Well, it looks like Betsy DeVos is at it again. This time she’s sharing her thoughts about education and teaching with her new friends at CPAC, the conservative political conference going on right now in National Harbor, MD. Here’s a quote from her “prepared remarks” on Thursday:
“The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community,” read the remarks. “But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree.”
Betsy, Betsy, Betsy.
I’ve been at this teaching thing in one form or another for the last 37 years, and I have some advice for you when it comes to teaching and the people that do it. Based on your track record, I’m pretty confident that you won’t take it, but I’m a teacher–we try even when the student is a “reluctant learner.” So here goes…
If you had ever taught anyone anything, you’d know that teaching just doesn’t work that way. And it’s not “ominous”–although, to be honest, that sounds kind of awesome!
Here’s the deal: We teachers don’t tell our students what to think—we simply help them learn how to think. Which isn’t really very simple, actually. And it doesn’t just “work” immediately, either. You see, just as with parenting, our students don’t just “do what we say”–in fact, that’s rarely the case. It’s not even that they are disobedient–although some kids obviously are disobedient at times. And it’s not that they don’t want to learn–although some kids aren’t always fully engaged in class and don’t always give their best effort.
It’s more that our students are…well, actual, real, living human beings, unlike this guy: And they have their own goals, interests, and ideas as learners–which mean that sometimes–as often as possible, really–it’s my job to follow their lead, and capitalize on the “teachable moment,” even if it’s not what was written in my lesson plan for that day.
I’ve shared this analogy about teaching previously, but it’s worth repeating here again:
I often explain the process of learning how to teach to my students like this: The process of learning about teaching is like playing tennis against a wall. You hit the ball against the wall, and can accurately predict the return path of the ball. You can practice your forehand, then your backhand, secure in the knowledge that the ball will come off the wall predictably and consistently, stroke after stroke.
Actual teaching, on the other hand, is like playing tennis against a wily opponent. You hit the ball across the net, expecting a nice, easy return that you can volley back to your opponent–but your opponent has other ideas, and slices the ball down the line, whistling past your outstretched racket for a winner. There’s nothing predictable or consistent about playing tennis this way–and there’s no do-overs, or practice volleys, either.
Teaching middle school, by the way, is even more challenging–it’s like playing tennis against 30 opponents–each armed with a different piece of sporting equipment, and playing by different rules. You hit the ball across the net, one of your opponents grabs the ball out of the air, throws it to another opponent, and then both of them jump over the net to your side, steal the rest of the tennis balls and throw them over the fence and out of the court.)
And yet career teachers come back, day after day after day, ready for another game of hockey-jai alai-tennis with their 30–or more–sweaty, smelly, excited, goofy, moody, talented, brilliant, challenging opponents. They do so knowing full well that the fruits of their labors won’t be visible immediately, or sometimes, ever, and that often–especially in our current political climate–even their profession’s leaders won’t have their backs. And instead of supporting them in their efforts, these leaders are working actively to destroy their profession by dismantling our system of public schools, de-professionalizing the profession of teaching, and destabilizing the public’s faith in their schools by spreading lies and mistruths.
Furthermore, as one of those “ominous professors,” I have far too much respect for my students than to try to tell them “what to think.” First off, most of my students are much smarter than I am, and have thought deeply about these matters of education policy and politics that Betsy seems to think they are so impressionable about. They are well informed, are certainly not in “receive mode” in my classes. They ask deep, probing questions about what’s going on in education today, and are paying close attention to the profession they are working so hard to enter. Our discussions require me to be well read, well prepared, and well informed–and to look at every issue from multiple viewpoints and perspectives.
I also have too much respect for my students to not tell them what I think about these things. As a student myself I always found it incredibly frustrating to engage in an interesting class discussion only to have the professor remain neutral–as if she didn’t really have a position on the issue, or that she wasn’t willing to share it with the class. I remember thinking: “If this issue or topic was important enough for us to read a bunch of articles about it, write a paper or do a project, and then have this great conversation, then why don’t you as the teacher care enough about it to tell us what you think?”
I believe that my students are bright enough to have their own thoughts and opinions, and aren’t naive enough to be swayed into changing their minds that easily. And I think that they respect me enough to know that I wouldn’t try to do so.
Finally, Betsy, it looks like you’ve had a busy first week on the job, and aren’t letting your complete lack of experience or knowledge about public education get in the way of “getting stuff done“. In just the last week or so you…
*insulted teachers at a middle school
*bashed protesters, saying they are “hostile” to change and new ideas
*said she would be fine if the department she runs is shut down
*complained that critics want “to make my life a living hell”
*did not participate in the first Twitter chat her department had for teachers on Feb. 21
*suggested schools should be able to compensate for troubles children have at home, such as absent fathers
*had U.S. marshals protect her after protesters blocked her entrance to a D.C. school door
*made a confusing statement about the Common Core State Standards
*made crystal clear that a top priority will be pushing for alternatives to traditional public schools, otherwise known as “school choice.”
Whew. Quite the whirlwind, eh?
So, here’s my last bit of advice for you: slow down, talk to some real teachers (not those Teach for America interns the Department of Education seems to be so fond of these days), and make a real, pre-approved, planned, coordinated visit to an actual public school (not another one of those ninja-style assaults you tried to pull off last week).
When you get to that school, try this: listen more than talk; pay attention to what the students and teachers are really saying, not your own interpretation of what you think they are saying; and–most importantly–ask them how you can help.
Rolling over on your duty to protect trans kids isn’t going to make this any easier with teachers, who take their responsibility to protect their students pretty seriously, whether they are working with college students or kindergartners. But it’s also your duty to show a little humility, acknowledge that you don’t have all the answers, and work with teachers to improve all schools, for all children.
It’s time to get to work, Betsy. Good luck–you’re going to need it.