Why this blog?

"... Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves ... Do not search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. The point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer." - Letters to a Young Artist, R. M. Rilke

Rooted in the promise and challenge of growth ...

these are letters from a young teacher.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Those who care teach

This is the title of a little book my beloved great-uncle gave me recently - just a little collection of quotes about teachers and students, about teaching and learning, but that title really got me thinking. And, of course, when I get thinking, I usually end up talking to someone about it. So it really got my housemates talking, as well.

For those not in the teaching profession, perhaps you do not know the stigma that can plague us: "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." My whole life it has frustrated me that either someone tells me that they have all these grand plans for their lives, but if nothing works out they'll "just teach" or I have shared my plans to become a teacher and one responds "Oh, you're much to good for that! You could do so much more..." What do they think teaching is?!

Alas, the profession of teaching has slowly subjected itself to an identity crisis recently - although one might argue it has always been in an identity crisis. What should I be teaching? What do my students need? What are my administrators telling me to do? When can I just get a break to think? What does it mean that I get paid for "planning", but not for "reflection"? ... (sorry, I had to add that last one in there, I don't think many people have thought of that before)

For one of my courses at the university - it's a course in the Foundations of Curriculum and Instruction, fairly broad, but with avenues for closer critical work - I am in a book group. It has proven to be a great addendum to the regular course work, because there are 4 different groups, each reading a different book, according to our interests. The one I chose is Angela Valenzuela's Subtractive Schooling: U.S.-Mexican Youth and the Politics of Caring. Now, I have about zippo experience with U.S.-Mexican high schoolers, but it was the second part of the title that got me. The politics of caring? What is that?

(This is where I get to share how one of my favorite parts about staying here for Spring Break was that I got to peruse the University Bookstore textbooks for Spring Quarter pretty much all by myself, free of the chaos that is the first week of the new quarter, and alone with all of those neatly stacked tomes of wisdom, just waiting for me to open and peruse them, striving to be bought and loved to the point of highlighting, underlining, or - in extreme cases - being thrown against the wall to the exclamation of "What a great book!" ... )

So, I opened it up and skimmed the chapter titles a bit, then skimmed the heading titles in the chapters, and then started "dipping" as one of my professors calls it, reading a paragraph here and there to get some of the gist of it all. It was Chapter Three: Teacher-Student Relations and the Politics of Caring that I spent the most time "dipping" into. And it was what convinced me I wanted to join this book club. The first paragraph sums up well Valenzuela's survey of the situation of minority youth underachievement in this school :

"This chapter examines competing definitions of caring at SeguĂ­n [High School - her research site]. The predominantly non-Latino teaching staff sees students as not sufficiently caring about school, while students see teachers as not sufficiently caring for them. Teachers expect student to demonstrate caring about schooling with an abstract, or aesthetic commitment to ideas or practices that purportedly lead to achievement. Immigrant and U.S.-born youth, on the other hand, are committed to an authentic form of caring that emphasizes relations of reciprocity between teachers and students."

Valenzuela goes on throughout the book to argue that teachers need to take the first step toward an authentic caring pedagogy, that puts teacher-student relations before content teaching, before they can expect students to begin caring about their own achievement. In other words, what you teach is not as important as who you teach.

(Oh, and this is where I get to share some of my own developing pedagogy...)
This idea of teachers caring first, caring more for their students than for the content, resonates deeply with a notion I have long carried with me in my own teaching. I first recognized it while teaching English in Germany, where I felt I was observing a school phenomenon similar to what Valenzuela describes. The way I saw it, teachers and students were looking at each other as if looking in a mirror, looking to the other not to see the other, but to see what the other saw in them. (Is this not at the root of all communication? Do we not all look to others to understand ourselves better?) There's a whole page of stick figures and speech bubbles in my diary from that time that illustrate how neither teachers nor students felt acknowledged by each other and therefore did not seek to acknowledge the other in return, in traditional chicken and egg style. What I would argue - and what I think Valenzuela would agree with - is that teachers need to step up and understand that they can see through their mirror, but students cannot. The mirror of teaching is one-sided: students still look at teachers as if they are looking at themselves, but teachers need to look through their mirror at what a student's behavior says about the student, not the teacher. I feel like teachers can and should be mature enough to realize that.

Is that what caring is, then? Does caring mean we take the mirror out in front of us and look, for once, directly at the person we are caring for and about, without paying any attention to how we are personally affected by that person?

What does caring mean to you, whatever profession or community service you engage in?

There will be more to come on this idea, especially to the specific case of Valenzuela's study, which pulls in the political issues of Mexican immigration in the U.S. As our book group finishes reading, and begins to plan for our final presentation of the book to the rest of the class, I'll keep you filled in.