Schools as the Societal Ideal

Question: In her video clip, Vianne Timmons states that teachers must be “idealists” as opposed to “realists”. She also asserts that our schools should not be microcosms of our current society, but microcosms of a more just society.

Author L.R. Knost wrote the following about parenting, but I think it is an important sentiment for teachers as well: “It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.” This is the same point that Vianne Timmons makes about inclusive education. She makes the point that we can only create a more equitable world if we allow students to become comfortable and adjusted to that kind of world while they are in schools. It would be a mistake, in my opinion, to assume that the current system is inherent in us as people. I do not think that the system has made people certain way; rather, I think that people created the system to be the way that it is. Therefore, people have the ability to change it for the better. I do not like the idea of becoming the kind of teacher, or the kind of person in general, who looks at problems and says “Tough. That’s the way it is. Get used to it.” I certainly do not want to be responsible for future generations developing that opinion. I agree with Knost and Simmons that striving for a kinder and more just world should be our priority, and that the best way to achieve this type of world is to achieve this type of school.

On the other hand, Kumashiro makes an important point in the second chapter of Against Common Sense when he writes: “…I am not suggesting that a better approach to teaching would have been to let [students] behave or analyze literature or produce writing in whichever ways they pleased. Mainstream society often places value on certain kinds of behaviors, knowledge, and skills, and schools would disadvantage students by not teaching what often matters in schools and society” (p. 22). Thus, it is true that teachers should make sure that students develop skills that will help them to succeed into society the way it is, as opposed to the idealistic society many of us wish we were a part of instead. This does not mean, however, that we must help our students develop these skills in order to teach them that the world as we know it cannot change and that they are better off adapting to the current system than imagining a better one. I think the best thing we can do for our students is to help them develop the accepted skills, and to impart in them the idea that utilizing and mastering the skills and knowledge that is valued in our current system is perhaps the best way to introduce change. Once a person knows and understands the way society currently works, they may have a better chance at changing things in the direction of idealism. For instance, Emma Laroque, in writing When the Other is Me: Native Resistance Discourse, said that using English—which, for First Nations people, was a result of colonization—was now the best tool for decolonization. Therefore, this tells me that future generations may be required to understand the skills, knowledge, and values of the world, as it is now—flawed and often unjust—in order to introduce positive change.

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Troubling the Meaning of “Troubling”

Question: Kumashiro (2009) argues that “troubling knowledge” does not mean “rejecting” knowledge. Using an example, explain what the thought processes involved in troubling knowledge might look like.

What is most interesting to me about Kumashiro’s section about “troubling knowledge” is that the words he chooses to make his point involve a “troubling” in themselves. For instance, the word “troubling,” typically has negative connotations, whole the word “good,” has, well, good connotations. Thus when Kumashiro write something like: “Traditionally, teacher education programs have contributed to this problem by not significantly troubling the ways that dominating views and practices of “good” teachers contribute to oppression and hinder anti-oppressive change,” (p. 1) it requires a reader to abandon what they believe to be the connotations of “troubling” and “good” in order to properly understand his point. When Kumashiro says “troubling”—a word whose synonyms include “worrying,” “upsetting,” and “disturbing”—he does not intend for readers to see this word as a negative instrument for educators. Instead, he asks that we see “troubling knowledge” as a necessary and positive tool in creating anti-oppressive.

Kumashiro does not expect “troubling knowledge” to mean completely rewriting everything that an oppressive system has provided us with, nor does it mean abandoning the world as we know it. Rather, it asks that we look deeper for the roots of “commonsensical” knowledge. It means asking “Who said this and why?” and “Who benefits from this knowledge?” The goal of an educational system, one which strives for anti-oppressive practices, requires that we ask these questions as teachers, and that we encourage students to ask these questions, inside and outside of our classrooms. Thus “troubling knowledge” does not require us to reject everything we know, nor is the intention to completely shake the ground on which we stand. This would likely cause so much anxiety that a person is no longer interested in positive change. “Troubling knowledge” simply asks that we ask questions to generate enough discussion and concern that students begin to press for change.

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Not-So-Helpful Helping

Question: Kumashiro states that like many others, he began his teaching career because he wanted to “help.” Drawing on his story and incorporating your own personal experiences, problematize the notion of “helping” students.

To say that there is only one reason to choose a career in teaching would likely be false for most people; I, for one, have many reasons that contribute to my desire to teach (not the least of which is that, as an English major, most people—including myself—just assumed that I would become a teacher because career options for English majors are limited). Despite the many reasons, however, I think there is at least a small part of everyone entering teaching that has what Kumashiro calls “save-the-world idealism” (XXIX). I have seen movies like Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting enough times that I cannot help but desire to be the new real-life version of Robin Williams’ characters. Even though I know the realities of teaching are not like they are in the movies, I cannot help but maintain that sliver of hope that maybe, just maybe, I could be the right person to truly reach out to young people and to give them the best possible experience in school.

Unfortunately, in the real world, there is no script. There are no wise, life-changing lines of dialogue for me to memorize and deliver charismatically; the students are not actors, being paid to watch my brilliance; the lives of students are not caught on camera and easy for me to encounter. Like Kumashiro, who had a wake-up call after beginning his teaching career in Nepal, teachers, although they may be modern day superheroes in their own minds, are not necessarily viewed by their students this way.

I think that, ironically, what may often keep teachers from helping students is that desire to help them. We are so focused on living out this dream we have of what helping students looks like—elaborate and fireworks-inducing—that we become distracted from what it truly means to help students. In other words, we make helping students all about us (Side note: when I say “we” I certainly do not mean every teacher or future teacher—it could just be me!). Instead of focusing on what our students actually need and want from a teacher, even if that means a more traditional education system, we assume that our desire to help will provide us with every skill we need to do the job well. Kumashiro wrote that there was a “failure to critique our unspoken assumptions about U.S. superiority” (XXXII). Perhaps, in the same way, teachers themselves have an assumed superiority—likely subconscious—over their students.

The biggest problem with the save-the-world, subconscious superiority (bonus points for alliteration?) is that it causes us to dismiss, not only the help that our students actually require of their teachers, but also the ways in which students can help teachers. Students have their own expectations for their learning, and also their own experiences, stories, and knowledge that they bring to the table. When we focus on what WE can do to help students accomplish OUR, we lose sight of a world in which we help students accomplish their own goals, and one in which what they bring to the classroom—without any interference from a teacher—is valued.

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