Saturday, October 27, 2018

A Teacher's Opinion and the Classroom Door

Twice this week the issue of teachers and their opinions cropped up, first in David Berliner's thoughtful piece at The Answer Sheet and again in Robert Pondiscio's reaction to a math teacher's tweet about the Kavanaugh hearings. Berliner was not wrong in answering student questions about how he would use his vote, and Pondiscio is not wrong to point out that a teacher's First Amendment rights are surprisingly limited inside a classroom.

I've thought about this issue a great deal in my career, my thinking propelled by three factors:

1) I had teachers in high school who spent time trying to tell us what to think, and I hated it.

2) For most of my career, I have taught American literature, and you can't teach about the literature without talking about the culture it's rooted in, and you can't talk about American culture without talking about religion, race and gender.

3) My teaching of writing has always been rooted in getting students to express themselves, and that's hard to do with a classroom policy of "Only some ideas are okay to express."

So as a way of working through all this one more time, let me walk through what that meant in a classroom, and how it was challenged in my last years of teaching.

My students over the decades heard some version of the following many, many times:

Okay. Before we start on these notes and discussion, I'll remind you that I'm not advocating this and I'm not attacking it. My job is not to tell you to agree with these people or to disagree with these people-- but my job is to convey to you as clearly as I can what they believed about how the world works. 

And that was a prelude to laying out Puritan beliefs and Romanticism and Realism. In answer to questions ("How could the Puritans belief that material things didn't matter but that material things were a sign of God's favor?") my answers were prefaced with "I think they would give this as an answer..." And I committed to representing each set of beliefs as true-to-the-originals as I could, making sure I neither highlighted the problems inherent in them nor ignored them. It is not an easy balancing act, and it requires a sincere effort to understand how the world looked from that person's point of view.

I know over the course of the year I challenged and confused some students, who found, for instance, both Romanticism and Critical Realism compelling while I was explaining them. That's okay. For many (if not most) of my eleventh graders, it was a revelation just to grasp that there are different ways of understanding the world and figuring out how to be fully human in it.

The same principles applied in some writing instruction. I assigned essays that dealt with controversial topics, and we kicked them off by arguing about them in class, and to make sure the discussion kept going, I always argued all sides. "What do you think," students would invariably ask, partly because they were curious and mostly because they wanted to know what correct answer they should write about. "You don't need to know," I said.

Pro tip. I never assigned an essay about a topic on which I had a fixed opinion that only one side was defensible and that the other was just plain wrong.

For discussions of literature, it always came down to evidence. I was in college when I realized there are two types of English teachers-- the ones who think that there's only one way to read each work and their job is to convey that right answer, and the ones who think that the act of reading and building a relationship with the work could lead to many shades of meaning which were all okay as long as you could back it up. And that this didn't mean anything was fair game; you can claim that Hamlet is suffering from PTSD due to alien abduction in a previous life, but you can't make a very good case for it. Every year some smartass would argue that "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening" (a poem that serves as a great example of how much difference one word choice can make) is about Santa Claus, and every year I would say, "Make your case," and they would give it a shot, and the rest of the class would pick them apart.

Discussions about non-content issues are thornier. What to do with the student who wants to argue that women should be silent and do as they're told, or that religious people are mentally ill?

I've always believe that truth (not Truth-- I'm not a huge believer in Truth) rises, and that if you pursue it honestly, with openness to where the trail leads, it will finally rise above the rest of the flotsam and jetsam to reveal itself. Not that we can't all push and contrive and argue as a way of helping lift it, but one of the advantages of teaching in the same small place for almost forty years as that you see an awful lot of people who Figure It Out eventually. It helps if you can let go of the notion that you need to get them to figure it out Right This Minute.

And Ponticello (the guy whose tweet started much of the discussion) is correct when he says we need to teach civics, but we are always teaching the soft stuff whether we intend to or not, and so it's important to hold onto our intentionality.

Here's a story. Years ago I was a class advisor, and as a sort of goof, a couple of less-than-stellar students ran for class officers. And as sort of a goof, the students elected them. I had a moment when I was counting votes. My mentor, the person who was supposed to be my extra set of eyes, said, "Look, it's fairly close. This will be disaster. Just fix the results." Turns out that advisors sometimes do that. I was tempted. I didn't do it. Then, to make things worse, the student who was elected president moved out of town and the vice-president less-than-serious student was suddenly in charge of the senior year. "Fix this," the other students said. "Let me out of this," he pleaded. But I made them live with their choices, and nobody died, and somewhere out there are a couple hundred adults who learned years ago that A) voting matters and B) you can rise to an occasion when you have to.

My point (I'm sure I had one) is that in the classroom we often want to sacrifice long term results for short-term comfort. And that includes the desire to straighten out students who believe terrible stupid things. People get where they're going in their own way, in their own time. We can't force them to do otherwise.

Now, there has always been a hole in my approach that has bugged me from time to time, but just flared up something awful over the past two or three years. That would be students who won't engage and insist on holding on to facts that aren't facts.

This is the challenge of the Trump era. A student says that Obama is a Muslim from Kenya. What do you do? How do you respond in a way that respects the student's autonomy as a human being while still dealing with the absolute incorrectness of what they're saying.

"Two plus two is five" was easy, and "No, Hamlet's mother's name is not Ethel" also. I could work my way past "I think the verb in this sentence is 'balcony'," But we now live in an era in which facts have been politicized, and to challenge even the simplest statement about a sentence recorded in a video is to make a political statement. It is hard to find a way forward in conversations like "Someone sent me a bomb. Here it is," and the response, "No they didn't. No it isn't."

If a science teacher teaches evolution, it's a political statement. Hell, the Flat Earth Society is growing, so round earth teaching is political. As many have noted, what do we even do with value judgments like "Bullying is bad."

I still think a teacher should not be foisting their opinions on their students. It's not our job to tell them what to think or what to value. But it is our job to tell our truth-- hell, that's all we do. We cannot keep our opinions out of the classroom-- it's not humanly possible, and even the decision to keep our opinions out of the classroom is a way of injecting our opinions about opinions into the classroom. And we live in a time when other people are thrusting their opinions into our classrooms. The President suggests that immigrants are rapists and criminals, that all immigrants should be run out of the country-- that's an opinion that lands right in our classrooms. When the President suggests that some of the people who want to see some of our students, literally, dead are "very fine people," that is an opinion that lands right in our classrooms. When people decide that it's okay to start flying Confederate flags everywhere, that opinion lands right in our classroom. And this is not about tolerance or coming together to compromise-- there is no "compromise" with people who say, "I think people like you should be thrown out of the country, or just killed." Those opinions all land in our classrooms, along with the ones that say women owe men sex or black folks are stupid and lazy or that white men are the most oppressed group in the country. We can't pretend they aren't there, and we can't pretend that we don't know they're wrong. To stay silent is to become an accomplice to gaslighting.

As open as I was, I had rules. Everyone in the room treats everyone else with respect. No exceptions. No disrespectful actions, no disrespectful language. I had values that I held onto, and I was explicit about almost everything.

And looking back, I guess what I did was model all of that. This is what I believe. This is why I believe it. And when all is said and done, this is my classroom and we're going to live by these beliefs in here. For me, a basic element of respect is that you don't try to force someone to think or feel a particular way, and that is doubly true when you are in a position of power, acting as an agent of the state. You have a job, and your job is to help those young humans become more fully themselves, learning what they think it means to be human in the world. That means you have to show them a complete human, and that means you have to balance between leaving them free to figure things out and telling them what you passionately and deeply believe to be true. If this doesn't seem like a very clear and straightforward set of rules, that's because it's not a very clear-cut uncomplicated feat to pull off. That's why they pay teachers the big bucks.


  1. Thank you so much for this. I just had a long message exchange
    (Sunday afternoon -- we are working) with my teaching partners about how to address last week's hot mess in class. Your ideas really, really help.