The Death of Teaching and Learning in America

“We’re the mass shooting generation. I was born months after Columbine. I’m 17 years old and we’ve had 17 years of mass shootings,” Kasky said.

Parkland Students: ‘We’re The Mass Shooting Generation’

As a teacher educator, I am fortunate to maintain professional and personal relationships with wonderful early-career educators. But here are a couple stories from one young teacher I’d rather not tell.

First, this early-career teacher has distinguished herself already; in many ways, she represents the very best of who we all want to be teaching students. But at a recent meeting about pay and benefits next year, she was informed that the slight raise she was anticipating would be negated by new retirement deductions.

Her response: “I love to teach, but I know a day is coming when the negatives outweigh the benefits, and I just won’t be able to do this any more.” She added that this moment seemed to be coming sooner rather than later, that she wasn’t going to be a martyr.

As an English teacher, she also has been struggling with her canon: the steady drip, drip, drip of male authors exposed for sexual harassment and abuse — Garrison Keillor, J.D. Salinger, Sherman Alexie.

As she has confronted these issues, and stopped assigning those writers, she has witnessed students come against a very troubling reality; one student noted in class, “Everybody we read has committed sexual harassment.”

These two moments represent the professional weight of being a teacher — issues about pay and benefits as well as pedagogy.

Now, let’s mix in something that may prove even more daunting.

At the sparsely attended walk out on my campus, one student showed up with a sign: “I am scared to be an Ed Major.”

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The very real specter of schooling as a place in which students and teachers must be vigilant about safety, about the possibility of being shot; the very real specter of calls for turning schools into fortresses, with teachers armed like prison guards.

As David Edwards reports, students increasingly see attending school not as a place of learning, but a place to survive:

“It’s really scary,” the organizer added. “This is a turning point. Things really have to change. We won’t tolerate it. We won’t tolerate being scared to come into school. We won’t tolerate having to stay out of school because we’re scared. It has to change. We can’t be hunted.”

[MSNBC’s Ron] Allen observed that “hunted” was a “powerful word” to use in this context.

“I think that it’s become obvious that we’re the victims,” the girl insisted. “That we are the ones that are going to die if this continues. So I think that we have to fight to at least say that we don’t want to die.”

For decades now, many of us in education who believe in the possibility of universal public education have feared the death of teaching and learning, but we have imagined that coming from policy, free market and accountability approaches to so-called reform.

But something more sinister is happening: Schools have always labored under the weight of the communities they serve, and teaching and learning is now dying a slow and horrible death because of America’s gun culture combined with those bureaucratic monsters many of us were mostly pointing to.

In America, our students and teachers have become martyrs for our misguided politics and ideology — from abdicating teaching and learning to the standards and testing industry, to literally sacrificing lives in the name of gun lust.

Some of us have feared the death of public schools, the death of teaching and learning. Our outcry for decades now may have seemed like hyperbole — or to some, self-interested whining.

But now we are watching both the literal and figurative death of teaching and learning, and too many think the best recourse is doubling down on all the ways this death has come about.

As more and more teachers and students declare that they will not be martyrs, what role will the rest of us take — in their defense or to their demise?

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/

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