I am still thinking of my critical theory journey and how it is and will continue affect my teaching. I don’t think I can ever stop thinking about it now, to be honest. In observing classrooms and teaching teachers, the idea of “authority” has come multiple times. Which led me to this topic. We have a problem about questioning authority. A very important part of critical pedagogy is the willingness, the desire, and / or the ability to question authority and stand up for yourself or others.
In our case, the quote would read “Question Authority, but not your Teacher.” But is that really what we want to be teaching? And is that what I did? (if you want to skip the following section, the tl;dr is hell no.) But to think about what I want message I want to teach, I need to examine what I learned as a learner in school. Honestly, I have written and rewritten this post about 12 times. I have deleted it in its entirety twice, and as I go back in the revision history, I realize I started it on 25 February. It is now 2 weeks later, and I just have to hit publish on it and call it good enough. This is a post that will never be perfect.
Where I started (a personal story)
I don’t remember a lot, but I do remember two things about my ES education. I remember I was tested and placed in the gifted and talented program at some point. I remember them pulling me out of class and doing ‘fun’ activities. I remember thinking these were stupid. I remember looking at the teachers and telling them the activities were boring and uninteresting. I told my parents I thought they were stupid. I clearly remember having a meeting and the teachers agreeing to put be back into the classroom because, “these activities are stupid, why can’t I go back to class where I can learn something?”
I also remember taking the workbook home in 5th grade and completing the entire year’s worth of social studies worksheets in two or three nights. I got in trouble from the teacher. I didn’t care. I learned stuff. I was not a very inquiry based learner, was I?
In middle and high school in Montana, I remember every single interaction with a Counselor ended with the statement, “You will take the hardest classes you can handle now, so that it is easier later.” I never fought back against that. I also remember (and my Mom loves to tell the story, bless her heart) that I came home one day and said,
“Mom, I am the class comedian.”
She asked, “Don’t you mean the class clown?”
“No, the comedian.”
“What’s the difference?”
I replied, “The clown is the idiot streaking across the football field naked. The comedian is the guy who put him up to it.”
I was that kid. My friends and I celebrated elaborate pranks on each other and others, but we never damaged property. I also carried around a copy of Einstein’s Special and General Theory of Relativity my junior year and taught myself the math and physics to understand it. Sentence by sentence. I would get in trouble in study hall (we actually had a class called study hall) because I would not do homework, I would spend the entire hour every day with Einstein. I still have the book.
Yea, I was jerk. It didn’t get better. I transferred to Westwood High School in Mesa AZ 3 weeks into my senior year. So, take a smart, physics oriented kid, force him to move across country (as far as I was concerned) during my senior year. Exponential jerk. My first interaction at the school was with the high school counselor. I told him the classes I was in and showed him my transcript. My Montana high school did not do AP classes. AZ did. And they tracked. I was not allowed to take AP as a senior, because I was not in AP as a junior. The counselor finally allowed me to take AP Calculus because I threw a fit, and then handed me my schedule. I went to the book depository to get my books. There was no physics text book in the pile.
No. Physics. Textbook.
My head exploded. I walked back to the counselors office and literally forced the person in the office out. Can you imagine? As an educator now, I am shocked that I was allowed to do this. I walked in and said, “You, get out” to the student in his office. I then said, “You, fix my schedule. I told I was taking physics.” The counselor eventually fixed my schedule, and then arranged for me to take chemistry at the local community college (I think just so he didn’t have to deal with me any more) to replace the organic chem class I was planning on taking in Montana. I graduated from a high school in Arizona. I don’t admit that very often.
I do not know one single person I graduated with. Not one. No wonder. I was a raging jerk. I questioned authority, I made demands upon them, and I won. Honestly, there is not one single encounter I can remember in my K-12 schooling where I did not get what I wanted. I never got in trouble (but should have repeatedly).
I learned to challenge authority and more importantly, HOW to challenge authority. Have a plan. Know your rights. More importantly, know the rules and use them to your advantage. I refused to allow those authority figures to hold me back from what I wanted. And, what I wanted was education.
I remember being told repeatedly growing up that I should never plan on attending college. We could not afford it. I should put it out of my head, not think about it, not plan on it, not try for it. It was too expensive. Not once. Not twice, but repeatedly. It was, really, the only fight I had with my parents, but it was a regular battle.
I showed them, however. I attended a community college on a full ride scholarship, and refused to earn a diploma. An AA wasn’t good enough. I transferred to a nationally ranked, private college, Knox College, for three years and paid for less than one year of school by working the rules of financial aid to my benefit. I took out student loans to do a M.A. in Philosophy from University of Iowa, and don’t regret a single penny. I paid cash for a M.Ed. from the University of Nevada, Reno. And currently have a full ride private grant that is paying for my Ph.D.
I love my parents, but I realize that much of what I did after high school was to give them a giant finger.
As I look back, I fought authority often. I usually won. But there were very few consequences for failure in school.
Where I am at now
Now, I am now teaching teachers. That scares me, a little. Think about the fact that I questioned authority consistently in my educational journey. I did the same thing as a teacher. I advocated throwing away my textbooks in 2012 (and I did stop using them that year). I was thoroughly willing to re-think how lines are taught, and challenge every other teacher to do the same. That post ended with the statement:
After all, if we are going to be arbitrary, at least let us be arbitrary consistently.
Challenging authority and being subversive is kind of what I did on my blog for the last 4 years.
And now I am teaching teachers. That is scary.
I observe classrooms where the teacher is leading 4th graders through amazing math and science discussion. The learners in the classroom blow my mind with how ahead of the game they are. They also respond instantly to “Class Class” with “Yes Yes,” stop talking, and give 100% of their attention to the teacher.
I have seen a class that was doing high school level mathematics (again a 4th grade classroom). This teacher is amazing. A Title 1 school where every learner is engaged and learning. They stand up, push in their chair, speak to the class, pull out their chair, and sit down. Every time they have something to say. In this class, if they are called on and don’t know an answer, they remain standing and ‘phone a friend’. That learner stands up, pushes in their chair and helps.
Are these learners being taught to question authority? They are being taught, for sure. They are learning math, science, English, etc at an amazing high level. They are learning content. But are they learning that “First Reponsibility” of Franklin’s?
The most common question I am asked by my future teachers is, “How do we handle a learner that won’t do what we ask?” They have clearly bought into the idea of “Question Authority, but not your teacher.” My responses are: make lessons that are engaging and interesting. Get learners up and moving. Allow for exploration (one of the steps of inquiry learning). Stop lecturing at them. “Telling isn’t teaching, Listening isn’t learning.” Etc.
As an educator, I encourage teachers on Twitter and my blog to stand up to admins who make unreasonable demands. I know I stood up to my admins repeatedly. I was called into the principals office and asked to stop several times. I said no. I never lost my job. I was still rated Highly Effective. Teachers have power, but often are afraid to use it.
Not every teacher does exercises their power. Not every teacher can exercise their power. Some teachers can’t or won’t because they fear repercussions. Some teachers will absolutely lose their job, status, or ability to teach if they question authority. That is horrible, but it does happen.
So I really end up where I started. Questioning authority is standing up for yourself or others. My future teachers need to unlearn the idea of “Question authority, but not your teachers.” They also need to be supported when they start teaching and question authority when they stand up for their learners.
The process of unlearning this message is vital, and it is my job now to guide them towards that goal. But how? How can I effectively teach new teachers, freshmen through seniors in college, to challenge authority in education?
They already have cognitive dissonance because they are being taught effective teaching techniques. Math and science ed is being grounded in inquiry based methods, activities, and engagement. ANNNND then they walk into the lecture hall of 200 students and are talked at for 50 minutes. Do I want them questioning authority when a grade is on the line and it could cost them hundreds of dollars and to retake a class? No. I don’t.
Do I want them questioning a principal when they are a provisional teacher their first years out when they can be fired at will? Not really, but at the same time, yea, I do. When the questioning is because it is in the best interest of their learners, I do want them to question authority. I know I would. Even during those first years. But would I have really done that during the first years? Probably not.
The reality of questioning authority is hard.
The calculus of questioning authority takes into account the repercussions. But honestly, the catch phrase “Pragmatically Question Authority” loses a lot of value.
I think in the end, for my future teachers, I have settled on this for now. I would like them to practice “Thoughtful respect for authority.” That at least encourages them to think hard about whether the authority is making decisions in the best interest of learners.