What it Was is What it Is: I Don’t Know What Else to Say

At the same school, in the same department, for so long… eventually I found what seemed to be some effective teaching strategies and stuck with those, but boy it took a while. There’s been more than one teacher to have offered something like an apology, half-joking, half rueful, to all those early students, who were basically guinea pigs while we figured ourselves out in the classroom. I mentioned this in a paper for a graduate course and earned the critique of “triumphalism” – feedback from the professor, which I took as a suggestion to go ahead and “problematize my assumptions,” to use the lingo. In the moment, I bristled, the new kid in town learning how to be part of the academy, wondering what exactly had prompted my professor to claim with such certainty the question of my certainty.

Maybe I’ll just mention, since I’ve brought it up… I’ve since found the academy has an endemic logical pitfall all its own, an oddly hypocritical veneer of uncertainty: “All knowledge is provisional.” Post-modernism at its finest? Indeed, who can really say.

In all seriousness, though, and fairness, I grant the aim of the sceptical outlook. Heck, I try to possess one – healthy scepticism, to guard against arrogance and narrow thinking (… and innovation too, come to think of it, although that one maybe for another time). I value Socratic humility, which I ultimately decided not to call Socratic ignorance, and try to model it although how successfully I can’t say – especially not *joking-slash-rueful* back in those early days. So when someone with expertise in curriculum and teaching theory lay triumphalism at my feet, I thought to myself, Well, at least I ought to consider it. And I did.

And I do, and I still am. That reflective side of critique, the side you get from being on the receiving end, it can help us spot our assumptions and our shortcomings. I suspect the whole point was simply to light a fire within me. And hey, I’ve gone and written this, haven’t I? And hey, if settling into some effective teaching strategies weren’t triumphalist and undesirable, that would probably encourage complacency among teachers, or possibly even stagnation. On the other hand, after so long teaching in the same department at the same school, I suspect there’s more than one teacher who’s ended up feeling like part of the woodwork. Certainly, for me, as I’m sure for the students, there was a marked difference between me, the new guy, and me five, ten, fifteen years later. Then again–

Looking back, now, at what I called “effective”… it rounds out as, well, effective because what happened happened that way – nothing’s perfect, but all considered, my students seemed broadly to have learned what they felt were some useful things. The classroom years I spent, developing as I did to reach the point I reached, came about from the feedback I received each day, each term, as students and I came together lesson upon lesson, class after class. Details along the way, course evaluations I asked students to complete each June, reports back from post-secondary adventuring… there are always issues to address along with encouragements to appreciate, and I admit: no grand theory did I have in mind, as though I were contributing to the historical record. I just wanted to make things better for kids the following year, which eventually I think I was able to do.

Where I gave thought to improving my teaching was (a) relative to myself, (b) on behalf of my students, (c) in the context of my school. At least, that was what I thought when I was teaching. In that respect, what can I possibly say now, looking back, as to what might have been apart from what did be? I had to do something. And my life was never going to be any less full or busy or complicated than it turned out to be, so in all sincerity I did what I could. Eventually, it seemed to work out pretty well. Effectively.

Look, if somebody did celebrate triumphantly, in the classroom, facing the students, day in day out… ? What an ass! As it was, for those students who did find my teaching effective in this way or that, or worse, for those who didn’t – did I leave them with some suggestion that I basked in triumphant glow? I hope not. Like I said, I eventually found and stuck with what I thought worked, and that took years. Meanwhile, that’s the job. Isn’t it?

For me, the professor’s criticism, in whatever light it was offered, reflects more upon her embrace of uncertainty (presumably the academic embrace I described above) than it does upon my curricular relationships when I was teaching. And I heed the lesson, not for the first time in my career, that sitting in judgment of others can be a difficult perch.

Teaching’s Other Greatest Reward

“Texts are not the curriculum,” I was told during Pro-D by an administrator, the Director of Curriculum and Innovation. The session had been arranged to introduce a revised K–12 curriculum and was billed as a great unfolding at the onset of the 21st century. “Texts are a resource for implementing lessons and practising skills,” she concluded. By this, I took her to mean that notation, for example, is a resource for students to finger piano keys or pluck guitar strings, which is something music teachers might accept. I took her to mean that landscape is fodder for brushstrokes and blending, something art teachers might accept. I took her to mean that a poet’s intimate, inspired reveries, shared in careful verse, is raw material for students who are learning to analyse and write, which I grant English teachers might accept. I took her to mean that I should consider her remark a resource and that this issue was now settled, which some teachers in earshot seemed to accept. To this day, I wonder whether a musician, or a painter, or a poet might accept her remark, but in that moment, I let it go.

I suppose I should be more forthcoming: I used to joke with parents, on Meet the Teacher Night, that I could be teaching my coursework just as well using texts like Curious George and a recipe book. That I decided to use Shakespeare, or Sandra Cisneros, or Thomas King, and that I would in fact be asking students literally to stare out the window as part of a textual analysis exercise—all just as arbitrary—illustrated the point that I built my course around some particular themes that reflected me and what I believed important about life. That, in turn, was meant to illustrate to students, and now parents, how bias plays a noteworthy if subtly influential role in our lives and our learning.

My larger points were twofold: firstly, no, texts are not the curriculum per se and, secondly, our Department’s approach to English Language Arts (ELA) focused more on skill development, less on content consumption. For us, anyway, the revised curriculum was reaffirming. What I merely assumed in all this—and presumed that parents assumed it, too—was that our Department’s approach was commensurate with the school’s expectations, and the Ministry’s, as well as with our province’s educational history and the general ELA approach found in classrooms across North America, for which I had some albeit minimal evidence by which to make the claim. As a secondary ELA teacher, I chose my texts on the basis that they helped expedite my curricular responsibilities. I suppose it would be fair to say that, for me, texts were a resource for implementing lessons and practising skills.

What was it, then, that niggled me about the Director’s comment at the Pro-D session? Did it have to do with decision-making, as in who gets to decide what to teach, and how, and why? Would that make it about autonomy, some territorial drawing of lines in professional sand? Was it more my own personal confrontation, realising that musicians and painters and poets deserve better than to be considered lesson fodder? I had never approached my lessons so clinically or instrumentally before—had I? Maybe I was having my attention drawn into really considering curriculum, taking the time to puzzle out what that word means, and implies, and represents. And if I never really had puzzled it out, what kind of experience was I creating for my students? I’ve always felt that I have done right by my students, but even so… how much better, still, to be done?

Months later, I sat at a table doing prep work next to a colleague, and a third sat down to join us. Eventually, as the conversation turned from incidents to editorials, the third teacher spread her hands wide and concluded, “But ultimately education is all about relationships.” In the next split-second moment, I was confronted by the entirety of my teaching philosophy, nearly a clarion call except I had nowhere to stand and run, so I just remained in my seat, quietly agreeing and chuckling at the truth of it all. We all did. That was my final year before returning as a student to a doctoral program, where now I search and select texts to read so I can write texts of my own about particular themes that reflect me and what I believe important about curriculum, and teaching, and education.

I should say I no longer wonder why the Director’s remark that day, about texts, didn’t set me to thinking about curriculum, not like my colleagues did, sitting and chatting around that table.