The Rights and Responsibilities of the Teacher of English Redux (2016)
“All we gotta do is be brave
And be kind”
“Baby, We’ll Be Fine,” The National
…the world is gone daft with this nonsense.
John Proctor, The Crucible, Arthur Miller
In a keynote address at the 1960 National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) annual convention, former NCTE president Lou LaBrant asserted:
Every teacher of English exercises some rights, no matter how dictatorial the system under which [she/]he works; and every teacher carries out some responsibilities. But today we have a considerable movement in this country to curtail certain freedom — rights — of the classroom teacher, and those rights are the matter of this discussion. (p. 379)
Published as The Rights and Responsibilities of the Teacher of English in the September 1961 English Journal, this characteristic call to action from LaBrant resonates in 2016 as English teachers prepare to gather in Atlanta, Georgia for #NCTE16 with the increasingly important theme of Faces of Advocacy.
Fifty-five years ago, LaBrant advocated for teaching:
Teaching, unlike the making of a car, is primarily a thought process. A [hu]man may work on an assembly line, turning a special kind of bolt day after day, and succeed as a bolt-turner….But the teacher is something quite different from the [hu]man who turns a bolt, because the student is not like a car. Teaching is a matter of changing the mind of the student, of using that magic by which the thinking of one so bears on the thinking of another that new understanding and new mental activity begin. Obviously, the degree to which this is reduced to a mechanical procedure affects the results. (p. 380)
Most practicing teachers today work within and against political and bureaucratic forces that “[reduce teaching] to a mechanical procedure.”
And even more disturbing is LaBrant’s warning:
What I am trying to say here is that the teacher who is not thinking, testing, experimenting, and exploring the world of thought with which [she/]he deals and the very materials with which [she/]he works, that teacher is a robot [her/]himself. But we cannot expect a teacher to continue the attempt to find better means or to invent new approaches unless [she/]he knows [she/]he will have freedom to use [her/]his results. Without this freedom we must expect either a static teacher or a frustrated one. I have seen both: the dull, hopeless, discouraged teacher, and the angry, blocked, unhappy individual. (p. 380)
At mid-twentieth century, LaBrant spoke against the all-too-familiar “bad” teacher myth used in contemporary calls for accountability:
Repeatedly when capable teachers ask for freedom, someone points out that we have many lazy teachers, stupid teachers unable to think and choose, ignorant teachers; in short, bad teachers who need control. We do have some, but we encourage others to be bad. Even the weak teacher does better when [she/]he has to face [her/]his own decisions, and when [she/]he supports that decision. (p. 383)
The de-professionalizing of all teachers, then, is not something new, but a historical fact of being a teacher. However, LaBrant confronted the culpability among educators themselves:
One reason so many of us do not have our rights is that we have not earned them. The teacher who is free to decide when and how to teach language structure has an obligation to master [her/]his grammar, to analyze the problems of writing, and to study their relations to structure….But [her/]his right to choose comes only when [she/]he has read and considered methods other than [her/]his own. [She/]He has no right to choose methods or materials which research has proved ineffective….There is little point in asking for a right without preparation for its use. (p. 390)
“Throughout our country today we have great pressure to improve our schools,” lamented LaBrant. “By far too much of that pressure tends toward a uniformity, a conformity, a lock-step which precludes the very excellence we claim to desire”:
There is little consideration of the teacher as a catalyst, a changing, growing personality. Only a teacher who thinks about [her/]his work can think in class; only a thinking teacher can stimulate as they should be stimulated the minds with which [she/]he works. Freedom of any sort is a precious thing; but freedom to be our best, in the sense of our highest, is not only our right but our moral responsibility. “They” — the public, the administrators, the critics — have no right to take freedom from us, the teachers; but freedom is not something one wins and then possesses; freedom is something we rewin every day, as much a quality of ourselves as it is a concession from others. (pp. 390–391)
The Rights and Responsibilities of the Teacher of English Redux
“Evil settles into everyday life when people are unable or unwilling to recognize it,” writes Teju Cole in the wake of Donald Trump being elected president of the U.S. “It makes its home among us when we are keen to minimize it or describe it as something else.”
LaBrant wrote about the field of teaching English throughout the 1940s and 1950s with the power — both for evil and for good — of language forefront of her concerns:
Misuse of language, as Hitler demonstrated, is a terrible thing; we teachers of English can at the very least teach our students that language is a tool of thought, a tool which can be sharp and keen, but is easily blunted. (“The Individual and His Writing,” 1950, p. 265)
So we teachers of English/ELA — and all educators — sit in 2016 confronted with a “[m]isuse of language” that has given rise to a presidency built on racism, sexism, and xenophobia; therefore, as during LaBrant’s career, we teachers of English/ELA must embrace the most pressing responsibilities.
But driving Trump’s and his supporters’ bigotry has been a powerful corruption of language: blatant lies, denials of those lies, and the ugliest of coded language. In short, bullying has rewarded a political leader with the highest office in a free society.
Parody of Trump’s misuse of language cannot be taken lightly, but that misuse has real consequences on the lives of vulnerable and marginalized people, including children in the classrooms of teachers across the U.S.
Immediately, then, teachers must admit “that every dimension of schooling and every form of educational practice are politically contested spaces” (Kincheloe, 2005).
In other words, although teachers are historically and currently de-professionalized by being told not to be political, as LaBrant argued, educators cannot reinforce that mantra by calling for politics-free zones in our classrooms and in our professional spaces.
Calling for no politics is a political act of silencing that brazenly takes a masked political stand in favor of the status quo.
Teaching and learning are unavoidably “politically contested spaces,” but they are unavoidably ethically contested spaces as well.
Language is a human behavior that allows us to wrestle with and find our moral grounding; and thus, those teaching literacy have a profoundly ethical mission to work toward the Right, Good, and Decent — in the act of teaching but also as a personal model.
As philosopher Aaron Simmons argues:
It matters that we demonstrate critical thinking even while others assume that shouting louder is tantamount to evidential refutation. It matters that we think well when it seems hard to think anything at all. It matters that we care about truth because only then can lies and bullshit still be categories to avoid.
The naive stance of neutrality can no longer be who teachers are because, as I noted above, to be neutral is to support the status quo, and in the U.S., the status quo is a cancer that left untreated promises to kill us all.
“It goes without saying, then, that language is also a political instrument, means, and proof of power,” James Baldwin wrote in 1979 on Black English. “It is the most vivid and crucial key to identify: It reveals the private identity, and connects one with, or divorces one from, the larger, public, or communal identity.”
Just as LaBrant linked language and power, Baldwin extended that dynamic to include race — and called for using that power in the name of community instead of divisiveness.
The word “critical,” now, has taken on exponential layers of meaning.
We are in critical times, and thus, as Kincheloe explains about the political and ethical responsibilities of being critical educator who seeks for students critical literacy:
Recognition of these educational politics suggests that teachers take a position and make it understandable to their students. They do not, however, have the right to impose these positions on their students [emphasis in original]….
To refuse to name the forces that produce human suffering and exploitation is to take a position that supports oppression and powers that perpetuate it. The argument that any position opposing the actions of dominant power wielders is problematic. It is tantamount to saying that one who admits her oppositional political sentiments and makes them known to students is guilty of indoctrination, while one who hides her consent to dominant power and the status quo it has produced from her students is operating in an objective and neutral manner. Critical pedagogy wants to know who’s indoctrinating whom. (p. 11)
In its simple form, to call a lie, a lie; to name racism, racism; to reject hate as hate — these are the undeniable responsibilities of teachers, especially teachers of English/ELA.
To say “I’m neutral” in the face of a lie is to lie.
To say “I’m neutral” in the face of racism is racism, in the face of sexism is sexism, in the face of xenophobia is xenophobia.
To divorce the act of teaching from the world within which it resides is to abdicate the greatest potential of teaching and learning: to change the human experience from dark to light.
If we shun our responsibilities as teachers in 2016, we are turning our backs to the ugliest realities faced by Baldwin nearly forty years ago:
The brutal truth is that the bulk of white people in American never had any interest in educating black people, except as this could serve white purposes. It is not the black child’s language that is in question, it is not his language that is despised: It is his experience. A child cannot be taught by anyone who despises him, and a child cannot afford to be fooled. A child cannot be taught by anyone whose demand, essentially, is that the child repudiate his experience, and all that gives him sustenance, and enter a limbo in which he will no longer be black, and in which he knows that he can never become white. Black people have lost too many black children that way.
And, after all, finally, in a country with standards so untrustworthy, a country that makes heroes of so many criminal mediocrities, a country unable to face why so many of the nonwhite are in prison, or on the needle, or standing, futureless, in the streets–it may very well be that both the child, and his elder, have concluded that they have nothing whatever to learn from the people of a country that has managed to learn so little.
Writing two decades before her NCTE keynote examined above, LaBrant made a foundational request: “For these reasons my first request of every American teacher of English is that [she/]he teach in [her/]his classroom this honest use of language and an understanding of its relation to life” (p. 206).
And about “this honest use of language,” there are only two options — although remaining neutral is not one of them.