When I was eight years old, Pink Floyd released The Wall. My dad purchased the album and I was mesmerized by the composition, beauty, and sophistication of their sound. On top of that, the irreverent lyrics were, ultimately, what spoke to me.
“We don’t need no education,
We don’t need no thought control”
(Pink Floyd, 1979)
I loved the voice of children, in improper English, decrying conformity as the primary curriculum in education. It was liberating and inviting. I wanted desperately to be a part of that choir and echo the idea, “I am more than what you say that I am.”
In high school, I was introduced to punk rock. The fast-paced energy centered around power chords and driving bass lines enraptured me. It was the lyrics of Jello Biafra, Steve Ignorant, and Dave Dictnor who questioned authority and promoted individuality that shaped my understanding of freedom. They described liberty, not defined by what I can do or buy, but rather an ability to think for myself and express my own ideas. These voices encouraged me to determine who I was, rather than allow myself to be defined by others.
“Be exactly who you want to be, do what you want to do
I am he and she is she but you’re the only you
No one else has got your eyes, can see the things you see
It’s up to you to change your life and my life’s up to me”
I enrolled in college and studied literature. The works of Vonnegut, Heller, and Foucault held me captive. I decided to be a teacher because I wanted nothing more than to promote ideas and inspire students to become thinkers and world changers. I wanted to encourage the wisdom of those who taught me what it meant to be me.
“Where there is power, there is resistance.”
As I entered the teaching profession I wanted nothing more than to be a “good teacher.” I assumed that that points, quizzes, and worksheets were best practices to reach students. I quickly conformed to traditional pedagogies (though I did it with my own personal flare). But deep down inside, voices from my formative years spoke to me. They cried out. They reminded me who I was and what I believed. They pointed out that my learners were not just “another brick in the wall” but autonomous people — the “he” and “she” and “you” I wanted to teach.
I wanted more.
After reading “From Degrading to De-grading” by Alfie Kohn, I learned:
1. Grades tend to reduce students’ interest in the learning itself.
2. Grades tend to reduce students’ preference for challenging tasks.
3. Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking.
I have seen this throughout my career and can attest to it is true. I know my students show up on the first day wanting to be thinking and interested in learning.
I realized education does not have to be about the tried and true. I want to believe school is about people. I believe we are
“all deserving of something better, of using our minds for innovation, rather than memorization, for creativity, rather than futile activity, for rumination rather than stagnation,”
as Erica Goldson describes. I was an anarchist at heart. I never wanted someone to rule over me. I wanted to govern myself. Why should my students be my subjects? I desired to give them a voice and encourage them to define who they are, rather than allow them to be defined by me. I am not their author; I am a guide or resource to help them navigate life and reach a destination that will be redetermined over and over again so long as they live.
I have learned that education wasn’t the problem, as suggested by Roger Waters, but a power struggle of wills, as described by Foucault. Twenty years from now my students will need to know who they are in order for them to make a difference in this world. It is their education and not mine. It is a gift from their community that will continue to inform and shape them. The measurement of my students’ lives will be determined by how they contributed to their community, how they treated the disenfranchised, how they raised their children and loved their spouses. Neither test scores, degrees, nor grades will be mentioned in their eulogies. It will be their compassion, love, and ability to inspire by which others will remember them.
I need to check myself regularly. I am either liberator or oppressor. I am inspiring or degrading. I challenge or conform. I set the tone of my classroom and I can make learning about me or my students. I know that I have experience (this is what sets me apart from adolescents), and that is why I am allowed to teach. But my students are human and that gives them the right to determine what they value.
The ultimate goal of education is to help learners discover how to learn. It is about exposing them to experiences and ideas and allowing them to sort through the muck and figure out what they value and what they do not. I can either tell them what to believe and hope that they will meet only good people throughout their lives who will continue to tell them likewise, or I can empower them to determine for themselves what is right and wrong and trust that they will use their knowledge to make the world a better place as I pass it down to them.
The future is not mine, it is theirs. I choose to make education about them.