Updated: Mar 6
When searching for a practice that provides a "real" education, one of the requirements, as I've shared, is developing a philosophy that is real. I've found that this is not the most common or well received pastime, that it feels almost like I'm dropping "F" "PH" bombs rather than pedagogical theory or curricular design- not recommended as an icebreaker in many social circles, that's for sure.
When was the last time your administrator asked you about your educational philosophy and/or its relationship to your practice? Or the last time that colleagues gathered at lunch or after school discussing recent scholarship on pedagogy? Or the last open house or student registration that parents inquired about your philosophy as opposed to your homework policy, grading procedures, or adherence to the testing standards? When has your school board or state representative had a town hall meeting re-thinking aims, purposes, unstated beliefs and underpinnings that profoundly shape our kids' lives every day until they reach adulthood?
Unfortunately, our culture doesn't take educational philosophy very seriously. Education and teacher education have become very preoccupied with technical knowledge surrounding teaching, such as conducting good classroom management, developing backward lesson design, meeting standards, writing objectives, and optimizing efficiency of learning to show growth. Teacher educators and their institutions are succumbing to the state mandates and thus administrative pressure to graduate teachers who can help kids pass tests. As a result, prospective teachers are shortchanged by not being given the time and knowledge or environment to build their own educational philosophy. By no fault of their own, new teachers have not had time to extensively think about it on their own before they hit their first classroom. Most of us are, however, told to submit a philosophy of education with our applications. It's doubtful these documents were read thoroughly except, perhaps, as a writing sample. And it's doubtful we ourselves would ever be asked to look at it again. Thirty years later, I'm certain mine is gathering dust in a file in a dark closet somewhere.
New teachers usually start their first teaching job exhausted from their student teaching broke from student loans, and completely overwhelmed with the impossible task of teaching for the first time. They most likely have no reason to think that their philosophy of education is important compared to the multitude of crises and deadlines and challenges they are facing every day. If they are lucky, they had a good mentor teacher who taught them a bag of tricks to get them through. If they are even more fortunate, they may have a colleague they can trust and rely on at their first school site.
Under the very best of circumstances, new teachers will encounter countless scenarios they were not prepared for, and the goal very quickly becomes survival, to survive while making it look easy as parents and administrators look on. After the bag of tricks is used up and they can't bring themselves to ask their colleague for one more favor or piece of advice, teachers do what anyone would do in an overwhelmingly high pressure situation- there is really only one direction left to take.
We tend to naturally parent our children the same way that we were parented, no matter what we intend to the contrary. The same is true for teachers in the first few years of teaching. The utter need to survive while feeling terrified, unprepared, unsupported, and overwhelmed immediately reverts us back to the way we were taught when we went to school. It doesn't matter if we liked the classes, if we learned anything, if we were traumatized by it or bored out of our minds. It's the only thing that feels familiar, comfortable, safe, and buoyant enough to keep us afloat.
We end up beginning our career, like a quilt full of patches sewn together, a mass of unrelated pieces of cloth. We sew together lessons, strategies, procedures, assessments, and curriculum, and lo and behold, somehow the quilt, as a whole, actually looks pretty good! The stitch work is solid, and it won't fall apart. Its appearance is pleasing to the observers and the participants. We do not have the time or even the perceived need to take a closer critical look so we overlook the fact that the patches have been arbitrarily chosen and arranged, the relationship between them are non-existent or occurred entirely by accident; They are lacking a common theme or coherent whole. There is no set of underlying driving purposes, beliefs, values, and assertions that are dictating its construction.
After barely surviving our first few years, we bring our quilt with us into our next 5 or 10 years of teaching. This period is simply a milder form of the previous intensive survival mode. Rather than asking, "How can I live through this day, week, school year?" Decision-making is now based on either conscious or unconscious notions about "what works?" or "what would elicit positive feedback from students?, parents? Administrators?", or "what feels familiar and normal?"
We may start refining what we do to make it look even better. We may fold in some of the strategies we learned at in-services or a new district mandate or administrator suggestion, but too often, the improvements are cosmetic. Due to the tumultuous process required of us when we built the foundation, any refinements or improvements can be equated to re-arranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic.
Now, here I am, proposing that educators, who work 18 hour days, who will never ever really get everything done they are expected to do and what they want to do, to spend energy they don't have to construct and reconstruct their educational philosophy through a rigorous process throughout their daily, weekly, and yearly professional lives.
And I'm also proposing that parents, students, community members, and politicians should have a far broader and deeper knowledge and understanding about education. But when people are dealing with issues affecting their children and grandchildren, they tend to have very little patience for abstraction. They want practical brass tacks answers, in plain English, to address how we are going to help their kids survive their childhood and their adulthood in this very difficult world that we are living in. Those sentiments reach politicians loud and clear, so when seeking answers surrounding education, they are seeking the fastest route from A to B, which too often appears to be testing, standards, high expectations, and overly simplistic solutions that textbook and testing companies are all too eager to echo, reinforce, and serve up resources to assist in those answers.
More confounding, educators have to constantly consciously ward off our culture's increasingly negative false beliefs about teaching. If we aren't intentionally fighting them off, I think we tend to subconsciously buy into those beliefs. This messaging combined with the primarily technical instruction we receive in teacher education, we begin to consciously or unconsciously see ourselves as technicians, as replaceable with computers or Teach for America adventurers, as primarily record keepers and disciplinarians, or even as the benign albeit patronizing characterization as being caretakers who love kids (and their subject matter).
If we buy into any of that reductionist view of teaching, we are selling ourselves short and degrading the truly powerful and sacred work we are privileged and called to do. This "low self-esteem en mass"- combined with our own cultural prism through which we likely see philosophy- perpetuates our continued unrealized potential.
This neglect of educational philosophy doesn't exist in isolation. Our entire culture vacillates from being apathetic to antipathetic toward philosophy. So I don't take for granted that readers of this site are aligned with my view. It is very important that everyone feels comfortable and welcome to express their skepticism and to challenge assertions and to address any topic from the perspective they hold today, not the perspective that someone else wants them to have.
Secondly, I think it's important that, over time, I continue to share and explore the causes and effects of these American and Western negative biases and to form convincing arguments for embracing philosophical thinking as a part of the fabric of being a great teacher as well as being fully human and truly free.
The awe inducing potential that exists for personal and societal change within the walls of every classroom and school across our nation is what makes this quest so critical and these challenges so important to overcome. If you can embrace the hope and vision for the realization of this potential, "of finding our bliss", then you are with me in accepting the call- for this quest to materialize what we and schools can and should be doing. Let's roll up our sleeves and add another couple hours to our already 18 hour days. I look forward to our crossing paths so we can exchange ideas, ask pressing questions, and keep each other accountable, so please stick around at whatisarealeducation!
You are ready, as I am, to listen to the call and leave "HOME." to begin our quest, our hero's journey, for whatisarealeducation!