A lot of people talk about teachers but not many talk to teachers. Authors Anne Lutz Fernandez and Catherine Lutz set out to address that shortfall in Schooled: Ordinary, Extraordinary Teaching in an Age of Change (Teachers College Press, 2015). Schooled profiles nine teachers whose stories reveal patterns running through numerous different forms of American schooling.
And now a brief digression for the purpose of transparency. I’m proud to be one of the nine teachers profiled in Schooled. If you and I already know each other, you probably won’t learn much new about me from this, but you should probably read it anyway for the authors’ insights into the context of my story. I’ll say more about my experience with Schooled and its authors toward the end of this piece.
The Schooled teachers share pragmatism in the face of obstacles and optimism in the face of challenges. Whether they are situated in small schools, large schools, home schools, charter schools, or reservation schools, these teachers see their jobs as not just conveyers of core curricula but as shapers of the future by way of their students.
Those students who inhabit the classrooms (or other learning spaces) with these teachers represent a young microcosm of our society. Some students have relatively easy lives; some students have incredibly difficult lives. For better or worse, these young people bring to school the outlooks and issues present in their families and communities, and the teacher’s challenge is to sort through all of that as effectively as possible and still use their expertise to foster learning.
Even though our professional circumstances varied, I found common ground with each of the other teachers in Schooled. Ulla Tervo-Desnick, a Finnish-born first-grade teacher in Minnesota, shared my frustration with mandated, data-centered collaboration time with colleagues: “If the focus of your time together is data collection, then the focus is data collection. It’s not how to help this child or that child. So unfortunately we look at it as a missed opportunity.”
Lisa Myrick, a high school science teacher in South Carolina clearly articulated one of the fallacies of standardized testing: “Any teacher knows that scores on a test may vary greatly from year to year, although she may have taught the material using the same practices. What is different is who walks through those doors in August and what their prior experiences have been. Did they travel to the Caribbean this summer or did they get bounced between foster homes?”
Robert Lewis, a learning support teacher in Colorado is the kind of teacher all parents want for their children: “I never think they can’t do it. I always think, okay, well, we just have to get to it another way. There’s a thousand ways to climb a mountain.”
I dare you to try not being inspired by the devotion of Glorianna Under Baggage, a teacher on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota whose mantra is “encourage, encourage, encourage” but who has special fire in her words for “the reformers”: “Who are you to judge those children that are suffering? Who are you to judge them when they don’t even have a bed in their home? That’s what they [the reformers] need to take care of.”
My involvement in Schooled came about when author Anne Lutz Fernandez, a public school teacher in Connecticut, contacted me through Twitter to ask if I was interested in being included in her newest book, co-written with her sister Catherine Lutz, a Brown University sociology professor. Of course, I was interested, but I needed several layers of approval before Anne and Cathy could visit me on campus. After I assured my supervisors that I was not under duress and was not being paid, the authors traveled to suburban Chicago.
We first met after school in a public library conference room just a couple of hours after the Boston Marathon bombings. Because Anne and Cathy would be visiting my classes the next day, we talked about how that tragedy would affect my teaching. Then we had a great conversation about all kinds of issues involved in contemporary American education.
The following day Anne and Cathy shadowed me throughout the school day. They had agreed with our administration’s request not to talk to students, but they soaked up everything that happened in my classes and perceptively noted numerous quirky aspects of our school that I sort of took for granted.
I’m thrilled with the chapter that grew out of our interview and site visit. I’m glad that my passion for nurturing lifelong reading habits and developing young writers come through so clearly. I’m also glad my “irreverent and strong-headed” views on educational issues of the day are likely to be read by a wide audience and preserved for posterity.
Schooled will be an illuminating read for educators who are likely to find themselves nodding in agreement on page after page; parents who wonder what is really going on in the minds of their children’s teachers; those considering a career in education; and anyone who wants a more balanced view of what American education looks like in this time when much of the news coverage about schools is so negative.