Making Learning Public – a look at teachers’ testimony in School Board meetings

In my first month of teaching at Parker, my mentor teacher told me, “you’ve got to get outside of the classroom.  The great projects, discussions, and thinking that happen in your class are of very limited value if you aren’t always testing things out in larger contexts.”  My normally jovial and gentle mentor teacher got very serious – he made it clear that it was a responsibility of educators to make learning public.

This went beyond collaborative learning; the social learning he was talking about involves breaking down the barriers between teaching and learning.  He was talking about students presenting their work to a larger community, about the circulation of teaching methods beyond the department, beyond the school, and all with the consciousness of learning connecting with what was going on in the world.

My mentor’s advice helped me to broaden my conception of where learning happens, and start to imagine how place could interact with, catalyze, or transform learning.  In teacher education classes, I propagate my mentor’s advice by assigning students “experiential education events,” where they witness or participate in local public events focused on education.  In this way, they are developing critical questions about perceptions and treatment of teachers, and developing a metacognitive awareness about their work as educators.

The “experiential education events” tend to sharpen my students’ awareness about power, decision-making, and representation.  Whether they are attending a school board meeting or an education conference, attending and reflecting on these events often sharpens and widens the perspective of the pre-service teachers, getting them thinking about dimensions of teaching that they hadn’t previously given much thought to.  They quickly see that public education doesn’t just mean publicly funded: public means struggling for dignity and justice.  They see that it is impossible to educate effectively without a constant eye on what’s happening outside of the classroom, the bigger picture.

One of the experiential event options is attending a school board meeting in Chicago or in Evanston.  Here, the teachers-to-be encounter questions of education policy up-close.  Though Chicago and Evanston are very different educational climates, in both they see right away a profound disconnect between the Board members on the one hand, and the teachers and students on the other.

Maria attended a Chicago school board meeting, and was struck by the distance between the policy makers and the teachers who are charged with enacting the policy.

 I thought that several teachers had pointed out an important idea: although the CPS school board is trying to implement new strategies for change, these strategies are highly abstract and theoretical. We do not know how these theories will transpire when they are practically executed. One teacher stated bluntly “I don’t understand your fancy charts, I just want to know what you will do to change things.” There is an obvious breakdown in communication between teachers, parents, and the school board. I could see the brimming frustration of conflicting ideas between teachers and parents, teachers and the school board, and parents and the school board.

Sitting there in that chamber room, it suddenly seemed apparent to me that power structures shape our perceptions and our decisions. The CPS school board seems to operate on a top-down hierarchy in which policies and assessment criteria are prescribed by a small group of policy makers. Yet these policy makers produce their results through theoretical analysis, which often is disconnected from how a school actually operates on a daily basis. In gaining such insights into the education system, I have slightly altered my goals as a teacher. In my first paper, I described how I aimed to engage students and foster intellectual curiosity in the classroom. This goal still remains, but I am adding an additional component to it: I would like to engage the administration in cultivating a similar curiosity in its schools and students. I have no doubt that the members of the CPS school board are invested in the students’ interests, but I hope to engage the policy makers to refine their understanding of the dynamics of student learning and performance. 

Attending one school board meeting has led Maria to see beyond the borders of her classroom to the “chamber room” of decision-making.  She is beginning to shape a call that she intends to put forth as a teacher, a call to education policy makers to practice the principal work of education: inquiry.  Educators know that policies imposed without careful study of the people who will be carrying out these policies are educationally unsound.   If the School Board were to follow Maria’s lead and demonstrate “curiosity in its schools and students,” it would be making learning public.

In her reflection on a school board meeting a few miles north in Evanston, Tamara writes,

I witnessed firsthand how much being a good teacher should extend outside the classroom. More than just planning and teaching lessons, it’s about being an advocate for your students, acknowledging their achievements, trying to improve the structure of the school and curricula, and encouraging them to use their voice in their education. Many of the students in the audience were there for the first item of the agenda: awards. The school board recognized the winners and finalists of National Merit Scholarships, National Achievement Honors, and National Hispanic Scholars by having their own teachers give personalized speeches. However, those same teachers who presented awards at the beginning of the meeting, along with others, spoke out in favor of the proposed change in the structure of the freshman year. As one teacher read aloud their letter to the administration, a group of at least ten teachers stood behind her in silent support. Other teachers attended as sponsors for the school’s new MSAN (Minority Student Achievement Network) club, who spoke for themselves about how they wanted to help combat the achievement gap in their district.

In the same space and at the same event, at one moment the teachers are representing the school, at the next moment they are challenging its policies.  At this meeting, teachers are drawing attention to the frame of their work.  They show that education in a democracy involves an agility often lacking in political processes.  They show independent thinking in neither accepting nor rejecting Board proposals out of hand but considering each matter separately.  Such teachers model for students a metacognitive stance as they consider and organize around the conditions of learning.

Tamara continues,

The scene that had the greatest effect on me occurred [when a] board member demanded that the Principal ‘control [his] staff!’ Every teacher (the majority of the audience) walked out of the meeting in protest against the implication that they had less of a right to speak than or should be kept under control by authority.

Through their words and their silence and their bodies, the teachers at this school board meeting expressed a small slice of the vast range of response teachers use to sustain one another in their work.  Teachers standing up for themselves and for one another sets an example for their students and for the whole community: they will not tolerate disrespect.

By bearing witness to the contrast between the practices of public policy makers and those of public educators, our new teachers are preparing themselves to make learning public.  They are ready for the struggle that education for democracy will demand of them — and for the powerful community of practice that sustains and strengthens America’s teachers.

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