Monday, September 10, 2012

How to Be a Teacher

The Chicago Teachers Union is on strike.

The strike is about more than wages: issues on the table include class size, teacher evaluation, and other matters directly related to pedagogy and how schools are managed.  The contract dispute is the latest front in the battle between teacher professionalism and neo-liberal reforms that aim to replace professional teaching with technocratic management.  This year's Chicago Public Schools budget shifted funds away from neighborhood public schools and towards charters. Against teachers' objections, CPS would link teachers' pay to student test scores.  In his press conference tonight, Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel used the word "accountability" over and over (including the curious usage ". . . give the principals the accountability they need," as if perhaps the chance to be held to task had been the unanswered dream on their bucket lists for years).  And so forth.

There will be more to say as the strike and continuing contract negotiations unfold, but in preparation for the strike, the CPS has prepared 144 holding pens for CPS students.  These sites will provide breakfast and lunch and 4 hours of "supervision."  (Officially, CPS is calling the program "Children First," but my inner George Orwell refuses to use that phrase, so I'll stick with holding pens.  If that sounds ideological, it's a step back from "POW camps," as I've also heard them called.)

On Friday, CPS released a brochure to be made available to supervisors at these sites.  Because neo-liberal reform tends towards the replacement of professional training of teachers with quick "how to be a teacher" crash courses, I thought the brochure might offer a perspective on what lies in store.  If anyone with a college degree can teach, and no special training in pedagogy, child development, the needs of children with disabilities, the needs of English Language Learners, and classroom management is necessary, it ought to be possible to boil down teaching to a brochure like this one.  It was, therefore, fascinating to see what the brochure lists in its bullet point provision of information.

Overall, I thought the brochure showed the hand of writers who understand what children need, what might go wrong, what a supervisor would really need to know, and how difficult the task would be.  In other words, it was clearly written by someone who understands teaching.  What was most striking about it, to me, was how much story was hidden between the lines.  For instance:
  • A section called "Making Students Feel Comfortable" included the useful information that "Older students will also feel nervous, but they might exhibit these feelings by acting out, or making fun of 
    other students."  Yes indeed, and what is an under-prepared supervisor, with little-to-no disciplinary back-up, going to do about that?  CPS is reportedly trying to ensure that holding pens do not mix adolescents from rival gangs, but they haven't always succeeded in doing that in regular schools either.  It sounds like Lord of the Flies potential to me.
  • The "Classroom Management" single-page of instructions reminds supervisors to set rules for moving around the classroom, including "Define how to move respectfully -- no touching other people or their desk or property, no disruptive noises, etc."  Lord of the Flies again, this time with sexual harrassment.
  • The brochure includes advice on working with English Language Learners and Students in Temporary Living Situations, a reminder of the complexity these supervisors will face.
  •  A section on "Medically Fragile Populations" gives a brief overview of the most common life-threatening medical troubles likely to pop up in any Chicago classroom: Asthma, Diabetes, Food Allergies.  Resources available include "non-CTU nurses." I hope we never decide that nursing can be reduced to bullet points.
In sum, the advice provided showed a good understanding of the kinds of life-threatening situations, as well as those situations that are merely psychologically devastating, that children face when they are not in the charge of adults possessing knowledge of and experience with caring for their needs.  In the items it included, the brochure was a curiously profound statement about the need for professional teachers.  And where will the supervisors of the future be without experienced teachers available to write such brochures?  I was left thinking of monks frantically scribbling down all they could remember as the barbarians stormed the gate.  Of course, these supervisors are not meant to replace teachers, at least not yet, but the brochure was a reminder of how much difference there is between a clever young person with a training manual and a genuine teacher.

Because it violates labor regulations for these holding pens to provide "education," none is offered.  The brochure instead suggests "activities", including one for high school students called "Speak Truth to Power."  My inner Orwell cackled.

1 comment:

David I. Waddington said...

"Children First"? Your Inner Orwell is right to resist!