A Letter to Teachers: Reflections on Schooling and the Art of Teaching.
reviewed by Catie Bell - 1992
Title: A Letter to Teachers: Reflections on Schooling and the Art of Teaching.
Author(s): Vito Perrone
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 1555423132, Pages: 148, Year: 1991
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Vito Perrone believes that schools can be improved, but not unless teachers take the first steps. Teachers cant wait for universities, foundations, the business community or various school administration to initiate the necessary changes (p. 82). It is up to teachers to do what is essential to empower themselves; they must first enhance their sense of authority. Perrones use of the word authority does not refer to external symbols of power. Instead, he is talking about the sense of power that comes from within, the authority that grows out of sound knowledge, control of language, and an openness to group thought (p. 96). He argues that only when teachers themselves assume the dominant position in regard to issues of teaching and learning in their classroom, and begin to speak more broadly and authoritatively on matters of education will we see significant improvement (p. xiii-xiv).
Perrone himself has done much to help teachers become more authoritative. Like John Dewey, he challenges teachers to grow in their profession by becoming students of teaching. His book, cast in the form of a letter to teachers and based on Perrones own experience as a teacher and on discussions he has had with teachers over the years, is intended to provide a context for framing questions that can serve as a foundation for focused discussion and ongoing reflection (p. xii). Outlining a particular world view of education, one in keeping with many hopes associated with earlier and ongoing progressivism (p. 131), Perrone suggests steps teachers can take to empower themselves, ways for them to think about teaching, and practices they can use to help their students to become more meaningfully engaged in their work.
As a classroom teacher, I was eager to read Perrones letter; I thought he was writing to me. Too often, in my teaching, I find myself pushed by unseen forces in a direction I have not chosen, sometimes a direction that limits my ability to reach children. Perrone helped me to identify a part of what was bothering methe trend toward standardizationand to see it in historical perspective.
According to Perrone, school reform movements shift direction with economic cycles. Periods of prosperity with their concomitant rise in confidence about the future are conducive to enlarging possibilities, taking the needs of children more seriously, providing for diversity and lessening regulation. In contrast, eras of economic scarcity and competition, such as todays, promote a narrow vision of schools as the place to prepare the personnel America needs to regain her competitive edge, to win the war of technology (p. 3). Too great a focus on competition, however, distorts our vision of schools as democratic communities of inquiry. The present reform movement limits possibilities by establishing minimum competencies and standardizing practices. This trend toward standardization disempowers both teachers and students. When teachers use predesigned instructional materials that may not meet the needs of their students, they begin to see themselves as managers or "technicians, intermediaries for someone elses ideas and curriculum (p. 80).
Perrone also points out that without deep knowledge of our own intentions and the inspiration derived from imagining the possibilities, we are vulnerable to such expedient influences. He urges us to keep in the forefront the larger moral and intellectual questions that found our passion for teaching: We need always to reach back to first things,-to guiding purposes, to our richest, most generative conceptions of education and work toward them (p. 11). Also, we must ask first and foremost What do we most want our students to come to understand as a result of their schooling? (p. 4). Perrone calls our attention to the ways we fail as educators when we lose touch with what he calls large purposes. For instance, he notes that there is often more concern about whether children learn the mechanics of reading and writing than to grow to love reading and writing (p. 2). He further complains that students learn about democratic practice rather than have practice in democracy (p. 2), that they can locate the Republic of South Africa but dont know anything about apartheid and cant feel the pain associated with it (p. 4). To teach to these larger purposes, Perrone tells us, we must know our students well and let ourselves be well known (p. 30).
Despite my wanting to like this book, I leave it with an uneasy feeling. One reason is that Perrone tries to cover too much. He warns that it is usually more productive within every area of learning to teach less more deeply than to teach more as a matter of coverage (p. 16), yet his book itself touches on so many topics that it makes ones head spin. Perrone offers us provocative ideas. Only rarely, however, does he show how they work in real schools. Some of Perrones ideas sound wonderful, but impractical for teachers. For instance, he urges teachers to break out of the isolation of their own classrooms to meet together to engage in sharing their daily journals, reflecting on ways to honor diversity, planning interdisciplinary units, reading and discussing books on the history and philosophy of education, developing innovative scheduling, and evaluating student work. All of this sounds great. However, one of the consequences of economic decline is-budget cutbacks resulting in increased teaching loads, and more contact hours with larger numbers of students. This reduces the time teachers can spend planning. Even the usual grade-level, department, and other staff meetings have become more difficult to schedule in many of todays schools. I wish he had included advice on how to arrange for and facilitate these productive discussions among weary, task-oriented teachers who may not be open to the idea of collaboration and wide-ranging discussions. This situation is a Catch 22: In order to enhance our authority we need to meet and reflect on these issues, but to bring about these meetings we must exercise the authority that we do not yet have.
Another source of disappointment is stylistic. Although the title, A Letter to Teachers, leads us to expect something personal, even intimate, Perrone often sounds as if he were lecturing a room full of teachers. Though he invites us to see his book as one, long connected statement (p. xii), it reads more like a series of separate talks. The ideas from the first chapter to the last do not build on one another, drawing one in, deepening ones understanding. Moreover, the language is sometimes stilted and pompous. The last chapter begins: Teaching is a challenging profession with many wonderful aspects. It provides a way to stay young at heart, to maintain a lifetime of active learning, to be a special part of the world of the present and the future while having opportunities to delve into the past. It is in every respect a profession of hope (p. 131). Well, maybe.
Is teaching in every respect a profession of hope? I know of few good teachers who do not question their ability to meet the needs of their students, who do not sometimes experience a dreadful sense of having their responsibility exceed their capabilities. In fact, part of what makes teaching so meaningful is that we are constantly battling the potential for despair. The joy in seeing students finally discover in writing an outlet for their deepest feelings would not be as consequential if the prospect that they might never learn to love to write were not so immediate and real. Moreover, as teachers we must constantly be vigilant to the forces Perrone identifies, such as the trend toward standardization, that can further limit the circumstances in which we work, making the creation of communities of learning impossible. Overcoming a sense of hopelessness is integral to teaching as a profession.
Perrone encourages us to become more reflective and yet what is missing from this book is his process of reflection. He never lets us see him learning. In fact, one suspects that the advice he gives us is something that he has known all along. He claims, It never occurred to me that I should, or had to ask permission to use particular materials, choose not to use a textbook, rearrange the furniture or make use of diverse community resources (p. 80). This is not the voice of someone who is developing a sense of authority. It sounds to me like someone for whom empowerment is not a problem.
Vito Perrone is obviously an authority on education. Yet his letter is aimed at teachers who may not be as qualified. He acknowledges that teaching is complicated, that there are no simple answers. Yet the solution he offers, to be more authoritative, seems simplistic. What he does not show is the difficult process by which one might develop a sense of authority. Systematic reflection on practice involves considerable pain. It forces us to acknowledge our failures and it leads us to question what we think we know. Insight into that process of reflection gives us courage, nourishing the kind of professional growth Perrone promotes. If I were able to see and hear Perrone reflecting deeply and systematically, I think I might be more encouraged to do so on my own. This is what is missing in Perrones letter to me, a teacher.