Structure Speaks: Exploring the Difficulty of Scholarship in the Middle Grades

I spent the last few weeks co-writing a couple of articles on writing instruction and critical pedagogy. The process was as exhausting as it was exhilarating. I somehow managed to sucker two infinitely more talented educators into letting me write with them, and I didn’t want to disappoint. By the end of the process, I felt hollowed out.

The cognitive demands required to engage in serious reading and writing after a day of teaching took me by surprise. I’m a teacher and a writer. So why was this so hard for me? For sure, writing is complicated, and I’ve spoken about my ADHD before. But my struggle to complete two articles suggested to me that something else was going on, something deeper than just feeling tired or having a hard time focusing.

On a lark, I went through the four recent issues of Voices from the Middle, NCTE’s middle grades journal, and performed a quick tally of the authors. I placed each author into one of three categories: P-12 teachers, academics (professors, think tank/policy people, and education scholars who were not currently working at a P-12 school), or both. Out of the 37 articles I checked, 25 (68%) were written by academics, eight (22%) were collaborations between P-12 teachers and academics, and only four (11%) were written solely by P-12 teachers.

My sample size was small, and my methodology simplistic, but it’s hard to imagine that a more thorough analysis would yield dissimilar results. So what’s up with the under-representation of primary and secondary teachers? I’ve come to the conclusion that the structures comprising P-12 public education actively discourage scholarship. For the sake of this post, I define scholarship as any sort of self-directed intellectual activity existing outside the immediate sphere of P-12 schooling. Publishing, speaking at academic conferences, engaging in intellectual discussions on social media, and maintaining meaningful professional correspondences are all examples. Additionally, for the remainder of this post, I’ll be using “middle school teacher” as a stand in for P-12 teachers.

Structure 1: A Teacher’s Day

The first set of structures working against middle school scholarship are those governing the average teacher’s time. Every day I have two planning periods. One of these planning periods is always eaten up by mandatory meetings with my grade level team or my content level team. The other planning period is by necessity a dumping ground for everything else: administrative work, meetings with students or parents, email, responding to student work, trips to the restroom, and if I’m lucky, actual lesson planning.

The day to day structures governing my behavior leave little time for off the books intellectual activity. Everything I do during my planning periods revolves around the quantitative, rational, and standardized nature of teaching. Discussions about assessments deal with the how, rarely the what or the why. Lesson planning is firmly yoked to standards, assessment data, and measurable skills. While these activities are of course important, they are primarily technical in nature and insular in focus. There is no time for building intellectual networks with colleagues when every moment of collaboration is funneled through corporate models of efficiency and outcomes.

Structure 2: A School’s Expectations 

The next structures problematizing teacher scholarship are a school’s expectations. I have never worked at a school where teachers were encouraged to engage in intellectual activity beyond the occasional reading group for admin-approved literature. Or where teachers were celebrated for undertaking scholarly pursuits. In my experience, when teachers are celebrated, it’s for having children or getting married, planning student-teacher conferences, completing various rounds of testing, helping out with after school events, etc. I mention these activities not to disparage them, but to use them as evidence of what is expected and what is celebrated.

In my experience, professional development typically deals with the technical aspects of teaching, as well. In the last few years, I’ve attended trainings on thinking protocols, rubrics, and using technology to support struggling students. I’ve enjoyed many of these sessions, but they’re showcases for technique. Outcomes are already determined, tools are already assigned; all that’s left is to show up and absorb.

Structure 3: The Ontology of the Profession

Growing up, I don’t remember any of my teachers discussing intellectual pursuits or recent publications. Did I see them as good teachers? Yes. Masters of their craft who could make me work harder than I thought possible? Of course. But not intellectuals. Everything my teachers said or did fit into the insular and artificial world of schooling, assignments, metrics, and rankings. Years later when I became a pre-service teacher, I spent most of my time reading articles on various instructional strategies and then pontificating on how I might use each strategy in my imaginary class. There was no talk of reading or writing outside the transactional nature of the assignment.

The situations I’ve outlined are not new. Historically, morality, patriotism, and self-sufficiency have always been more important to American public education than intellectualism or scholarship. Policy elites, philanthrocapitalists, and politicians have been dictating what’s best for teachers and students since at least the late nineteenth-century. Combined, these structures play an essential role in determining who teachers are, what they do, and what is expected of them. Scholarship and critical discourse have never been part of a teacher’s subject position. We are continuously being spoken for.

Final Thoughts

We function within a set of structures discouraging organic, intellectual pursuit. It’s not that teachers are unintellectual. It’s that our intellectual resources are trained forever inward, focused on the narrow and technical aspects of our craft. These are important issues, but they represent only a sliver of what it means to be an educator. There can be no discussion when outcomes are planned in advance. Productive and informed discourse cannot exist when there is no time to think, read, write, and learn.

Although the structures discussed throughout this post aren’t going away, they can be loosened and expanded. As teachers, let us begin this process by telling our stories and continuing to connecting through social media. Pick one or two academics to follow and communicate with. Link up with other educators and seek out conferences and journals to participate in and write for. Form your own reading groups. Figure out what absolutely must be done and what you have some wiggle room with. Over time, our individual actions will accrete. The structures won’t crack, but they’ll expand.

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2 comments

  1. Brian Rozinsky

    On a personal level, I feel that accretion of which you speak, Peter. Thanks for the time you put into these thoughts and plumbing the contexts in which you’ve been thinking them.

    Like

  2. jenorr73

    I look through every issue of ASCD’s Educational Leadership with this exact same question. For the record, Voices From the Middle is doing far better in representing K-12 classroom teacher’s voices. I think you are spot on about this. Writing that type of piece is intense and tough to do after a school day. I believe our professional journals need to find a way to include current practitioners voices.

    Like

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