The Beginning and the End

The Beginning and the End

My first day teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison was an eye-opener. Following my PhD I was asked to stay and teach in the Department of Educational Policy Studies. Of course I was thrilled and, at the same time, thoroughly intimidated. On the first day I picked up the enrollment roster at the department office and, although I was half an hour early, I went to the assigned classroom, which was empty. I took a seat somewhat in the middle of the room and imagined myself at the lectern. What was I going to say? I had plenty of experience having taught for the university’s extension service for several years, but this was different. My PhD was in adult education – well, I concluded, students are adults so what’s the problem? 

Soon after taking my seat the bell rang, the corridors were filled, and students began to arrive. I remained in my seat in the middle of the room as students took their seats. I was amazed that the room was nearly filled and my anxiety level rose in proportion. Pretty soon things quieted down and the expectant group sat facing the front of the room. Eventually the 10 minute bell rang indicating that if the professor had not arrived students were free to leave. A few gathered their belongings and made for the door. “Whoa, hold it!” I said while remaining in my seat. “Where are you going?” “The Prof isn’t here, we’re leaving.” “How do you know the professor isn’t here?” The student pointed to the empty desk – “He isn’t here.” “Are you telling me your expectation is that teachers are always to be found at the front of the room?” At this point suspicions were aroused, my cover was blown, I introduced myself, and thus began my teaching career seated in the middle of the room. For me and for the students this was the beginning of the dialectic which defined our time together, which defined my teaching.

Teachers are not always at the front of the room. Teachers can be anywhere. Yes, the front of the room carries the weight of established authority but what kind of authority? Is a teacher’s authority defined by where they are standing or by what they know and by what they are capable of getting across? If a teacher’s authority is defined by anything other than what they know and are capable of communicating, what is being taught? What is being learned? Teachers must, I believe, ask themselves these questions every time they enter a classroom – I did and I reminded myself of it constantly. How could I teach what I didn’t practice, especially when my students were future teachers?

Schools are an extension of society and that alone establishes their value and importance. If this were not true, totalitarian governments would not exercise such control as they do over teachers and students. Public education is, of necessity, as much about social control as it is about subject matter. Social control at an early age is preparation for a lifetime of respect for authentic authority and responsible membership in society.

Children must be educated to be fully functioning members of society, a process that is thousands of years old. And, how does this happen when children’s noses are pressed against computer screens informing only themselves in a circumscribed and contrived personal world? Well, it won’t happen because “public” means all of us including children, working and learning as a community, not as self-enclosed, hermetic, self-absorbed centers of private experience. Public is the antithesis of self-centeredness. Public means all of us working together, learning and teaching, not grasping whatever we can at whatever cost to the community, oblivious to an inclusive  social contract. The foundational conception of public education is neither capitalism or socialism, it is not about Republicans or Democrats, not about profit, but about civility, about community, about Democracy. How can this be taught? Not from the front of the room that’s for sure. LauTzu instructed us to lead from behind.

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3 Responses to “The Beginning and the End”


  1. 1 Carol Sharp October 27, 2016 at 8:24 pm

    I loved this article, article, Emanuele. Your first day was so creative; what a wonderful idea. Unfortunately, I’m unable to get back into Siteseven, but if this works, then all is well.

    I have been a teacher and my daughter is a Title One Reading Coach for our county so your article Is greatly appreciated.

    c#

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  2. 2 Shirley S. Oaks October 27, 2016 at 10:38 am

    Thanks, Emanuel. I’ll pass this on to my granddaughter who may or may not become a teacher.

    She is in Jr. College and has expressed an interest in teaching, writing and most recently, editing.

    Who knows??? I’ll pass this on to her. She’ll probably edit it. I’ll let you know.

    Always interesting to hear from you. x o x, Shirley

  3. 3 stonecorso October 27, 2016 at 6:02 am

    During my student teaching the guy who was my head teacher told me the classroom teacher’s authority was to be
    found in his grade book. My guess is having spent nearly 30 years in the classroom most teachers feel that way.


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