Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Schools are not a battleground

I have expressed in my posts here numerous criticisms of parts of our public education system. I have also expressed views about religion (I'm an atheist) that many people in my community would find anathema. At the same time, I am training to be a high school math teacher here in north Texas. Naturally, this can raise some legitimate concerns among potential colleagues, employers and student families when I start working. The goal of this post is the persuade even those who oppose everything I've stood for here that they have nothing to worry about with me in the classroom.

Why I want to teach

First of all my reasons for going into teaching are that I love explaining things and transferring knowledge. I believe that education is important in our society to help deliver on the promise of equal opportunity. Slightly more controversially I believe that for democracy to work the public needs to be educated to at least the point where they can meaningfully participate in the decisions we face. And even more controversially, I believe that public education plays an assimilatory role, preventing extreme fragmentation of society along ethnic, religious or linguistic lines. But if one sentence could sum up the feelings that drive me to be a teacher it would be a line from an old song:

I hear babies crying, I watch them grow, they will learn more than I'll ever know. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world. —Louis Armstrong

But stepping down from those lofty reasons, my job as a math teacher will be to teach math. I am one of those weirdos who really loves math. But I also love history, science and language and literature. I love thinking and ideas. But given my skills and what needs there are to fill, I can make the biggest contribution by teaching math. Teaching math will be my job and my mission.

Make things easier, not harder

Anyone who cares deeply about education, and I hope that that is true of every teacher, will have strong opinions about how we do things. Some of those opinions will include disagreements. But it helps no one to stir up trouble just to make a point. It only makes it harder for everyone to do their job.

A few individuals with their own political or religious agendas like to fight their battles in the schools. Whether it is people who object to the addition of under God to the Pledge of Allegiance or people who want school led prayer, they oughtn't make things harder for schools to do their jobs. I have little sympathy for those people, even where I might agree with their cause in principle. Ideally, I would like to see the Pledge restored to its original form, but I'm not going to make a fuss about it. Forcing school districts to spend real time and real money fighting a largely symbolic battle is destructive to our educational goals, angers people, and needlessly divides our community.

My concerns about the impacts of accountability requirements will not stop me from doing my job and focusing my efforts where state law and policy tell me to focus my efforts. Forgive me for waxing philosophical again, but there is much to learn from understanding where various policies come from. The policies come from people who were elected to make those policies or from people who were appointed by those elected. I may, on occasion, think that I know better then those people, but my conceit does not entitle me to defy those policies with which I disagree. Just as nobody should pick and choose which laws they obey based on whether they like those laws (otherwise why have laws?), I won't cherrie pick those policies which I like.

If I sign a contract with a school or a school district, I do so willingly and see it as a commitment to upholding my end of the contract. That means following their rules. It would be dishonest to sign a contract with the intention of doing anything other than accepting their policies. This point is point is very important. It is actually something that I thought about a great deal before enrolling in a teacher training program, but by seeking to be a teacher I have firmly decided that the value of doing so greatly outweighs the distaste for implementing a few policies I may not like.

In and out of the classroom

I can see no reason to ever mention my religious or political views in the classroom or to students. There are some things about myself that if expressed in the capacity as a teacher would be inappropriate. My religious and political views certainly fall into that category. However, anyone reading these blog postings (if anyone actually is) will realize that my political, social, and religious views are emphatically not secret. I am happy to share them with anyone (outside of my role as a teacher) who asks.

By seeking out my postings or searching for my musings you are asking me what I think. I am not pushing or advertising my views. I am not addressing a captive audience, and I am absolutely not using a school, classroom, or any authority I might have as a teacher to express my views. By coming here, you have asked me what I think.

Student discovery

I cannot prevent my students from doing the same sort of search or link following that brought you to my postings. I will do nothing whatsoever to encourage them to find this, but that won't stop the student who decides to google all their teachers. So some students will learn my views on politics, social matters and religion. This isn't the problem it might seem.

First of all, I like math, and that will be made known to all of my students. This already makes me a kook in the eyes of many of them. So if I have other kooky ideas, that should come as no surprise. And having one kooky teacher who is an atheist will be balanced out by having a dozen others who have more conventional views. I would be over-estimating my status and influence if I thought that students discovering what my views are would change their views.

I also don't think that I should be singled out for making my opinions available on line. If you are active in your church or a civic organization, if you have ever contributed to a political campaign or are registered to vote for a particular party, then your religious and political views are available to anyone who knows how to search the Internet. You may not have gone into detail about your views, but much will be guessed from your affiliations. Should everyone who works for the public schools try to eradicate all public traces of their views on religion or politics? That would be both unwise and impossible.

Deletion and pseudonyms

Should I remove my postings on controversial matters from the sites I control (this blog and Well, I could, but I have a posting history that goes back to 1986, and I do not have the ability to have everything I've said over the decades removed from where they can be searched. And given how my views, approaches, and spelling have changed over the past 20 years, I would much rather have someone read my more recent comments than my older ones. So if I attempt to remove what I can, then what is left paints a very distorted picture of my views. In truth there is no delete button on the Internet.

I should also make it clear that when I first became active on the Internet, we didn't use pseudonyms. The usernames under which we posted were the usernames that we had on some mainframe computer and were not under our control. Pseudonyms were possible, with effort and resources, but rare. So from the beginning I've posted under my own name. The other problem with pseudonyms is that they are very rarely anonymous. It is possible to operate truly anonymously on the net, but it is difficult. (Most people who think that they are operating anonymously are not.)

It is also not my style to hide from what I say. It would feel dishonest writing under a pseudonym. I should not feel embarrassed by what I say in a public arena. Of course over the decades I've said plenty of things that I'm embarrassed by, and maybe years from now I'll be embarrassed by what I write now. Nonetheless, I hope that my openness about my views and the explanation I've given above should make it clear that my various musings on the Internet will not interfere with my teaching.

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