Dear Mr. Brian Roach, and Other Teachers Who Might Read This:
I read your blog post on the ASCD website called, “Teacher: Dictator or president?“, and I want to reply directly to you, and directly to the question you pose in the title. Let me start by saying that I believe teachers are something more important than either role, and in their jobs they possess the powers to transcend these boxes; I believe that teachers are Teachers.
First, an illustration: The United States’ unique experiment in democracy has led us down a lot of roads that were bumpy and twisted, and others that were smooth and relatively easy-driving. Public schools have been a combination of both. With regards to learning efficacy and equal opportunity, we seem to be driving on a jeep road in the dry mountains of the high plains in southeastern New Mexico. A growing number of young people were never prepared to start the drive in the first place. There are treacherous turns where students fall out of the truck, careening over the edge into some sort of oblivion where most drivers are afraid to go. Cresting the mountaintop, learning gets high-centered on consumerism and the vehicle has been taken over by businesses whose maps aren’t the same as ours. Looking out over the view, jeeping down the mountainside means a lighter load, unfulfilled expectations, and sadness for those we left behind, those who couldn’t make it to the top. When the jeep gets back to the ranch, there is renewal among the mourning, and preparations are made for another drive.
Please note, Mr. Roach, that in my analogy there aren’t entangled notions of classroom control and authority with democracy and totalitarianism; doing this confuses the central purpose of schools. The purpose of schools is not to control students. The purpose of teachers is not to be benevolent, or strict, or managerial. The purpose of teaching is not to enforce compliance. Anyone who believes otherwise is singlehandedly defeating the intention of the great American purpose in public schooling.
Public schools are the institutional embodiment of the democratic ideal fought for by the revolutionaries that founded this country. No question, that is their purpose. We live in an age when we continually dilute their purpose with marketplace priorities, especially exacerbated by the corporate forces controlling curriculum and testing, universities, prisons, and increasingly, teacher professional development. These private entities see their greatest gain in the increased privatization of public schools, which in turn encourages teachers such as Mr. Roach to demean their own profession, and view themselves as the rulers of fiefdoms.
Well, Mr. Roach, you are wrong.
In your role as a teacher, you are neither a dictator or a president. You are not in control of the young people who occupy the seats in your classroom. “You’re not the boss of me.” Rather, you are a teacher: A chosen steward of learning whose privileged experience has led you to foster a climate to encourage succeeding generations of The Great Democratic Experiment. You are lucky, Mr. Roach! And while it’s too bad that too many teachers see it as otherwise, you don’t have to!
Teachers don’t have to pose classrooms as hierarchal, singularly controlled structures that students must learn to conform to. Instead, you can re-imagine your classroom as a unique learning experience for each student, where learners can experience student/adult partnerships built on equity, opportunity, and commitment. This is the difference between teachers and rulers: Teachers don’t do to students what students can do for themselves; rulers do. I want to implore you, Mr. Roach: Don’t rule your classroom – teach it. That’s the only way our future as a democracy is going to survive.