May 20, 2008
“I am not letting you fail. Even if that means coming to your house every night until you finish the work. I see who you are. Do you understand me? I can see you. And you are not failing.” — Freedom Writers
Dan has some knifing things to say about teacher portrayal in film along these lines: that the heart-attack-inducing martyrdom of the protagonists is merely a sob story excuse for the absence of what real teaching should be: intelligence, ruthless truth-telling, and rigor.
Chris Lehmann agrees last week on his blog, but with a twist. To him, the application of this same rhetoric is what excuses our schools from improving themselves. He asks in turn: why haven’t our best and brightest figured out how to solve the horror of our working conditions already? His answer is to cite this dreadful survey (reading it feels a bit like rubbernecking at a car wreck) as a snapshot of a energy-sucking system that doesn’t leave practitioners enough time to eat and sleep, much less think critically about change.
Myself, I keep going back in my mind to this article by Linda Darling-Hammond in February’s Time magazine on the way teachers are supported in Singapore, and wondering why the edublogosphere didn’t go crazy over it.
Is it indeed because teachers prefer a mythology which camouflages their incompetence? It is because we have no mental or physical resources left to combat the mythology?
Or is there something else in the mix?
I wonder if we are looking at the birth of a new psychological evil. We might call it the Plymouth Syndrome.
A hybrid of the famous Stockholm Syndrome and the against-all-odds, paradigm-resistant Protestant work ethic which carved out our country in the first place, the Plymouth Syndrome causes teachers to make the day-to-day decisions that align ourselves with our “captors,” swallow the global rhetoric of “whatever it takes,” and enable our broken system: in otherwords, to welcome, not challenge, the teacher-martyr mythology.
For the simple reason that fighting not to change the dysfunctional system, but fighting within the dysfunction, is what actually gives us a sense of purpose. In this scheme of things, if there is no dysfunction—even if the dysfunction is being actively replaced with health– there is no sense of purpose.
Thus the expending of one’s energy running the gauntlet of public education is, in the end, more immediately satisfying, and therefore more desirable, than expending energy to get rid of the overarching dysfunction itself.
I’m not proposing that this is a conscious decision—after all, who says to themselves, “I’d rather teach 165 kids at a pop, thanks”? I mean rather that an educator who cannot find meaning within the system might instead, at a subconscious, bedrock level, embrace her microcosmic struggle itself as the meaning of what she does. Once she does this, she needs only the struggle—not the resolution of the struggle.
The means becomes the end. So why bother with real change?
I have no data for this (and actually find solid sociological research on teacher culture pretty scarce anyway. Ideas, anyone?) So my theory is a conjecture, based on informal observations and the vaguaries of my own heart. But I wonder very much about its prevalence.
For example, the first reaction of my own heart is not to congratulate, but condemn, every time I forgo a completely unmanageable assignment such as weekly dialogue journals. (These would require me to spend five minutes minimum responding to each of my 88 kids every week, for a whopping total of over seven hours of grading. If I spend a thoughtful ten minutes on each journal? Fifteen hours.) Yet why do I react this way? Because I find that partially lose my bearings, my sense of meaning, if I am not mightily struggling with something related to school.
This same heart can feel deeply uneasy without the exhaustion of an 11+ hour work day. It elevates me—indeed, in my silliest moments, elevates me above my own co-workers. (“Where are they at 6:00 in the morning? I must be doing something right.” Insane, isn’t it?) Such toil gives me purpose. It is a symbol of my worth.
I’m not saying this attitude is healthy, or (on the flip side) my entire motivation. But it does exist.
So I find myself shaking my head a bit when it comes to both Dan and Chris’ assessments. Can they be right, and not entirely right? I wonder if they might be missing the Plymouth Syndrome, a much more subtle sociological dynamic than either fatigue or fatuousness– and one to which intelligent and motivated individuals might be particularly susceptible.
I remember a conversation I had with a colleague last year. We were discussing the working conditions of a private school in a neighboring town, where teachers have weekly half-days dedicated to reflection and collaboration, adequate pay, and no teacher load over twelve students.
“Cushy,” she said, disparagingly.
And I agreed.