Friday, April 3, 2009

Letter to Dean of College of Education at UT

April 2, 2009

Dear Dean Justiz,

Maybe it’s a cop-out. Perhaps I’m a coward. In all likelihood, I’m just a romantic idealist. Or maybe I’m onto something. Either way, I’m not in the classroom.

Having graduated about eighteen months ago EC-4 certified, the expectation, both internally, as well as of family, friends, and instructors is that I would be teaching. However, as I neared the end of my Professional Development Sequence, I began to supplement my student teaching with readings dealing with various elements of pedagogy. My interest was cultivated after being asked by my program coordinators some questions dealing with the macrocosmic issues of education, such as the purpose of education and the various approaches to curriculum development. Meanwhile, the inquiries of many of my classmates dealt with specific issues in teaching which they were having to address in their specific field experiences, and most of them tended to become frustrated when ‘inundated with theory.’

Upon graduation, I realized that there was a host of questions whose corresponding answers were necessary facets in developing and internalizing an ideological framework that I had yet to answer, at least inasmuch as an answer can be formulated thereto. In place of these ‘bigger questions,’ I had been led to answer for myself many of the smaller, situational questions that exist. I see this exploration as helpful and as the job of the Professional Development Sequence, as is presupposed in its name.

The aforementioned task of the PDS was completed as interestingly, efficiently, beautifully, and connectedly as possible by the facilitators of my program, due mainly to the nonstop efforts of the amazing Jim Hoffman. The group also includes, but is not limited to, DeeDee Davenport, Sherry Field, Nathalie Hunt, and Ann Quarles, as well as my Cooperating Teacher, Crystal Marchand, most recently at Allan Elementary and currently working on a charter for Austin Community School.

In having been introduced to various questions regarding the theoretical aspect of education, I went on a personal and continuing quest during the last eighteen months or so, to add some substance to the base I had developed in class. What I discovered was quite alarming. I realized that in having earned a degree in Early Childhood Education, I had never been asked to explore the history of education, the various movements advocating alternatives such as holistic education, democratic education, or specific alternative approaches such as Waldorf, Sudbury, or Montessori education, all of which represent viable and caring options. Indeed, the ideals of such theorists as John Dewey, John Holt, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Sylvia Ashton Warner, John Taylor Gatto, bell hooks, Jonathan Kozol, Herbert Kohl, and countless others were not a part of my base pedagogical knowledge. In having been introduced to Paulo Freire, Alfie Kohn, William Ayers, Deborah Meier, Nel Noddings, and Maxine Greene, amongst others, I am forever grateful to my professors in the PDS and Ms. Marchand.

I write this as one of the lucky ones. Lucky in that the effect of compulsory schooling that generally breeds competition, and canonizes the product whilst ignoring the process that creates it, did not completely debilitate my natural sense of inquiry, nor did it train me to see that the power of knowledge is beyond my reach; that it is contained wholly in those greater than me.

Upon my graduation, I had become dangerously close to actually believing that I was ready for the classroom. Indeed, I still feel as though I could have done a fair job given my experiences over the course of the PDS. However, I likely would have become yet another teacher who has an inchoate theoretical sense of the social and political reasons for and inherent responsibilities of education, the true role of the teacher, and the need to remain constantly critical of a system that is largely damaging to the nature of children, especially to those living in poverty, who I see as the necessary targets of my future work. Without a strong sense of such an identity, I am acutely aware of the propensity for teachers to revert back to teaching the way they were taught, which, for the majority of us, is a dangerous prospect.

Learning about the history of education and the availability of options that have been conceived as well as the historical environment that cultivated them invites a young teacher to explore their personal view of the child, the teacher, the school, and education as a whole. By not offering, much less enforcing, undergraduate courses which require each student to invest in the development of their own personal and theoretically based ideologies of pedagogy, we are only serving to perpetuate the problems that exist now in terms of unmotivated or overwhelmed teachers, overtly damaging schools, and generally apathetic citizens.

Thus, I propose the addition of prerequisites to the PDS that force each and every student to develop and internalize a belief system for themselves, rather than asking questions that are embedded in a public school setting. In doing so, we are implying that there are no other schools of thought, much less tangible movements that embody alternative pedagogies. This seems to be elevating public schools as the sole viable choice, and that our only real option is creative maladjustment within the public school system, which I have learned is not at all the case. As a university with such high regard for its liberal and progressive identity, I feel as though you would be remiss in denying future students courses that introduce educational alternatives, theoretical aspects including critical and holistic approaches, and a historical overview of education in our country and globally.

Sadly, as I have experienced firsthand, the current system has been generally successful in its tendency to debilitate creativity and personally inspired inquiry development, beginning in the earliest grades. There are those of us who have simply chosen the job of a teacher, while others have dedicated their lives to the betterment of society, and feel we can be of most influence involved in educational situations.

As for myself, I am in the process of unlearning much of what I learned in pre-PDS classes in an attempt to develop and internalize my belief system, including a critical aspect in that development. Being that I realized my underdevelopment late in my schooling, I am currently avoiding the classroom with the expectation that my teaching could have a negative effect on students. To use a metaphor, I have a beautifully decorated attic in a house whose foundation was missing, and I don’t even know if I’m on the right block, because I was never introduced to the options in the neighborhood. I can only hope that the apathy that was so rampant outside of classes will not plague my fellow graduates, although I have seen evidence to the contrary. Many of them will feel the element of being theoretically unprepared and insufficiently convicted in their ideology, and hopefully they will respond by going back to the basics, so to speak, and asking the questions they were never forced to at the onset of their schooling.

We must be sure that higher education serves more than an internship, and that we allow and even foster a sense of responsibility to continue being a lifelong learner, especially in the College of Education, where we are turning out those who will immediately and drastically change the face of our society. In limiting this desire to be the driving force behind one’s learning, we are merely reciprocating the job currently done by many of our public schools.

It has now been over eighteen months since my graduation, and though I haven’t yet taught in a conventional sense, I have developed as a teacher in ways that I never thought possible. I have been lucky enough to attend a few conferences, be involved in movements to save Austin schools, read dozens of books about pedagogy, and be part of countless discourses, with groups as well as internally. I wouldn’t trade the learning and experience that I’ve gained over the last eighteen months for a year of frustrated, overwhelming, and disheartening teaching.

The comfort that I feel with my personal pedagogy is something I never anticipated. There are gaps, of course, in my understanding. However, rather than ignore them, I have come to appreciate that which I do not, or cannot, know, such as a true understanding of the philosophical concept of ‘knowing.’

I am currently in Ecuador, working with a school in a small town called Salinas de Guaranda. I have found that having worked through many of the assumptions I had internalized about schooling would have been challenged by the methodology of said school. Had I not already been on a critical journey that aimed to dissect those assumptions, I would be overwhelmed, frustrated, and disillusioned by my experiences in Salinas. As it turns out, I can appreciate the differences and similarities with this school and with what I believe. Furthermore, I have developed the language with which I can support my beliefs in dialogue with colleagues, something that has proven to be terribly helpful for all involved.

I truly hope there can be drastic changes in the way the College of Education approaches preparing its students. In my opinion, the College of Education should represent one of, if not the, most difficult Colleges, not only regarding admittance, but also in content. Sadly, as you probably know, this is not the case. Nationwide, colleges of education are maligned as being in the easiest tier of programs university-wide. This is a disgrace. The intricacies, decisions, nuance, and theory that come part in parcel with a true education in pedagogy are quite possibly the most difficult challenges as with any program in the entire university.

This is something we should pride ourselves in at the University of Texas. I see no reason why, with the right leadership, and with the application of the theory that we discuss in classrooms to our own institution of schooling, we can’t be at the forefront of progressive colleges of education. All we would be doing, truly, is applying our standards to ourselves.

Naturally, this will cause a stir. Classes will no longer be havens for athletes, and high marks might not be so easy to come by. Indeed, there will likely be a drop in enrollment as we change the reputation of the College. However, consider the alternative, the current situation. We have students graduating, armed with little philosophical understanding of their art, equipped only with the confidence of having earned good grades, along with a few months of advised experience as a student teacher which provided them with a few dozen grade and school specific lesson plans.

Of all these, the most damaging is the confidence we have on graduation day. I feel that there is a direct, positive correlation between level of confidence upon entry into the classroom and depth of disappointment upon realizing that there are situations outside of those dealt with in student teaching that teachers will inevitably face. Indeed, thousands of them.

The school reform movement has attacked the system from all angles, equipped with all types of panaceas. Indeed, no level of education has been untouched, no professional unquestioned, no institution without its attackers. However, I have faith that, until we equip teachers with deep, personal, theoretical understandings of the craft of teaching, we are doomed to repeat the present. Inasmuch as I anticipate and fear this, I implore you to take a stance of critical analysis of what we are and aren’t discussing at the College of Education at UT Austin.

I am terribly proud of my education. This statement is twofold. On one hand, I am proud of the accomplishments I made at the College of Education, along with classmates, colleagues, teachers, administrators, and most importantly, students. On the other hand, I am extremely proud of the journey of personal inquiry that has caused me to think critically on my years at the university, as well as assumptions solidified in public schooling. While much of this journey has been alone, due to the relative disinterest of my fellow graduates, there have been those along the way who have facilitated and challenged my development as a reflective teacher. In having met and spoken with a large number of people, I realize that I’m not alone in my hope that colleges of education can alter their approach. I think there is a more honest, hopeful and least hypocritical means in offering a program in Early Childhood through Grade 4 Education.


Cameron Allen


Sterling said...

let em have it

addaboyaddy said...

i actually tore off my left arm and started hitting myself in the head with it as i was reading this...badass man!