Pirates and Champions, II

As I write this post, my “badass teacher” friends and colleagues are congratulating themselves.  They have some good reasons, too: (1) their Facebook group has 15,000 members, (2) they were featured on Yahoo! News, and (3) they’ve performed their first collective action – a “call in” to the White House demanding that a “lifetime educator” be named the next U.S. Secretary of Education.  I’m impressed with their viral growth, and I’m glad they took real-world action as a result of their online organizing and connecting.  If there come to be local or regional chapters or meetups, I might just change my mind and decide to attend one.  I’m always eager to see joyful community in action.

Meanwhile, closer to home,  some folks I know were excited to participate in “Moral Monday” protests at the state legislature.  If all went as planned, some probably even got arrested – for the first time – yesterday, with the same excitement that college friends of mine felt about acts of civil disobedience.  For them, though, the causes were different: divestment from apartheid-era South Africa was a big one.

I’m sure it all felt very exciting and important – as important and exciting as it must feel to dress up for a lesson or take students to a different part of campus or put up plastic sheeting to reinvent your classroom if you’re teaching like a pirate, or to use one of the 49 numbered Techniques to reopen the window of opportunity and close the achievement gap (single-handedly, of course, and heroically) if you’re teaching like a champion.  Sometimes protests are important, too: without them, where would the Civil Rights Movement have been?  I don’t want to dismiss the importance of collective action – or should I say community action – in service of a greater goal.  Sometimes that’s exactly what you need.

And yet protests, 21st-century style, often leave me cold or even faintly annoyed.  And so do the aims of the protests.  A “lifetime educator” as Secretary of Education?  If you look at the list, you’ll find a few “lifetime educators” who were university professors or high-level administrators; the most recent of those isn’t exactly favored by the “badass teachers” since he was one of the architects of the high-stakes testing they hope to dismantle.

But what is it about protests, 21st-century style, that bothers me?  I couldn’t quite articulate why until our Google+ conversation yesterday.  It began with Laura’s comment about the “badass teacher” group:

 I gather a lot of the impetus fueling this is a reaction to the NCTQ report from last week, and I have been so depressed by what it seems to have triggered on both sides – defensiveness, hostility, name-calling, etc. I spent some time last week in online venues that I don’t normally visit (since I’m mostly here at Google+ , a space which I appreciate even more after last week) and I was really appalled by the mindless group-think on both sides. One of the more depressing weeks I’ve had, and I’m not seeing very many people at the moment in this highly polarized  and entrenched atmosphere (I guess Larry Cuban is my current champion, and I don’t know if he is wrapping himself up in the badass banner). It’s not like either side is going to go away here, and unless there is some kind of effort at dialogue, we’re going nowhere. Both sides seem to want to claim a monopoly on feeling victimized (and there’s no denying that this a sincere feeling – everybody does clearly feel really and truly wronged by the other side), and I saw people just lashing out mindlessly, not willing to listen, not willing to learn anything, not even willing to have basic errors of fact corrected. If all the people involved here have all already made up their minds, and if they are not even willing to grant the people on the other side the right to speak (and I’m seeing that on both sides), ouch. It is a far worse situation than I had even realized.

And then George’s amazing, profound comment:

All these labels are system-approved ways of rebelling without really rebelling. That may be what is not ringing true for you.

I have a local colleague who is bigger into avoiding cutesy false labels than I am. Well, in reality we have different lists of what offends, and we try to be empathetic when something offends the other person. She hates “Talk Like a Pirate Day” because of what pirates really do. (I have not asked whether she forgives Disney and Johnny Depp for further entrenching the cute, fun glorification aspects.) So it’s a no-brainer for me to avoid encouraging all the pirate-happy students in the hallways as I used to. And the “Teach Like a Pirate” author won’t be visiting our department for PD, I can guarantee you.

I don’t see a downside to “championing” student causes, except that you attract attention from administrators when pro-student support costs money. Otherwise, it appears to be a compliment.

The “badass” label is as close as most teachers will ever get to being Marlon Brando in The Wild One or Dennis Hopper in anything. I also saw an invite and I’m not sure what the attraction is, other than reliving high school as a cool person. This strikes me as kind of a misstep but I will keep my eye on it.

All of it is like working in a corporate bureaucracy that “lets” you post Dilbert cartoons. Safety valve. Go ahead, vent your feelings, rib the boss. Oh, look, the boss is laughing too.

A few years ago, I found this little book amusing and enlightening:


Ironically, my children – both Dilbert fans – just discovered, on Netflix, the animated series from the turn of the millennium.  As we watched a few episodes, I noticed how the early edge had already been softened, the cutesy quotient increased.  As Laura put it,

Playing at rebelling without really rebelling… that definitely captures my sense of things right now. Pirates are a kind of mythical fantasy in the outlaw mode (and, like Robin Hood, they are more cutthroat or less cutthroat depending on how much they have been remade for fantasy purposes) … but what we really need with the current education debacle is something more substantive….
And Brendan added,
Laura, I echo your concern about a need for dialogue. There are key points being overlooked amid all the ‘mad as hell’ ruckus, including the the question of the factory model itself, the fact that it fails many students, and the substantial diversity among teachers and parents (as well as students.)A key thing missing in all this is a discussion of historical context. High stakes testing came about because the factory model was showing a disconnect from the times and the ideal of everyone being lifted up by it, two and three decades ago, let alone the time since NCLB was passed.

It’s hard to have a dialogue when warring communities set themselves up as Forces of Good, labeling their opponents (or perceived opponents) as misguided at best, downright evil at worst.  How will we build a big enough – and willing enough – circle to hear everyone’s voices, to seek to understand without reflexively dismissing Those Others?
Published in: on June 25, 2013 at 1:46 pm  Leave a Comment  

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