Pirates and Champions, I

When I mentioned the two paradigms of teaching like a pirate or like a champion in Friday’s post, I wasn’t expecting to have much more to say on the subject.  But it seems that pirates and champions have generated a lot of conversations among my friends on Google+, and now there are thousands of self-identified “Badass Teachers” who, according to one of their founders,

teach, love and nurture children everyone has given up on, in good times and bad, children with disabilities, children who have been kicked out of their families, children who can’t sit still, children who have seen unimaginable horrors, children who are homeless, children who are under constant stress, along with children who have happy lives, and happy families. They teach and love them all, and protect and defend them from physical threats and the threat of tests and assessments which humiliate them and destroy their love of learning.

I’ve received several invitations to their Facebook group – and apparently someone actually added me to the group without asking  – but I haven’t joined and have now prevented others from adding me unawares.  There’s something about the group itself – not to mention the adding-without-asking – that I found troubling.  It’s not the term, either, thought I rarely use that word in conversation.

Within hours of Friday’s post, Brendan had verbalized something about the pirate paradigm:

I’m amused at the thought of locked-in-place Powers-that-be-obeying factory model teachers getting fired up by a motivational professional dev coach encouraging them to abandon society and take off on their own as part of a roving band — all while teaching in any traditional sense of the word. I’m sure it’s possible… in fact I can think of rough examples… but I still find the thought amusing.

I was amused, too, though I’ve found much value in the sections of Teach Like a Pirate that I’ve read so far.  And  a friend reminded me of valuable techniques in Teach Like a Champion (This Amazon review is pretty close to my thoughts about Lemov’s book).   But pirates are especially intriguing to me. I’ve spent several years teaching at a school whose mascot is a Pirate, but whose students and teachers would be horrified if a real pirate suddenly appeared.  Even the Pirates of Myth and Legend would be terrifying; a real pirate, whether of the 21st-century type or the likes of Blackbeard, would astonish and appall even the bravest.

So why do so many factory-schools (and even factory-colleges and universities) embrace the Pirate or Buccaneer as mascot?  And why would factory-schools pay Mr. Burgess to come and train them to teach like a pirate?  For that matter, when the factory-world assumes that every teacher is (should be) pretty much the same, what’s the attraction of being a champion?  Why would well-educated, well-spoken, middle-class professionals in a hierarchical organization embrace the label of badass?

What’s the attraction of something that (at least on the surface) seems diametrically opposed to everything you stand for?

Is it the attraction that Debbie felt?  As she put it,

the author’s description of a pirate makes me want to be a pirate!!!
“Pirates are daring, adventurous, and willing to set forth into uncharted territories with no guarantee of success.”

I go back to intention .. what do we want our children to be like? Do as they are told? Or …  navigate their own way, knowing how to read a compass, test the winds, set their sails, etc. ?
Our job, in my opinion, is to give them the tools to ride the ocean of life while working with the crew to make their way to their destination.

Oh … and think about that crew, all reckless a mishmash of characters — and yet there is a captain, a person who calls the shots, and there are rules for the crew and tasks that they are each responsible for – individually and as a group.
Sounds like a nice balance, doesn’t it?

Maybe Ms. X and Mr. Y  secretly yearn to be daring and adventurous even as they cling to the life-jackets of their old familiar PowerPoints.  Or maybe, like ancient Roman merchants screaming for blood at a gladiator fight, or middle-aged professionals who buy expensive but comfortable motorcycles, they gain some form of catharsis from imagining or watching their total opposites in action.

What are the common threads that link pirates and champions and badasses?  Robin Hood, after all, was all three: a pirate (or worse) to his enemies, a badass and leader of such, but a champion of the poor and needy.  Does a champion works both within and outside the existing system, bringing resources and assistance to those who have been discarded or forgotten by the system as it is?  Without a system to rebel against (and to plunder for equipment like ships and, for that matter, crew members), where would pirates or badasses be?

But if that’s the case, then all three groups need to be careful.  It’s easy to fall into the false missionary complex trap when you’re bringing assistance and resources to those who’ve been discarded, forgotten, or abandoned by the Powers That Be.  It’s easy to set yourself up as the supplier, the bringer of aid … and then, once you do, it’s easy to start seeing those Others, the ones you’re bringing aid to, as helpless and hopeless.  The distance from Champion, Pirate, or Badass to Oppressive Power can be short.

Brendan put it this way:

As tvtropes puts it regarding teachers, In the developed world, almost everyone attends school at some point in their lives. So it’s only natural that a large number of TV shows (and movies and books, etc) center around the school experience. In reality, every teacher is different. On TV, however, teachers seem to always fall into one of the following categories — http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/SchoolTeachers

That’s a pretty simplistic list, especially for the modern world where the profession is arguable evolving to some degree.  Done well, either the Pirate or the Champion style of teaching could fall into what tvtropes calls the Cool Teacher — A teacher…who is cool. They motivate their students to learn (possibly in fun ways that are actually fun), laugh at the Stern Teacher and Misplaced Kindergarten Teacher behind their backs, protect their students from the Sadist Teacher and oppose the Evil Teacher and Dean Bitterman at every turn. Their consistently good results might protect them from being a Fired Teacher, but this isn’t a given. A lot of these end up being The Mentor either way. http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/CoolTeacher

…. Bill Gates has referenced this concept of the exemplar teacher on multiple occasions.  This essentially overlaps with the Cool Teacher who can get great results, whatever their underlying methods.

For example, in this key interview, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111903554904576461571362279948.html — Gates explains,

“I watched the movies. I saw ‘To Sir, With Love,'” he chuckles, recounting the 1967 classic in which Sidney Poitier plays an idealistic teacher who wins over students at a roughhouse London school. “But they didn’t really explain what he was doing right. I can’t create a personnel system where I say, ‘Go watch this movie and be like him.'”

….  But when you look beneath the surface of “cool” or “good,” and ask how a range of teachers (and other influences) add up to the presented reality of a given learner’s world, you do run into a set of complex questions about the role of guiding figures.  And, the individual learner — including the fish-out-of-water guiding figure — has a lot to sort through in the media-saturated world….

I think it will take a while to unpack all these implications.  What do you think, builders and sustainers of joyful community? What calls to you – and what troubles you – in these roles of pirates, badasses, and champions?

Published in: on June 24, 2013 at 1:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

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