To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher
reviewed by Pearl Rock Kane - 1994
To Teach is a compelling intellectual autobiography of a passionate and gifted teacher. The book is a story about teaching and learning, the culmination of a thirty-year career of reflective practice.
William Ayers has taught students at various levels, elementary school through college, but he is influenced most by his experiences with young children and with his own three sons. Vivid anecdotes from his teaching career and from his observations of his sons prevent the text from getting dry or prescriptive. The personal approach to professional writing reveals as much about the teller as the tale. Ayers is a generous, loving man and a consummate professional. One gets to know him as well as his beliefs about curriculum, the learning environment, teaching methodology, and assessment.
Ayers's principal argument is deceptively simple: Students need to be at the center of schooling. He wants schools to base curriculum on individual students, not on behavioral objectives or state mandates. "Children," he says, "are the untapped resource of schools" (p. 102). Keeping students at the center requires keeping detailed records on what each student obtains through questioning, listening, and observing how the child approaches work, makes choices, plays, and relates to peers. Ayers wants teachers to listen to parents, to recognize that parents know more about their child than we do, and to invite the family in. "Turn the power relationship upside down," he counsels (p. 42). Ayers encourages teachers to risk emotional involvement, to know and to understand the child's family and culture.
Keeping students at the center requires a classroom environment that makes learning inviting. Ayers wants classrooms that encourage concrete experiences, activity, and experimentation, classrooms that are "laboratories for discovery and surprise" (p. 58). He trusts that all children will learn to read and develop math and science literacy in an environment stocked with enticing possibilities. Teachers need to provide time and space and a context for learning. Since as Ayers reminds us, "you can learn everything from anything," we are assured that following the child's interests will ultimately result in satisfying requirements and mandated curriculum (p. 85).
Keeping students at the center requires substituting indirect approaches to teaching that capture the natural curiosity of children for "drill and kill" methodology. We are urged to encourage students as they follow their own passions. Schools must allow time for these projects and teachers need to call on a broad repertoire of techniques to meet the varying individual styles of learning.
Keeping students at the center requires that teachers build bridges between what the child knows and what he or she wants to learn. Ayers agrees with John Dewey that learning proceeds best when new learning is connected to existing knowledge. By his own admission, Ayers acknowledges that being a bridge builder requires that teachers "know the child" and "know the world" (p. 77).
Student-centered curriculum does not lend itself readily to evaluation on standardized tests. Ayers is vehement in his objection to standardized tests, which he considers flawed, demeaning to teachers and test-takers alike, and culturally biased. Says Ayers, standardized tests push well-intentioned teachers and school leaders in the wrong direction; they constrain teachers energies and minds, dictating a disastrously narrow range of activities and experiences, and offering little help in the important job of figuring out where kids are in order to present the next challenge. (p. 118)
Ayers advocates moving away from standardized tests and into the real world of assessment through projects, portfolios, and performance, assessing students in ways that are rooted in reality.
This is Ayers's philosophy in a nutshell. It is a philosophy that favors art over science, that draws heavily on the resources of intelligent, well-educated, open-minded, and fully dedicated teachers, teachers courageous enough to resist bureaucratic mandates and standardized learning. Teaching does and always will attract a number of exceptional people, fully capable of following Ayers's inspirational approach. But the realities of the profession are harsh.
The vast majority of people entering teaching are not among the most academically able college graduates. Studies reveal that high-achieving college graduates choose alternative occupations and among the potential teachers who take the National Teacher Examination, top scorers are unlikely to enter teaching. For those who do enter teaching, enthusiasm for the profession is questionable. Only a third say they would definitely choose teaching again if given an opportunity to start their careers over. With the exception of a few isolated programs designed to recruit highly academic and motivated people to teaching, such as Teach for America, there is little indication that the profile of the teaching profession is changing significantly. News about the teaching profession is not encouraging to those of us who buy into Ayers's demanding model of teaching.
Given a choice as a parent, I would aggressively seek a place for my child in Ayers's classroom. I want William Ayers to teach my child. I want William Ayers to teach every child, and that is what I find so unsettling about To Teach. Above all else, William Ayers taunts us to consider what is possible.
1 Data on intellectual ability based on standardized test scores conducted from 1967-1980 in Richard J. Murnane et al., Who Will Teach? Policies That Matter (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991) pp. 35-36; and, for data on NTE scores and entry into teaching, see ibid., p. 46.
2 National Center for Educational Statistics, "1987-88 Schools and Staffing Survey, Teacher Questionnaire," in America's Teachers: Profile of a Profession (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement, 1993) p. 141.