Questioning action against a background of education reform

At a time when people from outside of public schools are deciding what public education is and will be, in our cities, we teachers in private schools hesitate to speak up.  We don’t want to be making pronouncements about good education without knowing what it’s like to teach in high-poverty neighborhood schools.  At the same time, we know we can’t silently ignore the fact that our public school colleagues are under pressures that seem to be worsening year by year.  So, how do we respond to the assault on public education?

Recently I have been a part of groups of private school teachers from all over Chicago and all over the country who are asking these questions.

Their responses are strikingly different from those of the education reformers who are making changes from outside of the public schools.  The reformers are fixated on taking action at all costs.  They talk a lot about “fixing the broken education system,” and implement measures that they think will do so.   If they ever ask themselves if they know what they’re doing, they give no sign of it.

The private school teachers, on the other hand, are full of questions – of themselves as much as of the world around them.  As education leaders of the best schools in the country, they know to ask themselves often whether they know what they’re doing — and how they know if they know what they’re doing.  Self-examination is indispensable for good education, whether you are a teacher or a student or an administrator.

Education is about questions, uncertainty, doubt. It is about listening and looking and thinking and changing your thinking.

Sometimes education is about action too – but not apart from ongoing inquiry.  I call this activation: the inner change that shapes the outer work.  Education reform that is all action and no inner work betrays the very essence of education.

My colleagues are very aware that they don’t know enough to be able to advocate for a particular course of action.  Two separate groups of educators I met in the past two weeks determined that being in solidarity with the public schools meant they need to learn a lot more about what is going on in and around them.  To do so, they need to find ways to be in dialogue with people in public schools.

Where is this dialogue happening?

One of the consequences of recent education reform actions is that my public school colleagues, at least in Chicago, are increasingly unavailable for dialogue.  The pressures of increasing standardization and teacher evaluation, in addition to other destabilizing factors — from poverty and violence to the effects of school closing and massive staff cuts — are taking a huge toll on teachers and students.

These are not good conditions for dialogue.  In one of our recent progressive educators’ meeting, one teacher asked why our public school colleagues hadn’t come.  Another teacher said, “why would we expect them to come to our meetings?  We should be showing up where they are instead.”  Our inquiry, then, starts with relocating ourselves.

We in the independent schools don’t yet know how to be in solidarity with public schools.  But we have a better sense of the questions we need to ask, and where we need to ask them.

Questioning national boundaries, mental boundaries

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What questions are off-limits as subjects for inquiry?  Are these limits different from school to school, from city to city and country to country?  What happens when we test the ground of off-limits questions?

I have been working on setting up a dialogue between my students and a class in St. Petersburg, Russia, exploring immigration policy and anti-immigrant attitudes in our respective countries.  Colleagues warned me that this topic might be too touchy for a Russian school to allow.

I knew that migrants from the former Soviet republics have been segregated and distrusted in Russia, and I got the impression that the discourse about the former Soviet republics is more political and theoretical than based in a consideration of the lives of actual migrants in the cities.  The questions I heard people in Russia discussing were how to limit the problems migrants brought into the cities — drugs, employment – not who the migrants are, what their lives are like and the perspective they offer to the country.

While the landscape is different in the U.S., especially in Chicago where immigrant communities are not as bounded and blamed as in St. Petersburg, nevertheless the topic of immigration leads straight into very uncomfortable questions.  For my students this year, I’m guessing what may get uncomfortable is the basic question of political analysis: Cui Bono — Who Benefits?

That’s the uncomfortable question for me, anyhow.   I see a lot of immigrants going through detention and deportation.  Who is benefiting from this cataclysm in hundreds of thousands of lives?

An immigration lawyer came to talk to my students about immigration policy in the U.S.  The harsh immigration laws that passed in Arizona, he explained, are written by ALEC, which is hired by the Correctional Corporations of America to find legislative mechanisms for increasing the population in their for-profit prisons.  This notion appalls me; I really don’t want to think that my government is operating this way, or that whole corporations of human beings would be so cynical and indifferent to human lives.

Though it’s uncomfortable, I feel strongly that it’s the touchy topics that most urgently call for inquiry, dialogue, lots of thinking.

A Russian colleague has agreed to develop an immigration policy idea exchange between our students.  Her response to me was overflowing with cautiousness — I know that her sense of the mines in the field of inquiry will be crucial for us moving forward.

Already in our initial teacher-to-teacher exchange, I notice that when my colleague articulates her perception of the boundaries of our inquiry, she enables me to start seeing boundaries on my side that weren’t so apparent to me before.  When she indicates reluctance to question assumptions about migrants in Russia, I am able to search out the areas of reluctance in me, and think about what they mean.

I’ll be keeping track of this internal inquiry over the course of this exchange, as much as of the ideas, policies, and current events pertaining to immigration.  Once I see the boundaries, I can think about how far they can be crossed.