On Being A Teacher in Tough Political Times:
by Nancy Barno Reynolds
So, I’ll tell you a little secret: On day one post-2016 U.S. presidential election, I considered quitting my profession – and I teach teachers how to teach. I’m hoping this is temporary for me and for others who felt like I did, or what a disaster we’d have on our hands! No teachers. Students taught whatever by whomever, whenever. It would be the end of public education as we know it. Yet I will assert that teacher preparation is not a job for the faint of heart, which is why I found the temporary crushing of my life’s passion quite disturbing. It was a blow to my core philosophy of education: excellence in education for all students makes strong, healthy democracies. For this to happen, we must value the teaching of students in k-12 programs as well as of students in teacher preparation programs, like the ones I am in charge of. Particularly in tough political times, we must view teaching as the noble profession it is.
Here’s the conundrum: in order to teach teachers how to teach, you have to understand what it is to teach, why it’s important to teach, and where you position yourself in terms of commitment to your pedagogy. You must, in other words have hope, passion, and a pedagogy that outlast political elections, changes in educational fads, and new laws that impact funding for programs you care about. My pedagogy includes a belief in democratic teaching. This means teaching toward particular ideals of democracy which include freedom, equity, and social justice. It demands a lot of me, personally and professionally, but for the past 30 years, it has sustained me in my quest for excellence in education for all students.
Preparing students for Inclusive education is not easy – you must lead them through dark alleys of self-discovery, you must teach humility, you must insist on a factual historical foundation upon which to understand what education is, has been, should be – and could be. I was lucky in this respect: I grew up the product of two teacher parents in the sixties and seventies during the Vietnam War, the Women’s Liberation Movement, and the Sexual Revolution. My father was the head of the teachers’ union at his school and teachers regularly congregated at our house creating picket signs for upcoming strikes, formulating articulate grievances in response to unfair policies, and bolstering each other up to do the important work of a noble profession. We children of public school teachers were poor, but we didn’t know it; we sat in the kitchen happily licking Green Stamps to exchange for food, while our mothers mixed powdered milk with cocoa to keep us happy, seated, and relatively quiet. We didn’t understand the importance of the activism happening in our living room, but I remember these things that sent me on a trajectory to fight for education and educators.
Our dinner table discussions revolved around inequities in society, inequities in the schoolhouse, inequities in the bedroom and war room, protest, and transformation of what was to what should be. I understood that what was happening in the world demanded action, but what was happening in schooling was being transformed by my father and his peers. Issues like fair pay for teachers and excellence in education for all students were front and center of my formative years. I knew at the age of four or five that I would become a teacher and that, in my house, this was “the noblest profession”. I planned my life around that.
I taught for many years, in private and public schools, raised a family of six, and then earned my doctorate at the age of 47. As I said before, I teach teachers how to teach. Because of my background and experiences, I teach through a critical and democratically-based lens, asking constantly, in a Freirean tradition, Who does this serve? Who is left out? My goal is to teach my teachers to do the same, and to facilitate the journey of my 18-year-old students, blessed with a passion for teaching, to the 22-year-old teacher equipped with the skill and the knowledge to teach well and for a purpose. This involves the partial formula of teaching the dispositions of self-reflection, critical analysis, and evaluation, while honoring and exploring identity. A critical framework is used to teach all courses.
Probably the most popular and important course I teach is my Foundations of Education course: The American High School: Identity and Difference in Schools. In this course, we examine American education through major historical struggles for equity involving race, class, identity, gender, religion, sexual identification, and through an array of other barriers to quality education for all peoples – those groups we may call marginalized. We examine revolts and protests that lead to changes in law, and the inevitable resistance to policy changes in school which enforce laws protecting civil rights in schooling. Because I am a middle-class, heterosexual, agnostic white woman, I do not represent many of the marginalized communities we discuss in this class. I view it as my responsibility to bring in speakers who represent identities I do not share to talk about their experiences in public school as someone labeled as Black, Latino, Native American, Muslim, Christian, and/or LGBTQ. We also hear the stories of students with disabilities, evolutionists and creationists, and individuals in favor of and opposed to comprehensive sexual health education in public schools. I do this in the hope that each student will identify with a struggle for equity and access and make the connection to the role of education as a vehicle for transformation of what is to what should be. This is my attempt to create inclusive educators. This passion for excellence in education for all students, I believe, is the greatest thing I can facilitate through my position.
So, post-2016 US presidential election, I had to ask: have we failed our democracy by replacing our first Black president with a man endorsed by the KKK? The results of voting, a singular right of Democratic citizens, took me down to a state of serious reflection on the core and essence of my beliefs and pedagogy. I am not kidding when I tell you we were scared and that many of us teachers and teachers in training cried and lost hope. At stake, suddenly, was not just our belief in the power and mission of our discipline, but our belief in humans to create a better world, built on the struggles of those who fought – and won – basic civil rights for formerly marginalized groups. We found ourselves at the difficult juncture of having to promise tolerance, to welcome dissent, to abide by the rules of living in a democracy.
My main job is as the director of three Inclusive Adolescence Education programs (grades 7-12) – inclusive being the operative word here. It means planning, implementing, and assessing for a diverse population of students, and insists upon the full inclusion of all students — particularly, students with disabilities who have not been served by public education. However, to an inclusive educator, reaching any student not being served by an educational system that is meant for the public is a sacrosanct responsibility.
As an inclusive educator, I position myself as a person who possesses a mixture of knowledge, talents, and beliefs, as well as Black Holes of ignorance, experience, and ability. This evaluation of self is crucial to good teaching, as it invites reflection and demands brutal truth, and finally, concrete action. I must, in other words, commit to a pedagogy that serves all students and first recognize – and change – those things about myself which hinder students’ access to excellent education at my own hands.
Right now, these dispositions of good teaching feel under threat, hence my temporary low point of self-doubt. You must forgive. People who feel passionate about excellence in education for all students may occasionally be derailed when confronted with barriers. On a Macro-level, we consider the roles of poverty, policy, race and discrimination (for instance) in the attainment of excellence for all. On a Meso-level, we examine the roles of culture, tradition, religion, family, community norms, beliefs, attitudes, identity, and even social media. On a micro-level, we consider the role of self in professionalism and craft: our own education, upbringing, abilities and experiences, for instance.
Excellent inclusive educators must study theory, practice, and curriculum design. We must commit to a personal philosophy of education. We must take hard looks at our ideas about multiculturalism, our positioning of self and others, our curriculum and textual choices, our language use. We must decide to welcome dissent, agree to share power, must admit to our Black holes of ignorance, we must interrogate our knowledge about identities we don’t share.
An inclusive educator must decide where he or she is located in their commitment to critical pedagogy and to the valuing of students. Our beliefs and attitudes matter. Our willingness to eat Humble Pie matters. Our valuing of identity and difference matter. Our positioning of self and others matters. These things are critical to good teaching.
But today, we must put our money where our mouth is: we must trust that inclusive educators are agents of change. We must remember, embrace, and have faith in the struggles of Educators Past, who persevered through other political and social revolutions. We must remember that our job – providing excellence in education for all students – is for the purposes of a higher good and a sound democracy. In the end, I will assert that teaching may yet indeed be the noblest profession of all.
** A version of this essay is published simultaneously in the book ‘Case Studies of Inclusive Educators and Leaders: A Principal Reader,’ Eds. Darrin Griffiths, Ed.D. & James Ryan, Ed.D, Ontario, Canada: Word & Deed Publishing, Inc., January 2017
About the author:
Dr. Nancy Barno Reynolds is the Director of Inclusive Adolescence Education at Cazenovia College in Central New York. Her work on the use of critical literacies for transformative and democratic teaching has been presented at both international and national conferences. You can read more about her in About Us.