone. Less coordinated and less able. I was competitive, but such a sense is hopeless when you can’t possibly win.
I wish that I could say that I learned some of the things that my friend learned, but I didn’t. My gym teacher regularly belittled my one friend and me for being so useless. I derived no sense of physical activity as fun. I learned no value of exercise. I learned that guys are jerks, even when they have a teaching degrees and a whistle. It took me years of forcing myself into a variety of martial arts to regain any sense of my physical self, and only now am I able to actually enjoy being active. I truly believe that this has come despite my experience in gym, not because of it.
Being forced to take gym in high school was one of the worst experiences of my life, and I don’t think that I can morally justify putting a kid like me through it as part of their “education.”
I’ve heard so many stories from smart, successful people in my life about similar experiences in virtually every subject that has ever been taught. They tell me about feeling worthless in Math, voiceless in English, lost in French. Sometimes it was the teacher, sometimes it was the content, and often it was both, but they all talk about how badly it hurt to be made to do something that made no sense, offered no entry point, or felt so utterly uninspiring that they simply couldn’t do it.
And for the longest time, I just nodded along and shared my own story, and we commiserated on how we just had to get through it because that was the way it was, and we moved on.
But, if I really truly believe the categorical imperative and Luke 6:31, I don’t think I can just move on anymore.