The Unspoken Politics of Pedagogy

I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersection of politics and pedagogy. The idea that I’ve seen floating around, namely along the lines  ‘I wish people could separate politics and pedagogy’ is something I no longer believe is possible. I used to think that it didn’t matter to me what someone’s political beliefs were, that even if they had some non-education beliefs that I disagreed with, our agreements in education superseded that.  In this respect, I was wrong and I’ve cut numerous ties because of this.

A belief in who matters, what matters, and who is centred is a guiding philosophy, and one that underpins everything I do and believe in my classroom (and is still the case for you, reader, even if you aren’t consciously doing it).   

Young children are quite malleable and even teenagers (up to a certain age) can still be moulded and influenced by their environment. I’ve always touted the idea that kids rise to the expectation we set- whether it’s a high standard and quality of work, or my requirement (which was formerly against school) to not use cell phones and enter my class with a silent do now.  I am a subject expert and I love teaching my subject, but school is much more than that. Wrapped in that statement– I am a teacher of content—  is a belief in the purpose of school. What can be easy to forget , and what I didn’t completely grasp until the past year, is the blurring of the lines between what we are meant to do, teach,  and what the schools provide consciously or not, which is socialisation.

When I see the ‘I wouldn’t want this done to me’ discourse around things like SLANT, cold calling, etc, I tend to ignore them saying the obvious ‘ kids are not adults, adults know better what kids need’. Wrapped in that sentiment, again, is a political belief— the feelings of the children in front of me do not matter because I am the adult and in charge and I know better than them. And given the malleability of children, should how we as adults feel about something be taken into account? Yes, it should. We forget that we can become accustomed to harsh environments, to the punitive rules that are built simply around compliance and control. So we must take inventory of the effects, using our knowledge as adults. Yes, we need rules. Yes, we need to follow them. But why those rules? Why now? Is the underpinning political belief that the children in front of me are inherently valuable and deserve to feel safe and to learn and succeed? Or is it that I don’t trust them to behave and they will join knife crime gangs if we don’t make them have eye contact 100% of the time? And when I say success, do I mean in a traditionally valued profession or in something that that child simply finds fulfilling? That determines your pedagogical outlook, and your positionality in the classroom is understood, however minutely, by pupils. 

We see this clearly in the discourse of windows and mirrors in curriculum. So, let me explain. 

Lisa Delpit writes about the codes of power that operate in schools- from the senior leadership, to the staff in the lunchroom to the minutiae of day to day learning as the teacher.  I contend that a student’s identity  and self-worth is formed less  by what is in the curriculum, and more by who is delivering it, and who the classmates are. 

In my 5th grade class in a ‘culturally’ affirming school , the book I remember reading was Out of the Dust, a book written by a white woman about white people during the dust bowl. At the time, that didn’t matter. We talked about symbolism, learned about free verse poetry, and I began writing imitation poems. 

The following years, we did much the same. We read The Witch of Blackbird Pond in 6th grade, The Outsiders in 7th, and Shakespeare the following years. I don’t remember having any particular animosity toward the curriculum, and Of Mice and Men was one of the first books to make love literature. 

When I was in primary school, I was always in the top sets and advanced classes, even in my poorly funded inner city ‘school’. When I transferred to a ‘suburban’ after my family moved in 2006, there was something different though. The issue wasn’t necessarily what I was reading, but that the images of success were reflected in who was in the room.  I was suddenly one of two african American children in the classroom. I noticed that we spoke differently. I noticed that I was different.

In the 9th grade, they created two sections of advanced english– one to ‘open up’ options for more kids. They were separated mostly based on who had been in the class before, which meant to me that mostly white kids (and me) would be in one section, and the non-white children were in the other.  Despite having succeeded in English for years and having a good standing with the english department for the quality of my work, I was put in the other section which everyone know was for the ‘dumb kids’. She gave us easier work, told us our work was easier than the other group, and said it was because ‘it would be hard for us’. Her belief was that poor and black children couldn’t be held to the same standards as the others. Would reading A Raisin in the Sun that year have made a difference when that was the message being given to me every day? I don’t know. 

But by the time I got to my IB program at 17 and was back in the inner city with a non-white student body of 93% and had a very diverse and rigorous curriculum, the curriculum didn’t matter. I saw and had been seeing my entire life that all of my teachers were white. I saw that the majority of my classmates, the others in the top set, were primarily white. I kept a journal at the time and as an adult, I even notice a subtle shift in register in my writing when I moved from a mostly black school to mostly white. But all of this went unsaid and unnoticed as a child. I internalised these ways of being, and a few books wasn’t going to shift this. What I noticed was that I was different, and I knew that if I wanted to be successful, I needed to ‘be like them’. 

In schools like the ones I attended and taught in, racially segregated neighbourhoods, often a relic of redlining, create a persistent  ‘other’, where the only time a white female teacher will have interacted with non-white children is potentially the first time she steps foot in her classroom (about 80% of all of americas teachers are white women, it’s higher in MInnesota). So what do you do with an unknown other? You exercise your power to keep them in line.  Sit straight. Don’t turn your heads. Hand flat on the table. Shoulder on the wall, feet in the square tile. The teacher is literally afraid of the pupils they teach- how can we then say this then doesn’t affect their pedagogy? The fact is that it most likely goes unspoken and simply creeps into interactions with this ‘other’. What about in London, or the UK, where I see classist statements about poor children where the , ‘they come from homes where parents don’t love them’ is written in books, said in pubs, tweeted online. If that is what is verbalised, what are the beliefs that go unspoken? 

As I continue to teach here in London, a place with class more at the centre and less intrinsically connected to race (given the lack of a black racial underclass) I realise that the same issue is happening. What is going unspoken in my classroom now? When I say that I moved homes 29 times and my students can’t fathom why, I realise that the struggle that has made me who I am doesn’t translate. In their minds: I am an American in London, I am a teacher in the classroom and in this school, therefore I must be and believe these things. And so I have to go out of my way to make it clear why I do the things I do. 

Politics is not democrat or republican; Tory or labour; it’s are we a community or not? ‘Do the feelings or experiences of the children in front of me matter? Are the twenty-nine 12 year olds about to enter my classroom on Thursday inherently valuable or not? and all of the power dynamics in those statements. And I don’t know what could be more political than that.

I’m on twitter

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