A Letter from my Brother to my Son

March 18, 2011

Letter to a young teacher

by Rick Ayers

Huffington Post Blog

March 15, 2011


So my nephew Malik, a fabulous renaissance man who has taught sixth grade math, science, and Spanish as well as coaching basketball and baseball for the last six years, was given a pink slip.  Again.  It’s a March ritual around here.  School districts are dealing with slashed budgets and are not certain of enrollment.  In response they send out a flurry of layoff notices.  I’m pretty sure Malik will be hired back.  He’s got some time in, he’s a beloved teacher, and he is extremely successful teaching students in his working class and low-resourced middle school.

But the whole thing is infuriating.  I texted him to say I hoped he was doing OK.  He texted back, telling me that he would never advise a friend to go into this profession.  I was so sad to think about this response, the kind of feeling that so many teachers get at this time of year.

I tried to send him back some words of encouragement.  I’m a teacher educator, after all, and it’s my calling to encourage people to become teachers and help them to be successful.  I wrote him something about the fact that the pink slip is an insult, only that, but he would certainly still have a job.  But as I thought about it, I realized this is one insult piled on top of the many others that are being offered to teachers.  While there is a small problem of some bad and ineffective teachers hanging on to their jobs, as there is with bad, ineffective, lazy lawyers, doctors, nurses, architects, bankers, cops, financial analysts, cooks, firefighters and farmers,  there is a huge bleeding gash in the system – the 40% of new teachers, mostly excellent teachers, who quit in the first three years.  They are discouraged, demoralized, scorned, and ridiculed by the media, politicians, and bosses.  I want you all to hang in there.  So here is my attempt to pull together my thoughts.  It is my “letter to a young teacher.”

Dear Malik,

We are, sadly, living in the year of hating teachers.  Whether it’s Wisconsin governor Scott Walker rewarding the super-rich while complaining about the high compensation of teachers or Obama’s education secretary Arne Duncan applauding the mass firing of teachers and endorsing the teacher-bashing rhetoric of the right, we’re having it hard these days.  After decades of “devolution” of federal funding and escalating military budgets, state governments are de-funding education.  Policy wonks fantasize about making schools in the US that look like those in Singapore – with compliant students who study desperately to make the grade – and the President talks about education designed to compete with China and India – as if that were the purpose of education in a democracy.  The national discussion of education, driven by right wing media and think tanks, suggests that teacher education, teachers, teacher unions, and just about everything else about schools is worth trashing.  Professor William Watkins may be right – these people may really have in mind closing down public education altogether.

On the teacher profession side we find plenty of despair.  Teaching, like the other caring professions, has been regarded as women’s work and therefore worthy of less respect and pay.  And now teachers are being forced more and more into mindless scripted curricula, which amount to low-intelligence test-prep exercises.  Teacher education programs are cutting back their offerings and fewer people, particularly with math and science degrees, are willing to go into teaching.  Getting that March pink slip is just another turn in the barrage of insults teachers suffer.

As I was thinking about this, and how to respond to you, something dawned on me.  I think we pretty much should stop waiting for respect.  It’s not going to come, not for a long, long time.  We know we are creative, growing professionals who are engaged in one of the world’s most demanding jobs and we know we should be honored for our work with children and adolescents.  But perhaps we should simply stop thinking along the lines of that framework of professionals who should be respected.

Here are a few other ways we might frame our job:

First, the miracles.  We teachers fight for success in the classroom every day and many days we fail – like health professionals, it’s part of the job and we try to learn from the losses.  But sometimes we work our magic and it comes out right.  That’s when you want to leap up and give a fellow teacher or a student a high five.  Yes, we get both emotions, twenty times a day.  We have the honor of being with these students more than any other adults – laughing and crying, seeing transformations before our eyes.  And we usually find ourselves in a wonderful community of teachers – intense, funny, brilliant, and deeply ethical colleagues who help us through.

I remember when I first went into teaching.  I had been a restaurant cook for ten years and I knew the slog of production:  bring in raw materials, work on them, push product out the door, charge money, get a little pay.  Mostly it was hard, physical work.  I remember how amazed I was when I first started teaching:  I could get paid for reading, writing, talking, and listening?  What a delight.  And it was the most intellectually and ethically challenging job I could imagine – on the level of course content (we are always scavenging, studying, borrowing, innovating, learning more) and even more on the human interaction dimension (constantly studying the kids, doing close observation, trying to figure out how to be successful at inspiring, encouraging and challenging them).  We get joy, real joy and satisfaction, from our students.  Yes, that’s the secret delight of this profession, working with inspiring colleagues, knowing these kids and being with them through the small and large changes in their lives, knowing their families and the heroic struggles of the communities they come from.  We have the coolest job ever – we are privileged to be working with young people every day.

Secondly, as that t-shirt says, “Be an activist, be a teacher.”  We might head off to work with more joy and positive feeling if we think of ourselves as organizers. Teaching, after all, is not only community service, it is a project of social change. We don’t go to work to blithely reproduce the inequities that exist in our society.  We want students to learn, not just the ropes of the game and the gatekeepers, but their own power, their own capacity.  We want them to have the creativity and imagination to know that another world is possible; we want them to have the skills to make it so.  If you were organizing Mississippi sharecroppers in the 60’s or Flint auto workers in the 30’s, you would not be waiting for someone in power to say you’re great.  You would expect to be insulted and vilified.  But you do the work because you know it’s right.  We teachers do this job because we are change agents. A lot of people jaw about social change and activism but teachers do the work every day.  Like an organizer, you are fighting for broader goals, ones tied to the doors you open for this student, the progress you make on that project.

We go back to work again and again for those goals, not for the ones defined by those who are selling off the public domain and the promise of equality, justice and the common future, the policy wonks who seem to be in charge today.  My hero and heroine teachers are not the savior types you see in the movies.  They are people like Septima Clark teaching in rural South Carolina, Paulo Freire organizing in the mountains of Brazil, Father Lorenzo Milani transforming peasant kids in Tuscany, Sylvia Ashton-Warner empowering Maori children in New Zealand, and so many others.  They got no respect.  They changed the world.  Like organizers, we learn the hard lessons of social change – it never comes when we are patronizing and hand out charity; it only succeeds when we respect the people we teach and act in solidarity with them.  And, like organizers, we are energized by the knowledge that we just might win together, by the knowledge that we do win small victories every day.

Thirdly. . . there is no thirdly.  Just those two.  The joy of working with kids.  The commitment to organizing and social justice.  The pay is bad but, really, not that bad.  One can have a decent, if modest, living doing this.  And we may be scorned by idiots but we are revered by parents, communities, and students. All in all, not such a bad gig.  Of course I’m pretty sure you’re going to stick with it, Malik.  And I hope you encourage other friends to join our ranks.  We need them!


Tio Rick


Research and Teaching

September 9, 2008

There is no one better positioned than the late Edward Said to offer advice on the conduct of intellectual life. At the time of his death in September, 2003 he was perhaps the best known intellectual in the world with millions of readers who saw him variously as a renowned professor of comparative literature, a cultural theorist, a musician, music critic, and (with maestro Daniel Barenboim) musical activist, and, with growing urgency over the last thirty-five years, the most passionate, eloquent, and clear-eyed advocate for the rights of the Palestinian people. Idolized and despised, venerated and denounced, Said was impossible to ignore.
The scope of his interests, the depth of his ambitions, the energy and effort invested in every project was vast, and yet each somehow informed and was influenced by the others, and each was animated by his understanding of humanism as universal, inclusive, communitarian, and democratic. Daniel Barenboim (2005) insists that Said had a “musician’s soul” and he traces Said’s fierce antispecialization, his sense of interconnectedness and inclusion, his distinction between power and force, volume and intensity—all insights of a musician—from his work in music to other fields. Said’s great work on Orientatism—which spawned the field of postcolonial studies, a field Said would go on to criticize and question as it developed its own lazy habits and received wisdom—was written and published after 1967, when Said was brought into Palestinian politics for the first time. Linkages abound around issues of conflicting narratives, visibility, and human rights.
As an advocate for Palestinian rights Said was unparalleled and yet he was not a spokesman in any conventional sense, for he held no office whatsoever, nor was he ever a mouth-piece for power. Indeed his criticisms of the official Palestinian leadership were both withering and relentless, keeping with his consistent injunction to oppose all orthodoxy, especially the lazy reductiveness or corruption or failures of those with whom one shares an affinity. Said in regard to Palestine was a powerful public example of someone with a mind of his own, arguing with himself without ever losing sight of the larger contexts of suffering and oppression.
Still the Palestinians had no more powerful champion. Said argued that “Humanism… must excavate the silences, the world of memory, of itinerant, barely surviving groups, the places of exclusion and invisibility, the kind of testimony that doesn’t make it into the reports.” To this end he made it his business to keep talking about Palestine, to say again and again and again—whether he thought anyone was listening or not—that the Palestinian people exist, and that while they have the sorry fate of being the victims of the 20th Century’s emblematic victims, they still have the same rights as any other people. Because all human beings are entitled to the same standards in regard to justice and freedom, Palestinians must be recognized; there simply is no sensible refutation to that self-evident if inconvenient fact. Against the most high-powered propaganda barrage, in the face of threats and smear campaigns, cancellations of talks and spurious “investigations,” Said stubbornly stood his ground and spoke of Palestinians.
His book-length essay After the Last Sky written with the Swiss photographer, Jean Mohr, provides an extended reflection on the lives of Palestinians, and fulfills his injunction to “excavate the silences.” In it he portrays Palestinians, reflects on the images the wider world has of them as well as the images they have of themselves. He maps the corrosive dimensions of occupation, and clarifies the basic human need for people to narrate their own stories in order to move forward.
It is for the Palestinian people themselves “to provide the answer that power and paranoia cannot” he wrote in Al-Ahram and Al-Hayat in 2001. That answer “can only come from moral vision” based on a common humanity, and never from “pragmatism” nor “practicality”: “If we are all to live—this is our imperative—we must capture the imagination not just of our people but of our oppressors.” In order to accomplish that, Palestinians must “abide by humane democratic values.” The moral vision must be “based on equality and inclusion rather than on apartheid and exclusion.” This is a humanist response to a very human tragedy.

Human beings, and particularly intellectuals and researchers, are driven by a long, continuous: “I don’t know.” It is, after all, not the known that pushes and pull us along, although we must be serious about preparation, work, discipline, and labor. Doing research can be hard work, and a researcher can feel (if she is like others who’ve gone down this path) as if she’s crashed into a wall—overwhelmed, uncertain, deeply confused and dislocated in turn. But if she stays with it, if she dives into the wreckage, she will likely find moments of relief, exhilaration, self-discovery, and even of joy.
There is a long tradition of scholarship whose avowed purpose is to combat silence, to defeat erasure and invisibility—this is research for social justice, research to resist harm and redress grievances, research with the explicit goal of promoting a more balanced, fair, and equitable social order. Several questions can serve as guideposts for this kind of inquiry:
∑ What are the issues that marginalized or disadvantaged people speak of with excitement, anger, fear, or hope?
∑ How can I enter a dialogue in which I will learn from a specific community itself about problems and obstacles they face?
∑ What endogenous experiences do people already have that can point the way toward solutions?
∑ What narrative is missing from the “official story” that will make the problems of the oppressed more understandable?
∑ What current or proposed policies serve the privileged and the powerful, and how are they made to appear inevitable?
∑ How can the public space for discussion, problem-posing and problem-solving, fuller and wider participation be expanded?
There is no single procedure, no computer program that will allow this work to take care of itself; there is no set of techniques that is orderly, efficient, and pretested that can provide complete distance from a phenomenon under study or from the process of inquiry itself. Researchers draw on judgment, experience, instinct, common sense, courage, reflection, further study. There is always more to know, always something in reserve. We’re never exactly comfortable, but neither are we numb or sleep-walking. We don’t get harmony, but we do get a kind of arching forward—always reaching, pursuing, longing, opening, rethinking.
Researchers must peer into the unknown and cultivate habits of vigilance and awareness, a radical openness, as we continually remind ourselves that in an infinite and expanding universe our ignorance is vast, our finiteness itself all the challenge we should need to propel ourselves forward. Knowing this, we nourish an imagination that’s defiant and limitless, and like the color blue or love or friendship, impossible to define without a maiming reductiveness. The goal is discovery and surprise, and in the end it is our gusto, our immersion, our urgency, enthusiasm, and raw nerve that will take us hurling toward the next horizon. We remind ourselves that the greatest work awaits us, and that we are never higher than when we’re not exactly certain where we’re going.
What interests, tendencies, or classes does our research precisely serve? What will invite people to become more aware, more critical, creative, active and productive, more free? While researchers might never know definitively how to answer these questions a priori, a certain angle of regard might help each of us to make sounder judgments, to construct a more hopeful and workable standard by which we can examine our efforts. We begin by recognizing that every human being, no matter who, is a gooey biological wonder, pulsing with the breath and beat of life itself, each with a unique and complex set of circumstances that makes his or her life understandable and sensible, bearable or unbearable. This recognition asks us to reject any action that treats anyone as an object, any gesture that thingifies human beings. It demands that we embrace the humanity of every student and every research collaborator, that we take their side.
What are the challenges to human beings today? What does the hope for democracy demand now? Edward Said points out that “Our country is first of all an extremely diverse immigrant society, with fantastic resources and accomplishments, but it also contains a redoubtable set of internal inequities and external interventions that cannot be ignored.” We are faced with the enduring stain of racism and the ever more elusive and intractable barriers to racial justice, the rapidly widening gulf between rich and poor, and the enthronement of greed. We are faced as well with aggressive economic and military adventures abroad, the macho posturing of men bonding in groups and enacting a kind of theatrical but no less real militarism, the violence of conquest and occupation from the Middle East and Central Asia to South America.
Encountering these facts thrusts us into the realm of human agency and choice, the battlefield of social action and change, where we come face to face with some stubborn questions: Can we, perhaps, stop the suffering? Can we alleviate at least some of the pain? Can we repair any of the loss? There are deeper considerations: can society be changed at all? Is it remotely possible—not inevitable, certainly, perhaps not even likely—for people to come together freely, to imagine a more just and peaceful social order, to join hands and organize for something better, and to win? Can we do anything?
If a fairer, more sane and just social order is both desirable and possible, if some of us can join one another to imagine and build a participatory movement for justice, a public space for the enactment of democratic dreams, our field opens slightly. There would still be much to be done, for nothing would be entirely settled. We would still need to find ways to stir ourselves and our students from passivity, cynicism, and despair, to reach beyond the superficial barriers that wall us off from one another, to resist the flattening social evils like institutionalized racism, to shake off the anesthetizing impact of the authoritative, official voices that dominate so much of our space, to release our imaginations and act on behalf of what the known demands, linking our conduct firmly to our consciousness. We would need to reconceptualize ourselves as “stunt-intellectuals,” the ones who are called upon when the other intellectuals refuse to jump off the bridge. We would be moving, then, without guarantees, but with purpose and with some small spark of hope.

“Emancipate Yourselves From Mental Slavery”…Bob Marley

September 9, 2008

We each have an inescapable responsibility to live our lives purposefully, to choose who we want to be and who we want to become in a shifting and complex world, to name ourselves and construct our identities in the noise and chaos of the whirlwind. One of my earliest teachers put it this way: Live your life in a way that won’t make a mockery of your values.

Of course, that injunction settles nothing in the everyday world we inhabit: we still have to make our choices operating largely in the dark, we still live without guarantees regarding the outcomes of our choices or our actions. But the admonition has as well some positive spark: it assumes that we have values that we can access and assess; it asks us to use those values as guides and goals; it challenges us to live a life that ties those values as closely as possible to our behavior every moment of every day. But it’s a bit like the exchange in Wonderland when Alice asks the Cheshire Cat, “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” says the cat. As the saying goes, if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. Making our values explicit and accessible is one way to begin to create, if not a detailed and completed map, at least a sketch and a dream. This is what freedom looks like—it asks us to act with courage, to operate without a safety net, to confront the horrors as well as to celebrate the joys of living, and finally, to choose.

In the 1999 Brazilian film Central Station we find a woman who makes a meager living writing letters for illiterate people in a downtown train terminal.One day a man comes to her with an astonishing offer: he will pay her a significant amount of money if on the following day she will pick up a young boy at a certain address and deliver him to an American couple on the other side of the city so that the boy can be adopted. She of course takes the job, collects her money, and on the way home stops off to buy a new television set. Later, happily watching her new TV, a friend stops by and hears the story of the boy. Her friend reproves her. Are you crazy? she asks. Don’t you follow the news? She explains that children all over Rio are being kidnapped, sold, and murdered, their organs harvested for an international market in such things. The woman sets off immediately to try to find the boy and save his life.

When the woman took the job, there was no burning ethical issue involved. But when her eyes were opened, she had to either act or choose indifference and therefore immorality. A first step, then, in making a moral choice or taking an ethical action is to open our eyes to reality. We must see the world as it is, we must act on the world, and we must also then question whether our action was completely correct. And we act again.

During the time of slavery there were undoubtedly honest slave traders, loyal slave-catchers, and plantation owners who told the truth, paid their bills, and lived up to their promises, but in what sense were they acting ethically? In order to be a moral person then and there—it seems so obvious now—one would have had to work for abolition. Not many did, but we find some comfort today in telling ourselves we would surely have been among the courageous and the righteous few. But is it true? How do we know? We know that a slave society undermines goodness every moment in a million different ways. And since we know that it is very nearly impossible for individuals to live virtuous lives in a slave state, it becomes essential to end slavery—or, in these times, to work toward a more just and peaceful world—as part of leading a moral life. A just society creates the conditions for more of us to act more often in a moral way. Are there any injustices here and now that we take for granted for which the coming generations might indict or condemn us? And, most important, what social and community standards would allow or invite more of us to do the right thing?

The Discipline of Hope by Herbert Kohl

August 9, 2008

Herbert Kohl is the most important educator of his generation. No one describes the practical life of classrooms with such grace, nor connects the commonplace to the larger circles of economic circumstance, historical flow, political power, and cultural context with such compelling force. In The Discipline of Hope, Kohl draws critical lessons from a lifetime of teaching, activism, and reflection.

In the tradition of John Dewey, Herb Kohl shows us teaching as intellectual and ethical work, life-changing and earth-shaking. At the heart of Kohl’s vision is the child yearning to grow and to contribute

Tales of the Dolly Llama by Guy Kuttner

August 9, 2008

One teacher’s long journey to a kind of enlightenment, this is the best piece I’ve read on teaching in years. Not only does Kuttner nail issue after issue with laser-like precision, but he manages to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted with humor and brief anecdotes, avoiding both the puffed-up academic pose and the grim earnestness of the wounded and the self-righteous. I really loved it.

She Would Not Be Moved by Herb Kohl

August 9, 2008

Herb Kohl revisits the fabled story of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott, turning it upside down in search of a truth beneath the authorized and largely whitewashed version. She Would Not Be Moved is a small book with a big message—it’s destined to become a classic.

On the Outside Looking In by Christina Rathbone

August 9, 2008

Like Dickens and de Tocqueville, whose American journeys in the last century challenged us to look at ourselves in new and surprising ways, Rathbone’s outsider perspective provides more than a ‘thick description’ of some distant and abstract subculture. On the Outside Looking In is in the end a powerful mirror held up to our American dream—what we behold is a frighteningly fragile future and a world in desperate need of repair.

Organizing the South Bronx by Jim Rooney

August 9, 2008

Organizing the South Bronx is a story of heroic and articulate individuals who were able to defy overwhelming odds and build affordable housing in the South Bronx. It is about the process of teaching citizens in a low-income neighborhood how to fully and effectively participate in public life. Very little is written about the catastrophic and precipitous collapse of the South Bronx, although its fate is universally cited as emblematic of urban hopelessness. This inquiry focuses on community organizers sifting through the wreckage and making progress in battling an inept municipal government and the centrifugal forces of decay. The locus is a coalition of forty church congregations who battled the city of New York for vacant land in order to build owner-occupied row houses. It’s a compelling lesson in how to educate adults in a democracy to find their voices and wield their collective power as organized and engaged citizens.

An Elementary School in Holland by Loren Barritt

August 9, 2008

An Elementary School in Holland overflows with powerful lessons for American educators: the importance of community in the lives of teachers and students, the value of small school size and intimate face-to-face relationships in children’s growth and development, the usefulness of collaboration among teachers. Loren Barritt has given us a remarkable, dynamic portrait of one school that works.

This Happened in America by Ronald Evans

August 9, 2008

Ron Evans brings one of the giants of American education fully to life in this thoroughly researched and vividly rendered biography. Harold Rugg was a driving force in the progressive schools movement, and the leading figure in the development of social studies as an area to challenge the deadening standardization that characterized the schools of his day. Rugg knew that education could never be neutral, and he fought for a vision of schools as a central force in the reconstruction of society along lines of freedom, participatory democracy, creativity, and justice. Evans captures Rugg in all his three-dimensional and contradictory splendor.