Teachers’ Resistance (and Other Stories of Sanity)

Summary: In a climate of federal retreat to the nineteenth century, and sometimes unintentional de facto assaults from our friends, teachers nonetheless shape the future by their own good practice in the present day, every day.

I labor as do many with the ill winds that blow out of Washington, D. C. The progress of recent years on many fronts is systematically under attack; it feels very much with Yeats that the center is not holding. Buoyant spirit and faith in the future have become an effort of will against the daily news.

As for schools and teaching, so legion are the voices that clamor for change in one direction or another it even seems that trouble brews behind our backs, in the person of our friends.head-2428333_1280

The latest of such friends is Karen Mapp, a professor at the Harvard School of Education, as reported in the Seattle Times’ “Education Lab.” Ms. Mapp proposes quite credibly based on the research that teachers would do well to engage more fully the families of the kids in their classrooms. She points out that most state guidelines for teachers do not include family engagement as an item, which may surprise many classroom veterans who know from experience that part of the key to their young charges lies with their families, it’s just that a sustained and comprehensive partnership with all parents that Mapp envisions takes time they do not have in the school day. She seems to assume teachers would carry out her proposal if only they were adequately exposed to the idea or were mandated to do so by state guidelines.

Not that I am not tangentially guilty of the same thing, in a way. My last post, for example, detailed the step by step process of a dropout in the making, and made the plea that caring and sustained intervention at any one of a hundred points might have brought the prototypical troubled kid back into the fold.

My saving grace is that I know schools as they are currently constructed and funded cannot consistently do what is necessary to quell the stream of dropouts. Individual teachers, counselors, and administrators certainly save some kids, but legions elude the grasp or manage to graduate with only limited skills to carry them forward.

It is difficult to keep the faith in the work with reformist pressures on one side and a full assault on liberal democracy on the other, though the presence of real kids every day in the classroom with their needs compels a teacher’s concentrated energies from the moment of entrance into the school house until the end of the day, and strangely offers a reprieve from the howling on the political front.

Nevertheless, reformist pressures aside, many of us of a moderate right center to left persuasion feel a gut need to fight back at the Trumpian calamity, to make a difference in this political environment that offends our values. There is reason to worry for the path of the country; at the same time many may feel powerless to do anything about it.

Educators as a group are no different, but are uniquely positioned. The conscious act of working with kids to improve their ability to lead strong lives is the very heart of “resistance” to the kind of amoral social fragmentation that the president and to some extent the current Congress represent.

To enhance learning is to reinforce the intertwined ethic of teaching, helping others, and social justice in the cultural identity of the nation. It’s as though we bank value to sustain not only students, but ourselves, and to preserve the memory of how we do it when again the nation retrieves its senses.

At risk of getting too dramatic, or of insulting victims of catastrophes of far worse dimension, stories from modern day Syria and twentieth century Ukraine illustrate the critical role of such sustained “resistance” in keeping alive these principles of a humanist collective order.

It is a challenge to identify a more disintegrative descent into hopelessness than that of the contemporary Syrian war, with unimaginable destruction of cities and homes, death on a numbing scale, and hordes of refugees, the lucky ones, stranded in camps or abroad with little of their former lives to return to.  Nonetheless, as recently reported, in the midst of the madness Syrian scientists continue to harbor outside the war zone tens of thousands of strains of grains against a future return to civil normalcy and an agricultural reality that will be hotter and drier than even the current Syrian environment. These Syrian scientists are the keepers of the flame, so to speak, of the fundamental necessities of life, to which Syrian civilians will one day turn in order to reconstruct their lives.

Secondly, we know from the news that the post-Soviet state of Ukraine continues to resist their former Soviet overlords and engages in a smoldering undeclared war against Russian incursions and separatists. What is less well known is that Stalin in the 1930’s engineered a famine to crush resistance to Soviet rule and starved to death literally millions of innocent Ukrainians in the process. Stalin suppressed all public discussion of the Soviet role, and in fact Ukraine was under the heel of the Russian Bear for decades. Privately, stories of Russian brutality fed a Ukrainian identity that was passed on from family to family, generation to generation, which in turn fueled the Ukrainians’ emergence as an independent state after the fall of the Soviet Union. It took fifty or more years and the decimation of families, but the story of atrocity kept alive in the underground became a rallying point that provided Ukrainians the will to resist and to be their own masters when the time became ripe.

In our own country, a storied history and a narrative of victories large and small furnishes faith to the African American community and to all of us in the ongoing struggle for equal opportunity.

So maybe it is a small point in comparison that dedicated school people play a role similar to that of the Syrian keepers of the grains and to that of the generational stories both in the Ukraine and within our own African American community. I do think it true that ideas, their practice and their symbols, transcend the moment, become a part of culture, and serve to reach into more fertile times. Each kid taught, each crisis resolved, each fragile psyche empowered – the normal activity in a normal school day — deepens the pedagogical presence in the collective memory, testimony to our shared responsibility for others, and a rebuke to the darker angels who would destroy without building.


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