Moral responsibility in education can't just be related to content
Recently I’ve been thinking about how my perspective of public schools (specifically high schools) has shifted now that I am not spending my work week in that setting. Overall, I feel disconnected from the career I spent seven years building - and I’m conscious of the dynamics and tensions that exist between education professionals who work in school buildings and other educational professionals who have different amounts of experience working in school buildings. One set of these professionals are often called experts while the other set are called teachers.
Recently, someone (perhaps in a class, perhaps in a reading, perhaps in a conversation I was having - I can’t remember) said that schools are like black boxes - no one outside of schools really knows what happens inside them. And yet, at the same time, it also seems like lots of people think they know exactly what is happening inside US public schools - everyone has a hot take and everyone is an expert because at one point in time they were a student themselves.
It's easy to treat public education like a monolith - not only do we think about our own experiences in education and extrapolate form there, but additionally curriculum is designed and adopted without regard to the disparate contexts and realities of students across this very large country. Standardized tests (like SBAC and WCAS) are used within states and other standardized tests (like SAT, ACT, and AP) are used across the entire country. Professional development for teachers can often be irrelevant, or impractical, because some PD has a nationwide market and therefore can’t account for the specific policies or practices of districts or buildings.
So much of the large system of public education makes it easy to deal in abstraction because many education professionals are actually faced with the realities of students’ and teachers’ experiences in school buildings.
What does all this have to do with the coursework for Education as a Moral Endeavor, you ask? That’s a great question. The best (read: only) answer I have right now cycles back to how my perspective has changed:
Before this class I would have said that the moral endeavor in education (specifically K-12 public education) has less to do with what is taught and more to do with the environment and experiences that students have during the years they go to school. Of course I can make the argument that what is taught and the environment in which students are taught are intrinsically linked - but they also feel worlds apart.
Perhaps this is an issue of time frame - and the time frame I have been working within as a high school teacher is immediate - students have immediate needs, challenges are immediate, evidence of learning has to be immediate, and the sense of urgency is high at all times. That makes it hard to think about the moral components that fall outside the day-to-day, lesson-to-lesson happenings of an immediate time frame.
When I interviewed two current teachers about their perspectives on education and schooling they went in very different directions. These two teachers worked closely together (and with me) for three years despite all of us working in different departments. I think these interviews begin to get to the heart of public education not being a monolith because these teachers touch on drastically different themes throughout the interviews.
The math teacher talked about the importance of schooling for individual growth and learning. She emphasized the structures and systems that shaped her school experience and helped her grow. She focused on her experiences, starting in a cooperative preschool and then actively choosing non-traditional high schools and colleges throughout the interview, building on the theme of individual growth to end up addressing how everyone learns differently and at different rates.
In contrast, the French teacher talked about the social aspects of schooling. She spoke about how school was an important social mechanism for her and also talked about the important role it serves for her students. School provides the opportunity to meet, work with, and build relationships with people outside our families and communities. She also builds off of her own (changing) identity later in the interview by addressing the lack of early childhood care in the United States. A change in her perspective, or a consideration about the system of education, that has developed since she became a mother in September of last year.
These interviews shed some light on the different ways teachers think about schooling and what importance they place on their work with students and in schools. They highlight the ways that individual experiences shape perspectives and the way teachers approach their work and take up issues within school buildings. I think about how my own experiences shaped my work as a teacher and how I would enter conversations thinking about the current needs of our students while my admin would enter the same conversations thinking about the future of the school.
To tie this back to the moral endeavor of education, this quarter I felt a tension between the bigger system of education and the smaller details that shaped my perspective as a teacher working in a public high school. Rather than thinking about indoctrination as a moral issue I think about the moral implications of lock down drills and training students to react to situations like active shooters on campus. What are the moral implications of using high stakes, standardized testing as graduation requirements?
Honestly, I’m still thinking about the moral implications of students arriving to school from abusive homes, arriving without having eaten breakfast, sitting through classes not knowing if they will have a place to sleep that night, or worrying that they are going to be shamed or harassed for merely existing. I don’t want to prioritize thinking about the moral dilemma of the banking model of education vs the problem-posing model of education, sorry Freire, because these other issues feel more immediate to me.
Note: I only included the audio file from my interview with the french teacher because the audio quality for the other interview was terrible. Don't interview people in public settings. Lesson learned.