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