During my more-or-less ten year career (divvied up into five/two/two spans, plus one) I was the best of teachers and the worst of teachers. It depended on context. Administration, location, demographics, goals, methods, texts, families and even -- to be blunt -- race. If those aligned in one way, I had impact for the good that lasted a long time. If the same skills and intentions were put somewhere else, I was a disaster for all concerned. But most of the time I was great for some kids, demonic for some administrators, and confusing for parents. Sometimes I was in pain myself.
Take race. When I taught on the Blackfeet reservation (1961-66, 70-73, 89-91), I knew people, had high hopes for the kids, and could bring to bear a lot of history, both personal and tribal. When I taught in the white town next door, I was a renegade, only hired out of desperation bossed by a principal who had a personal vendetta. She was out-of-control, a former English teacher who interpreted that subject in a way I despised, with a style based on conservative and controlling religion. Over her head was a town often deadlocked in power struggles, quite prepared to sacrifice kids’ health and futures in order to have winning athletic teams. (Hazing, alcohol as bribes, long bus trips, strutting coaches, considerable interest in drugs like steroids, covert approval of extreme fighting in alleys, and a general aspiration to be like the people on sit coms.) They didn’t fire me -- I quit in November.
On the rez the story was quite different: a percentage determined to excel, confusion over what that meant, political clashes with historical roots, athletic teams that DID win, and all the probs of poverty: unplanned pregnancy, alcohol, drugs like meth, floaters who came and went. The administration (both races) was sometimes there for plunder -- kickbacks and rake-offs, high salaries justified by “the difficulty of the job.” This was just before a generation of dedicated female Blackfeet administrators arrived and just after the highly idealistic male white superintendents I started with had left. (I’ll name them: Ward, McKeown, MacLaughlin,)
Probably the most powerful factor in my success or lack thereof was rarely even recognized by most people. In the early years the basic assumption was that we were educating people to be janitors, cooks, store clerks, and maybe nurses. That is, being Indian was conflated with being capable only of service jobs. Like Mexicans, who are -- of course -- Indian. Then gradually there was a switch-over that was political -- and should have been -- that insisted that Indians had a separate and valuable body of culture which ought to be accessed and respected and that they should be judged by the standards of that line of thought. (Whatever the heck they were. Often whatever was convenient.)
For instance, grammar and usage were early casualties. Who were we white outsiders to insist on what was proper? Pidgin is a proper language. (It IS, yes! So?) Grammar and usage were taught by rote and without goals, so there was little defense except that people should speak “properly” because that’s a marker for success in a “proper” world. And people who had struggled hard to train themselves were not willing to give it up, but since they had not progressed much beyond office jobs and low-level management, their votes were thrown out. (I made a little effort to learn Blackfeet grammar but it’s a LOT harder than it seems at first. Not like learning another romance language -- more like learning Chinese.)
No one ever learned this stuff anyway or they learned it in a truncated and dogmatic way. All the kids would chorus “a noun is a person, place or thing.” Of course, it is NOT. A noun is a name. Persons, places and things have names. That’s different. Some grammar needs to be memorized at first so my early classes had to learn the linking verbs and the prepositions by heart, the same as I did as a kid. But memorizing was greatly scorned after the Sixties and Seventies, as was diagramming which was too much like math. What was it FOR? Rhetorical grammar, the use of grammar to sort and manage sentences, was unheard of.
Then the old English canon went out, so there went literature. The Indians insisted they wanted a Native American canon but it didn’t exist. The admin was delighted to jump on the idea that there should be a looseleaf canon because those heavy-slick-bright textbooks cost a hundred bucks each. But they hadn’t thought it through. The copy machine ran itself to death. Teacher time went to search and staple.
I saw a loophole and dashed through it: the kids’ writing for reading. REAL stuff. They could write for sure and even the janitor read it, but it wasn’t “proper.” For bourgeois capitalist administrators it disrupted their declared missionary goal of making Montana Indian kids into small town Indiana white kids. The community was happy to point out all the satanist signs the kids smuggled into the school newspaper. THEY knew better. That’s the trouble with education: everyone knows better, but “better” means it puts the prestige in their corner. There were always the lonely kids, usually girls, who wanted a little tiny rez school to be just like the big schools they had attended in Minneapolis or Seattle.
In the end kids only learn what they want to and mostly they will want to learn stuff because of their relationship with a teacher. They’d come to me to complain that Mr. So-and-So had it in for them and was preventing them from getting good grades. My advice was always, “if you can’t learn because of them, learn in spite of them.” Educate yourself. Take it into your own hands. Stop being a bad consumer, putting all your energy into evading the very thing you want. Even home-schooling isn’t always enough. Some parents aren’t capable of much more than coming up to the classroom and threatening to beat up the teacher.
Self-educating is much easier now that anyone can get to a library computer and join a world context. Kids who can play computer games can be tech-proficient almost overnight. BUT there will always be kids who would rather sit under an apple tree with a book and a dog, and that is also a perfectly effective route to achievement. And there will be kids, many times female, who would rather read people, and they deserve support. One learns to be a cowboy from cows, if you can be confident that you’ll always be with them.
Who knows how to educate tomorrow’s adults when we have no idea what tomorrow will be like? Our biggest failure has not been teacher education (though I think it largely stinks) or curriculum development or testing. We just don’t know where we’re going. So we’d better teach the kids how to steer and sail and adapt, and do it with them -- because we’re all in this together.