Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Huck Finn's Advice to Teachers

Whether from nature or nurture, I've always been troubled by a noisy, nagging conscience. It always prods me to do what is deemed the right thing and gives me seemingly everlasting hell when I refuse to do so.

I also seem to be genetically predisposed to please people.

I also have a burning desire to win. For me, a second-place winner really is a first-place loser.

I was also brought up to believe "the boss is always right." In fact, I remember being reminded of that when, at about 10 years old, I was sent out the door to work in tobacco fields.

I was brought up in the non-unionized South that felt secure in the presence of stable hierarchies.

All of the above makes me easy to exploit. I can be made to work harder than the rest without financial reward.

It gets worse. All of this is reinforced by the fact that my current job site took me in, some 15 years ago, like a hungry orphan off the streets and made me feel at home immediately and was quick to express appreciation and gratitude for my work, something I'd been craving for years.

In short, even though I am a child of the turbulent '60s, almost everything about me prefers compliance, placation, a life free of uncomfortable confrontations.

So think of the volatile cocktail that results when you mix the above with an externally imposed system, of dubious pedagogical value, that claims to measures teachers' value through number crunching and and relentless monitoring of their planning, goals, objectives, execution in the classroom, their assessment of these things, and the final outcomes as measured by test scores, also of dubious value.

On top of that, the system claims to reward those who are "highly effective" (according to the system's standards), and to refuse to reward a less effective batch and to punish yet another.

 And on top of that, the system is also imposed on each school's administrators, making it difficult for teachers to find or reach the appropriate targets of the metaphorical rocks they ache to throw.

In short, it is a system so vile, insidious and manipulative it makes me want to use the word "evil."

So all of this is falling upon teachers like me (I assume my feelings and my character are not unique) who love to teach, who long to do the right thing, who like to win, who hate to disappoint, who desperately need a raise and who have a conscience.

Are we damned if we follow our conscience or damned if we don't or are we damned either way?

I wonder if I have two consciences: My conditioned conscience says that things handed down from high are always right; my innate or born-with conscience insists I listen to my heart, that I trust it and stand up for it even when risk is involved.

My conditioned conscience tells me not to be a rabble-rouser or a resister and to go back to grading those vocab tests my students took Friday; my innate conscience tells me it is being violated, that there is poison in the air. It tells me either to take action or shut up and do what they tell me.

For decades, I've been waking up every workday morning believing that I'm doing the right thing with my life, that I'm making a difference in the lives of a handful of young people and I'm doing it in a way that depends largely on the gifts that I came into the world with, as opposed to systems imposed from on high.

Under Marzanoification, how can I turn that off now and wake up at an ungodly hour to put my Internal Teacher second or to stifle him or rename him or re-educate him? I can't learn to accept dreading my work.

I've been singing the song of teaching far too long for someone to hand me pre-fab, cookie-cutter musical notations, insist that I follow them and claim that my song will remain the same.

The dilemma I describe above -- the well-meaning do-gooder confronted with the need to engage in civil disobedience -- reminds me of a book people used to read called The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

The crisis point of the novel (not to give anything away) comes when Huck finally has to decide whether to turn in the slave Jim -- who has become his best friend -- or help him escape. His "conscience" speaks to him from all that he has heard about the justification of slavery and the evil of stealing. He knows that if people learn that he has helped Jim, he'll be an outcast, a no-good abolitionist. He believes that he will have stolen the slave from Miss Watson, Jim's "rightful owner," a woman who "never done [Huck] no harm." He is moved to do "the right thing" and writes Miss Watson a letter revealing Jim's whereabouts.

Upon thinking, then thinking again, however, and remembering Jim's goodness toward him, he tears up the note, saying "All right, then. I'll go to hell."

For Huck, the price of going with his heart is as harsh as his young mind can imagine. But Jim is worth it.

I think I can add my name to the long list of folks inspired by that fictional kid's courage. The time comes when we need to "go to hell" for the things we believe in. It's not personal -- we don't mean to hurt Miss Watson -- but it's a matter of principle. So we do it.

As for continuing to be exploited and for compromising my integrity for bogus points in this evaluation system, I'd like to quote another character from American lit, Melville's stubborn Bartleby the Scrivener:

"I would prefer not to."


  1. We need you Roy. There is nobody speaking up for us as of yet. I've decided for myself that I won't go quietly into that good night. I know there is probably no stopping the political train, but I can't sacrifice my integrity for them.

  2. What I said to my daughter, the teacher: "He’s doing what’s right…and maybe one day teachers like you - who HAVE to stay - will benefit from Roy’s Loud Voice - along with all the others who are shouting into the void…hoping that void will fill with all their intelligence and anger. I hope it does.

  3. Would you encourage students to not pursue a career in education? Based on the way the system is heading?