Recently at the President’s rally in El Paso for his border wall, his son, Donald Trump, Jr., warmed up the crowd with a speech in which he gratuitously attacked teachers: “Bring it to your schools… You don’t have to be indoctrinated by these loser teachers that are trying to sell you on socialism from birth.” It is hard to know what all that means, although I suppose we can infer that attacks on so-called socialists are going to be a centerpiece of the campaign if the President runs for reelection in 2020.
Strauss also published a response to Trump Jr. from three teachers—Jelmer Evers (the Netherlands), Michael Soskil (2017-18, Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year) and Armand Doucet (Canada) who co-authored a 2018 book, Teaching in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Standing at the Precipice. Evers, Soskil, and Doucet write that for them, Trump Jr.’s speech was a chilling moment: “Throughout history, schools and teachers have always been among the first to be targeted by authoritarian regimes and extremists. Independent thinking, creativity, compassion and curiosity are threats to dogmatic beliefs and rule.” “Whether Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative, right, left, center, blue or red—seeing and reinforcing the value of a teacher should be a national pillar that rises high above partisan politics and cheap applause… If we can be accused of anything, it is that we are on the front line of democracy. Education reformer John Dewey famously said, ‘Democracy has to be born again each generation and education is its midwife.’ As members of a global profession, we reject the narrowing of the mind and we stand by our colleagues defending academic freedom.”
President Trump and his son were both educated in private schools. I suspect that neither has even visited a public school, and I wonder if either one has ever considered what teachers do, or what shapes teachers, or what teachers consider as they work every day with children and adolescents. I thought it would be important to respond to Donald Jr.’s bullying remark with some additional thinking from people who have thought a lot about teaching and public education.
In his 2007, Letters to a Young Teacher, Jonathan Kozol responds directly to Donald Jr.’s assumption that a teacher’s primary role is to prepare students for some kind of economic function: “(T)eachers, and especially the teachers of young children, are not servants of the global corporations or drill sergeants for the state and should never be compelled to view themselves that way. I think they have a higher destiny than that. The best of teachers are not merely the technicians of proficiency; they are also ministers of innocence, practitioners of tender expectations. They stalwartly refuse to see their pupils as so many future economic units for a corporate society, little pint-sized deficits or assets for America’s economy, into whom they are expected to pump ‘added value,’ as the pundits of the education policy arena now declaim. Teachers like these believe that every child who has been entrusted to their care comes into their classroom with inherent value to begin with.” (Letters to a Young Teacher, pp. 4-5 [emphasis in the original])
Gloria Ladson-Billings is a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and former president of the American Educational Research Association. Ladson-Billings’ book, The Dream-Keepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children, is a staple in colleges of education. Ladson-Billings explores what makes a particular group of excellent teachers effective. Here she explores the importance of experience—teaching experience and life experience—shaping what happens in the classroom: “I wanted to know what was right with African American students’ education and what happens in classrooms where teachers, students, and parents seem to get it right. I searched for these teachers by polling African American parents… I asked principals and colleagues at schools in the district to recommend outstanding teachers to me. If a teacher’s name appeared on both lists… she became a candidate for the study. The most memorable thing about these teachers was that they had such few obvious similarities. True, they were all women, but I presume that to be an artifact of elementary teaching… After three years of working with these teachers I found two qualities that may explain their success. The first was experience. These women were very experienced teachers. None had fewer than twelve years of teaching experience… The second and perhaps more compelling factor was that each of these teachers could point to a transformative moment in their lives that forced them to reassess the way they did their work… These moments of transformation stand in stark contrast to the experiences of well-intentioned young people who come into teaching every year hoping to do some good for those ‘poor Black children.’ In my subsequent study with novice teachers I realized that it was important to select candidates who already had some life experiences that forced them to look closely at their lives and the lives of those less fortunate than they.” (The Dream-Keepers, “Forward” to the 2009 edition, pp. vii-viii [emphasis in the original])
Finally, in Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America (1995, second edition 2006), Mike Rose, the education writer and professor of education at UCLA, traces four years of travel across the United States visiting and observing teaching in what he had identified as likely sites of excellent public school classrooms. Rose concludes: “To begin, the teachers we spent time with were knowledgeable. They knew subject matter or languages or technologies, which they acquired in a variety of ways: from formal schooling to curriculum-development projects to individual practice and study. In most cases, this acquisition of knowledge was ongoing, developing; they were still learning, and their pursuits were a source of excitement and renewal… As one teaches, one’s knowledge plays out in social space, and this is one of the things that makes teaching such a complex activity… (T)eaching well means knowing one’s students well and being able to read them quickly and, in turn, making decisions to slow down or speed up, to stay with a point or return to it later…. This decision-making operates as much by feel as by reason: it involves hunch, introduction, a best, quick guess. There is another dimension to the ability to make judgments about instruction. The teachers we observed operate with a knowledge of individual students’ lives, of local history and economy, and of social-cultural traditions and practices… At heart, the teachers in Possible Lives were able to affirm in a deep and comprehensive way the capability of the students in their classrooms… Such affirmation of intellectual and civic potential, particularly within populations that have been historically devalued in our society, gives to these teachers’ work a dimension of advocacy, a moral and political purpose.” (Possible Lives, pp. 418-423)
I wanted to share these passages from writers who not only teach prospective teachers but also help readers appreciate the real work of teachers. Most of us do not have the opportunity to sit inside America’s classrooms and become aware of the scale of this kind of work—across all of our communities—cities, suburbs, small towns and rural areas. Rose captures the importance of our system of public education with its millions of classrooms: “What I began to see—and it took the accumulation of diverse classrooms to help me see it—was that these classrooms… represented a dynamic, at times compromised and contested, strain in American educational history: a faith in the capacity of a people, a drive toward equality and opportunity, a belief in the intimate link between mass education and a free society… The teachers I visited were working within that rich tradition. They provided example after different example of people doing public intellectual work in institutional settings, using the power of the institution to realize democratic goals for the children in their charge, and finessing, negotiating, subverting institutional power when it blocked the realization of those goals.” (Possible Lives, pp. 412-413)
It’s too bad our President and his son don’t get it.