Charles Dickens published Hard Times in London in 1854—that’s over 150 years ago. In the opening paragraphs, Dickens describes with fierce precision the first thing future teachers need to know. This is the fraught world of 19th-century English schooling, remarkably like the one new teachers will face in modern America:
“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, Sir!”…
The speaker, and the schoolmaster…swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim.
There is good news and bad news to keep in mind regardless of where you are in your teaching journey. The bad news first: You can’t be a wise teacher before you’ve been an innocent and naïve one, smart before foolish, experienced before inexperienced. Learning to teach takes time. You are a work in progress. Keep going.
The good news? You can hold onto your humanistic ideals as a teacher, negotiate the troubled waters of teaching, continue to grow, and learn for your entire life in classrooms. Committing to the task of continuous experimentation, investigation, inquiry, and study is essential. One way to proceed is to engage in an intergenerational dialogue with other teachers, a space for problem posing and problem solving, historical and theoretical considerations, storytelling and critical reflection.
There’s so much more to learn. Too often future teachers have experienced little more than a few courses in educational philosophy and psychology, the history of education, then the methods of teaching, and finally a synthesizing moment when everything is theoretically brought together in student teaching. This approach structures the separation of thought from action, rips one from another, and walls the mind off from the body, weakening both. It’s lazy at best, miseducative always. But worse, it ignores the humanizing mission of teaching.
The humanizing mission focuses on the humanity of students, multi-dimensional creatures with bodies, minds, hearts, spirits, and also hopes, dreams, aspirations, and desires. These are some courses we might have wanted to take in college: Turning Toward the Student as Fellow Creature (Not Dirt Bag of Deficits); Building a Republic of Many Voices Where Each Can Be Heard, Each Seen; Creating Community with and for Students and Families; Finding Critical Allies in Parents and Community; Developing Courage and Confidence; Becoming a Student of Our Students; Lifting the Weight of the World; Resisting Orthodoxy; Teaching Toward Freedom, How To.
There’s a message here, of course, about what is to be valued and hwy, just as the message in the existing standard curriculum tells us what is to be valued and why. I want teachers to resist the mindless and the soulless in teaching in favor of attention to the ethical and intellectual dimension of their efforts. I want teachers to be aware of the stakes, aware as well that there is no simple technique or linear path that will take them to where they need to go, and then allow them to live out settled teaching lives, untroubled and finished. There is no promised land in teaching, just that aching persistent tension between reality and possibility.
I want teachers to future out what they’re teaching for, and what they’re teaching against. I know I want to teach against oppression and subjugation, exploitation, unfairness, and unkindness. I want to teach toward freedom, for enlightenment and awareness, wide-awakeness, protection of the weak, cooperation, generosity, compassion, and love. I want my teaching to mean something worthwhile in the lives of my students and in the larger worlds they will inhabit and create. I want it to mean something in mine.
I want future teachers to commit to a path with a certain direction and rhythm: Love life, embrace your students, breathe in and breathe out, love your neighbors, open up, listen, love yourself, be generous, act and doubt, learn from your students, question everything, talk with everyone you meet, defend the outcast and the despised, challenge and nourish yourself and others, become a student of your students and allow them to become a teacher to their teacher, seek balance. I want future teachers to develop a wild and eclectic and dynamic list they can refer to when the night is dark and they feel themselves to be far from home. Here is Walt Whitman, in one of his many prefaces to Leaves of Grass, offering advice to his fellow poets:
This is what you shall do:
Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number for men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body…
That’s a list to laminate and carry along in your backpack, a list to tape to your wall. It’s written to poets, but it stands as advice to free and future teachers, too, a nice start to our own lists. The important thing is this: Don’t let your teaching life make a mockery of your teaching values.