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Educating for Democracy: A Book about a Teacher's Dilemma

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I first became acquainted with Nathan Miller through a blog I wrote about a month ago: "If Doctors Were Treated Like Teachers." Nathan teaches English and drama at a high school in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota and wrote me asking if I would be interested in reading his book, Teaching in Circles: My Journeys in Teaching High School (Kaplan Publishing, 2009).

I read his book with considerable interest, not only because it was well-written and gave details about Nathan's teaching experiences over the last 13 years, but because of his brutal honesty about what he felt were his failures to "reach" his students as well as his successes. Near the beginning of the book he admits: "I am highly suspicious of anyone who claims to have a clue of what's going on in America's schools today... Complexity doesn't sell, though," he adds, putting his finger concisely on one of the fundamental problems Americans will not easily face: there is no simple answer to the problems of educating a citizenry that seems to be remarkably resistant to being educated.

Each short chapter contains some astute observations on teaching and learning but is larded with doubts about Nathan's own fitness to be a good teacher. One of the refrains he heard from many of his students when they were confronted with something challenging to read was: "This is so boring!" (This is a common complaint with my adult college students as well and for the same reason: they have not developed an extensive enough vocabulary to read complex texts without great difficulty.) Perhaps Nathan's most insightful statement is in a chapter in which he expressed his disappointment in not feeling as if he had been a good mentor to a younger teacher: "Teaching is too hard for those who don't care and too hard on those who do." He expresses the feelings of many teachers I have met as colleagues as well as those I have interviewed as a blogger when he says:

"The nasty political rhetoric about accountability, standards, and merit didn't twist daggers in my side anymore, because I knew something the politicians still don't know. They can't pin me down. My effectiveness is not going to show up on a test or reveal itself during a classroom observation. It shows up when a girl writes after graduating years ago to tell me she contemplated suicide before I was the first person to express concern over her well being, and I saved her life."

I can particularly relate to that statement since I, too, discovered many years after the event that a late-night telephone conversation I had had with a depressed student saved her life. I am certain that there are many teachers with similar stories; stories whose "results" could never end up on a standardized test score.

What I wrote back to Nathan after having read his book was to try to reassure him that it is not possible to teach a child who, for many reasons, no longer wants to learn or, probably, is not willing to learn in the way in which teachers and students teach and learn. As outlined brilliantly in a recent blog on The Huffington Post, "Schools are Churning out the Unemployable" by Ewan McIntosh, which illustrates the absurdity of what is commonly regarded as the "normal" way to teach:

The 7 Tacit Lessons Which Schools Teach Children

  1. Knowledge is scarce.
  2. Learning needs a specific place and specific time (lessons in classrooms).
  3. Knowledge is best learnt in disconnected little pieces (lessons).
  4. To learn you need the help of an approved expert i.e. a teacher.
  5. To learn you need to follow a path determined by a learning expert (a course of study).
  6. You need an expert to assess your progress (a teacher).
  7. You can attribute a meaningful numerical value to the value of learning (marks, grades, degrees).

One of the reasons for the frustrations of many teachers, especially when they are being expected to fulfill unreasonable demands of "teaching" all or most of their students and having their "success" measured through test scores, is that the way in which teachers are expected to teach often prevents real learning from occurring.

Infants are not "taught" how to talk, how to walk, and many of the learning and behavioral practices that are essential to their future functioning in an adult society at a specific time or place or exclusively from their families. Moreover, they aren't motivated by grades or other "rewards" so much as by their natural curiosity, a curiosity that seems to be stifled if not completely extinguished by the "industrial model" of education which they are compelled to endure for at least a dozen years of their young lives. In fact, I believe that successful learners can only gain knowledge in spite of the way they are schooled rather than because of it although there is no doubt that they can be "inspired" to learn by effective teachers. Thus, Nathan's frustrations were far less in evidence when he taught theater where the students were motivated to learn the technical aspects of putting on a play because they "loved doing it." I am not saying that teaching and learning should just be "fun" and that hard work isn't necessary, but if we could develop a more open educational system, the students might well perceive the hard work they do as being "fun" because it is something they love.

Throughout his book, Nathan Miller continues to pursue the nagging doubt: "Do my students ever learn?" From his own frustrations as well as successes, I would say that perhaps many more of them have learned much from him that cannot be put into words or "accounted" for through any tests invented. Until someone who is as obviously dedicated to, I would say even obsessed with teaching and teaching well as he is can feel the self-confidence and gain what I would call "classroom autonomy" to teach in the best way he can, the dedicated teachers we still have now will continue to feel as he does: "Teaching in Circles."