Stealth Teaching

STEALTH TEACHING

 John Eichinger, Ph.D.

Professor, College of Education

California State University, Los Angeles

The ongoing assault on public schooling compels me to propose that it is time for teachers to reclaim our profession. Do your work intelligently, respectfully, and professionally, but as covertly as necessary in this era of false accountability. I refer to this as “stealth teaching,” and it represents a practical reaction to the current mania for making teachers the problem. The actual problem is not that our public school teachers are incompetent, or that the system is broken. The problem is that we did too good a job at teaching America’s children, despite the obvious and multitudinous obstacles. Therefore the wise “reformers,” many of whom seek some sort of opportunity for personal gain, are desperately trying to bring us back “under control.” They do this, however, at the expense of many of our children.

We teach our students to think critically, to find answers, to notice the complexities, to realize that there are often many options to choose from, to question the status quo – in other words, to function democratically and pragmatically in the twenty-first century. These sorts of life skills are not appreciated by everyone, especially those who feel that their personal futures depend on maintaining the status quo.  Many people in positions of power fear that schools are somehow stealing away the children, like the Pied Piper. They want schools to instill values, but not these values. They fear that democratic, student-centered schools will undermine their authority, their prestige, and their profits.

No, public education isn’t really being criticized and punished (by crackdowns in tenure, salary, union representation, achievement scores, achievement gaps, and on and on) for doing a bad job. On the contrary. We are being punished for, in far too many cases, accomplishing far too much. We’ve actually empowered many students, personally and politically. For example, our former students went out and elected an African-American to the office of President of the United States. Neither the outmoded traditional methods nor the plan-in-a-can  technologies imposed over the post-A Nation At Risk years were supposed to actually lead to any significant social change. Something, or someone, must be to blame. It must have been the teachers.

Many opportunists are currently using the media-driven, political reaction to this empowerment process to slip in and make a buck from the school budgets, all the while telling themselves and their markets that they’re doing it “for the kids.” There is certainly buy-partisan support for the selling of the public schools, as we oxymoronically leave no child behind while racing to the top. The more our teachers are treated like assembly line workers, the more our students, our children, will be treated like assembly line products – and vice versa.  

Any passer-by can see that test scores are not as much about enhancing kids’ abilities as they are about determining which teachers and schools are toeing the line. That’s why the current “reformers” keep pushing nineteenth century pedagogy despite the negative effect testing mania has on kids. Alienating many of our students via mass produced curricula is just part of business. It is viewed as acceptable loss – something like collateral damage, euphemistically allowing some students (usually the lower SES students, especially students of color, or of a non-English language background, blaming the so-called “achievement gap” on teachers rather than on income/opportunity disparities and stereotyped, low expectations where it belongs) to fail. Hey, we get two birds with one stone: we anesthetize many of the students and we blame the teachers. Large profits depend on selling the mass produced curricula in as many districts as possible, and we therefore must be sure that every teacher toes the line and does as they are told. Too much profit and too many personal ideologies depend on it.

Teachers occupy a particularly trusted place in the American psyche, despite the onslaught of scorn we currently face. If you don’t agree, consider this. Teachers, when was the last time a parent checked in with you about your professional background, your academic credentials, your instructional vision? We vet our kid’s baby sitters more thoroughly than we do their teachers. Why do you suppose this is? Parents would be well advised to scrutinize their kid’s teachers more extensively, but the point is that they usually don’t, because they’ve come to trust teachers. They trust their local schools. In survey after survey over the years, parents report that while public schooling may be in need of reform, their local teachers and schools are doing just fine, thank you. Woebegone or not, at the local level we are overwhelmingly and properly viewed as parents’ allies and as trusted professionals.

Yes, we have the support we need to take back your school from those who are motivated by prestige, profit, or misguided ideology.  Do so quietly and assertively. Ninja-style. As stealthily as is necessary. There are as many ways to do this as there are teachers. Through innovative lesson planning. Creative problem solving. Careful listening. Cooperative action. Care, trust, calm. Sincerity, integrity. Respect, always. Joy. Reflection. Discussion. Educate ourselves. Focus on our goals: what’s good for these kids? Ask for forgiveness, not permission. Attend meetings. Organize meetings. Volunteer. Talk to people. Have faith in the process. Be courageous!

Teachers wield much more political power than we usually recognize. Without students and teachers there is no school for the administrators to administrate, for the politicians to politicize, for the philanthropists to purchase, or for the armchair pedagogues to second guess. Let’s remind the authorities where the proficiency and power resides through active and passive resistance. Be willing to face the consequences (and there will be consequences). And, of course, let’s demonstrate to them what effective instruction looks like. The idea is not to antagonize, isolate, berate, or irritate, but to illuminate.

Our efforts won’t necessarily work out the way we’d like, but can you go on living this way? Teaching to the test? Being forced to use nothing but bland, mass produced curricula and materials? Being held responsible for an achievement gap that is founded in poverty and intolerance? Are we teachers or “Curriculum Delivery Units?” All we need to do in order to buffer and properly redirect the current commercialized reform movement, to borrow a phrase from social advocate Helen Keller, is to collectively straighten up and fold our arms.

If being publicly vituperated is the price we pay for having successfully encouraged students to think and act heroically, to ask challenging questions, to elect an African American President, to work toward building a world in which we can live together with justice, health,  and good will for all, I say “bring it on.” This time of blaming public schooling for all of our ills, this psychosocial tantrum, will pass, and all of us will have learned a few things in the process – one reality being that teachers are still here, still holding down the fort. Let’s protect our right to a well educated American populace. Protect our future. Protect our students. Teach respectfully, confidently, and professionally. Teach stealthily, if necessary, until one day soon when our efforts, and our students’ lives, will be viewed in the light of reason.

[Suggested Reading: Alfie Kohn, Linda Darling-Hammond, Diane Ravitch, James Popham, David Berliner, Jonathan Kozol]

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