I was struck by an interesting post the other day that compared the work of the teacher to a parachute rigger who packs the parachutes of soldiers. It claimed that the teacher’s work is life or death and what we do to pack the chute is all that counts in making sure that our students “land safely” and alive. The problem here is the problem with all analogies that try to boil down very complex and complicated endeavors to one very simple equation ( i.e. if you do x then y will follow). The parachute rigger analogy claims that if you as the teacher “pack the chute” correctly, then your students will land safely. This also implies the converse, that if your students do not land safely, then you did not pack the chute correctly. While it is true that an incorrectly packed parachute may indeed sharply decrease the chances of landing safely, it does not follow that correctly packed chutes will lead to safe landings. This would only be true in very controlled, “laboratory” conditions.
I’m no soldier nor parachute expert (although I have parachuted out of a plane) but there seems to be many factors that lead to safe landings. Weather conditions, altitude, and conditions on the ground all contribute to whether a soldier lands safely. Wind gusts can blow a diver off course, twist a free-faller into disorientation, or tangle an opening chute. Altitude plays a critical role in landing safely. No matter how well a parachute is packed, a soldier too close to the ground before deploying can lead to disaster. Favorable ground conditions work to improve landings as well. The very terrain of the land is important. In the case of soldiers in combat, enemies shooting at you from the ground surely decreases the possibility of landing safely. All of these factors, and many more I haven’t thought about, add to the complexity of safe landings in the real life world of parachuting soldiers.
I am a teacher and have some expertise when it comes to educational theory and practice. Perhaps I’m being unfair to this analogy and I can surely recognize that all analogies eventually breakdown. However, I believe that it’s these kinds of uncritical platitudes of teaching and the work of teachers that ultimately leads to the denigration of the profession by over-simplifying the complexity of teaching and learning. And, perhaps more importantly, these simplifications open teachers to blame and ridicule as the “greatest” determining factor when students fail to land safely. (I’ll forgo the discussion of what it might mean to “land safely” by mentioning that there are many ways to recognize and value success which does not include quantitative measures).
There is no question that good teaching has an impact on student success. Good teachers do make a difference in the lives of their students. However, there are many factors that teachers can’t take credit for, nor can they be blamed. A teacher can’t take credit for the “winds” of a racist society. If you are under the impression that systematic structural racism ended in 1964 you must be “white” and culturally oblivious to the realities of the “tailwinds” that push some forward and the “headwinds” that continue to obstruct forward progress in others primarily due to skin color. A teacher can surely influence the racial conditions within a classroom and perhaps within a school or community. But a teacher simply packing chutes will be forever frustrated with “those” students who can’t seem to land safely even after all they’ve done to pack them well. A teacher can’t take credit for where a student begins their educational journey. Ongoing social inequalities suggest that some students will be dropped off at different altitudes. Generational poverty and the educational background of parents are huge factors in safe landings that teachers struggle to overcome. Teachers can’t take credit for an economic landscape of widening inequality that steepens the climb for some and offers others an easier slide to success. The American ideal that hard work and determination can lead to safe landings is becoming less a reality for more and more individuals on the ground. Social and class positions are becoming increasingly hardened and polarized, working against upward mobility.
A teacher is most definitely not a parachute rigger. A teacher is not in the business of packing chutes and sending students off with the assurance of safe landings (I packed it well, therefore they will land well). Life is much more complicated and precarious than that. Even in the best of conditions there are no guarantees. If anything, a teacher is in the business of helping students learn how to pack their own chutes. Well aware of the dangers of the wind and altitude and landing conditions teachers can help students prepare themselves for these circumstances, to plan for the inevitable struggle and even to flight against them and change them. Teachers can also help students understand that landing well (whatever that means) is never a matter of isolated individual effort, but is supported by a variety of social and economic factors. Opening students to these realities suggests that success and failure can be shared socially. It is recognition that something is wrong in a society where some land safely and others don’t simply due to external conditions. We land safely together or there is no safe landing
Anyone who says, "There are two kinds of people in this world" should be shot. And when I say shot, I mean shot with those little paper hornets fashioned by middle school boys. There is of course, not just two kinds of people in the world, and neither is there static existence on a continuum.
Challenging the Binary
A dynamic continuum might be a good way to define our kind. We live as a color-wheel of sorts. Each color fades imperceptibly into another, a continuous sequence in which adjacent colors are not noticeably different from each other, although the extremes are quite distinct. Yellow and blue find their distinct positions on the continuum yet progressively become into one another as green in the space between them.
How we identify ourselves on the wheel is a mixture of genetic chemistry and cultural construction. Entrenched social forces cut deep ruts in the politics of distinctions that push us to identify by contrast. You are either this or that. Identifying as this often means working to disassociate and deny that. This self-identification can be a difficult and painful process that often goes unrecognized even in those of us who have conformed to the traditional cultural pathways. Traditional constructions of maleness often mean disavowing and denigrating femaleness, pushing away what is feminine in order to construct machismo. The ultimate insult for a young boy is to be feminized. Our middle and high schools are often the most dangerous places for our kind to explore the dynamic continuum of our identity.
I am proud of my daughter who works with groups like GLSEN www.glsen.org to transform the culture of schools and provide safe spaces for students to find their place on the color wheel. I applaud my city for it's work to provide healthcare and support for the trans-gender community (The first transgender wellness center in Ohio www.mozaicohio.org).
Non-conforming, non-binary, transgendered persons simply recognize and seek to live out the reality of our dynamic continuum. The spaces between the ruts are valid, honorable spaces that need our cultural support especially in divided times.
The is not only two kinds of people.
Being critically aware of my whiteness is not a new thing for me. Keeping this 'reality' active, recognizing this construction and its work on my entire frame of reference is something that I try to maintain. I often fail. It does take a certain amount of effort when it is so much easier to follow the path of least resistance and move through life without 'worry'. In a culture of growing diversity it is all too easy to grow fearful and separatist; all too easy to remain ignorant and cling to safe spaces (and faces). I do try to read a variety of perspectives in an effort to overcome my whiteness and be more reflective about my footsteps in the social and political world. I haven't done a very good job of surrounding myself with the kinds of friends that would assist me in improving my awareness. Most of my friends are white dudes.
Most of my real-life experiences with other-than-white-people has been as a public middle school teacher. Over the past 20 years (15 in my current district) my classroom has become less and less white and more and more colorful, much more culturally diverse. Its more than just looking out on a diversity of faces, but interacting with and becoming a part of a diverse community of learners where I learn and grow as much as my students.
Dissolving, it seems to me, is about becoming-with. Dissolving is an effort to resist standing apart by diving into the solvent with the desire to lose dividing distinctions and gain a more integrated perspective that honors and welcomes all.
I could say more.
What are your thoughts on "Dissolving"?