Friday, August 19, 2016

What Are We Really Trained to Teach? Reflections on First-Year Practice and Specificity of Place

The March 2016 Teaching Resistance column in MRR is from Taylor McKenzie, who is a punk in his first year of teaching German at a secondary (middle- and high-) school in Oklahoma City. In this reflection on his teaching, Taylor honestly addresses some major issues and big questions about teacher training and practice in the U.S., including the very important fact that exactly WHERE one teaches will strongly impact exactly what and how that teaching is going to go down. Taylor can be contacted directly at

Hi everyone, I just started teaching middle-school and high-school German at a combined middle/high-school in Oklahoma City. I’d like to say that, before I started six weeks ago, I had no official training. No teaching degree or certification. No actual plans to teach. To explain, I was working at my uncle’s screen-printing shop. One day I made a t-shirt delivery to my former secondary school, and I decided to say “Hello” to the German teacher that I had all throughout middle-school and high-school. She said, “Hey! ….Oh man, can you come outside for a minute?” Then we walked outside where she told me that the school desperately needed a full-time German teacher. I was shocked and overwhelmed and told her that I definitely would have to sleep on it before I made my decision. Regardless, she took me downstairs to meet the principal and already got things rolling. The next day, I got in touch and told her I would take the job. Then after winter break, I became a substitute teacher for the classes that I’m currently teaching, and then I began the “emergency certification” process (a process in which the district starts and then streamlines the teaching certification process while you are teaching under a temporary contract).

You may be asking yourself, “Why would they desperately need someone like me, who has no prior experience or training or anything of the sort, to fill this position?” I have studied the language for over ten years and lived and worked in Berlin for two years, but that doesn’t mean I know how to teach it to kids ranging from the 7th to the 11th grade. In short, you could say that Oklahoma has been waging a war against education for some time now. Just within the past week, the state legislature voted to ban the AP U.S. History exam because it does not teach “American exceptionalism” (this is a direct attack on indigenous identities, a push to further silence any discussion about the atrocities that the U.S. has perpetuated...and so blatantly!). Teachers are also sick of meager pay in comparison to bordering states where teachers automatically get $10k+ more a year, so many have just left Oklahoma to live and work in Texas. To sum things up, Oklahoma is in a state of emergency when it comes to public education.

So here I am, winging it like a baby bird, taking first flight. Even though I’m a new teacher and sometimes I feel like I’m just treading water, in the middle of the ocean, with no land in sight, it’s a wonderful job, in that you get to be around raw, still-not-so-beaten-down-and-molded-by-society bundles of energy all day. It’s exhausting, but learning all of today’s new dance moves and slang from teenagers sure as hell beats listening to adults groan about their miseries. And, most of the time, they’re honest, and if they do try to lie to you, they’re usually pretty bad at it.

But even though the students are mentally fresher than many of the adults in their lives, that does not mean that they are immune to opinions, biases, and rhetoric, regardless of whether these are humane or inhumane, open-minded or narrow-minded, considerate or anti-social, worldly or nationalistic, critical or blind. Then when I think of teaching resistance, I ask, “How do you accomplish this objectively, without just teaching them your own opinion and cleverly convincing them your way of thinking is right?” What I’ve tried to do in these past couple of weeks, when larger, difficult questions come up in class, I try to respond with questions that guide them to even more questions. I hope to, even if ever so slightly, instill a habit of constantly questioning everything, to not be afraid to ask authority figures as well as yourself questions that might shake any foundations you previously thought to be unshakable or off-limits. One of the hardest things about this is coming up with the extemporaneous, simple questions as answers to their difficult questions. I know there are some resistance teachers out there reading this who have experiences with this type of Socratic nudging, urging young people to keep questioning their peers, parents, family, and every other adult with an opinion out there. If so, how do you make this process effective? Do you have an arsenal of responses that you have at hand to use when these types of situations present themselves? I’ve found myself thinking about tangential conversations that I’ve had with the students these past couple of weeks and then only after the fact thinking of better, more open and accessible ways to frame an idea or a simple question that would have gotten their mental gears cranking.

A conversation that has stuck with me throughout all of the everyday chaos so far (teachers, you know what I’m talking about) is a brief back-and-forth about U.S.-erected, Japanese internment camps that I had with a student. We were reading a novel about the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the simultaneous, steady decline of Jewish civil rights leading up to the Holocaust. The student made some comment about concentration camps. I felt compelled to derail the class discussion a bit to focus a bit on the U.S.’ own political history to make some comparisons. Students in the U.S. are often taught about the big, bad Nazis, but this can allow for the other Western powers of the 20th century to catch a break when it comes to criticism of their warring strategies, crimes, or policies. I asked them if the United States had ever done something similar, for instance, the Japanese internment camps. I pointed out that the internment camps and the concentration camps existed at the same time and used similar methods of exclusion and isolation. The student did not want to recognize any comparison between the two countries’ actions. It was as if, just because there was not a calculated genocide taking place within the Japanese concentration camps erected by F.D.R., the fact that an entire people’s civil liberties were directly targeted and violated with the uprooting of families and forced internment was pushed aside in their mind, or at least less critically analyzed.

Is this a product of U.S. American historical whitewashing? Of living in a state where the legislature, in 2016 for chrissakes, votes to ban the AP U.S. History exam because it exposes the lies, genocide, and bigotry of the history of the U.S. government? Absolutely. So maybe that student still thinks I’m wrong, or maybe they think I’m just a lefty who’s seeing things too one-way. All in all, none of that matters if they managed to ask themselves at least one question regarding their opinion of the topic. Teaching resistance is teaching how to question. But it’s important to remember that questioning your own beliefs and opinions is just as crucial to questioning others’. As teachers, we have to remain open to new cultural developments, trends, ways of thinking and perceiving the world, and we should hold the students in our classrooms to the same critical expectations. But we also have to help guide them to their own personal avenues of self-questioning and questioning their environmental factors. Pushing them to question themselves is one of the first steps, if not the first step, to learning how to resist injustice.

PS Teachers! Please, if you have any wisdom to share, any good, simple questions to get students thinking and questioning on their own, please email me at . I would love to meet any teachers out there who might be reading this. --Taylor McKenzie

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