About Becoming a Teacher
reviewed by Deborah L. Schussler - March 29, 2021
Although I have researched education for two decades and been an educator in some capacity for almost three decades, it has been a long time since I considered my decision about entering the profession. Had I read About Becoming a Teacher, by William Ayers, in the early 1990s, I think I would have considered some important questions about my choice that had not been on my radarand I would have felt more excited about my choice of vocation. About Becoming a Teacher reads as a combination of a pre-game pep talk, thought-provoking excursion, and vivid memoir woven together in a brief 85 pages. Ayers encourages the reader, presumably anyone considering entering the teaching profession, to ponder how their deeply held values and personal mission regarding the purposes of schooling intersect with the creation of classrooms that honor the three-dimensional potential of the learners who inhabit them. It seems like a heavy lift, yet he accomplishes this goal with one important omission.
Expanding on Parker Palmers emphasis of the self of the teacher, Ayers weaves the concept of personal mission and values about education throughout the book. Palmer (1998) tells us, When I do not know myself, I cannot know who my students are and when I cannot see them clearly, I cannot teach them well . In a more direct fashion, Ayers asks his reader point blank, Are you willing to explore and discover who you are, deeply and comprehensively, and who you might become as a teacher? (p. 8) and then to consider how they plan to translate that knowledge into what they do in classrooms by creating and reflecting on a list titled Some Things Im Pretty Sure Ill Want All of My Students to Do, to Be, or to Have (p. 12). In doing so, Ayers reminds the reader that this is a dance between the teacher and the students and colleagues and parents and community and classroom milieu, all inherently with value and volition. By encouraging readers to articulate their teaching commitments (Chapter 10) and teaching signature (Chapter 9)essentially what defines them as the teacher they are (aka, curiosity, storytelling, etc.)he provides concrete exercises for considering the abstract concept of ones values. These exercises also serve the purpose of honoring each teacher as unique. Ayers provides evidence that teachers can meet standards while still approaching the curriculum with their unique talents and interests. Ayers argument is akin to Korthagens argument about the importance of moving beyond what can easily be discerned externally, like teacher behavior and competencies, and addressing the internal identity and mission of the teacher.
Ayers adopts a very humanistic approach, advocating for a dynamic knowledge of students and curriculum. He rebukes one-dimensional labels like BD, GT, or Girl number Twenty unable to define a horse because she has failed to recite decontextualized knowledge in a decontextualized manner to a teacher who views their educational purpose as knowledge transmission (p. 4). This is not just the pedagogical approach supported by a plethora of research that better teachers have better relationships with students ; Ayers has what can be described as an almost spiritual take: that each student, as a human being, is of incalculable worth not evident by their actions but by things not seen (p. 23). The humanistic approach resonates throughout the book, including in Chapter 7 about crafting learning environments. Ayers guides the reader away from typical approaches of control, management, and discipline that represent the standardization and industrial model of teaching and school structures. The stark examples of the Chicago Public Schools disciplinary code are illustrative of the industrial model and its dehumanization of people within schools, especially the students. Without labeling it as such, Ayers essentially makes a case for prosocial classrooms .
Ayers encourages readers to contemplate the curriculum with equal purposefulness. Reflection on the curriculum is about more than just what is on the page, the intended curriculum, but largely about the hidden curriculum, those ubiquitous yet unstated assumptions and ways of being that often teach more than the intended curriculum. Ayers wants the reader to also pay close attention to the embodied curriculum, the enduring learnings that last beyond students time in the teachers classroom. Ayers rightfully reminds the reader that curriculum is, of course, never neutralit always has a value, a position, and a politics (p. 43). In this sense, it is important that new teachers are thoughtful about the values they embody through the curriculum. Although Chapter 5 does not mention the reality of schooling driven by standards, he does situate his suggestions in this reality in Chapter 6. For better or worse, Ayers rails against the vagaries of standardized tests, but does not quite provide the reader with much guidance for navigating this reality. How can new teachers, especially untenured teachers whose jobs may depend on how well their students demonstrate achievement of particular standards, balance the purposiveness of choosing to embody particular curricula that they value with ensuring students achieve standards at acceptable levels as exhibited through their test scores?
Ayers peppers the chapters with personal stories that illustrate larger points and provide entertaining images not soon to be forgotten by the reader. For example, in Chapter Four, How do I create an outstanding learning environment? he describes a not atypical college classroom where he taught. The space was uninspiring. In great, week-by-week detail, he describes how he and his students co-created a space that was so inspiring that it resulted in a bit of consternation from the cleaning staff. Ayers includes a poignant personal story of his experience as a parent of a student who struggled with some of the structures of school. The teacher, with one simple question, humanized Ayers son and also created a partnership between parents and teacher that could have easily disintegrated into defensiveness. The chapter ends with an example of teacher professional development that could be far more useful in facilitating reflection and a sense of purpose from teachers than any of the typical chalk and talk PD that come at a high cost with little evidence of improving teaching or facilitating student growth.
What may be somewhat misleading in Ayers articulation and answers to 10 questions is the short shrift given to the science of teaching. Although Ayers does note in more than one place that teaching is very complex, there is not the same kind of acknowledgment and encouragement regarding new teachers need to immerse themselves in the science behind good teaching practice. Good intentions and deep reflection on values and ones personal mission is incredibly important (and often under-addressed in teacher education programs). However, good intentions are wholly inadequate in developing one into a good teacher. Many a child, including one of my own, has been collateral damage to a teachers good intentions and lack of knowledge around the science of teaching. Cognitive scientists have taught us that there is indeed a science to the way children learn to read, and a pure whole-language approach will leave many children unnecessarily behind (see National Reading Panel, 2000). Encouraging potential teachers to view their role as both a moral one and a technical one, based on science, would go a long way toward introducing teachers into the wonderful and difficult, mission- and science-driven profession of teaching.
Korthagen, F. A. J. (2004). In search of the essence of a good teacher: Towards a more holistic approach in teacher education. Teaching and Teacher Education, 20(1), 7797. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2003.10.002
Palmer, P. J. (1998). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher's life. Jossey-Bass.
Ruzek, E. A., Hafen, C. A., Allen, J. P., Gregory, A., Mikami, A. Y., & Pianta, R. C. (2016). How teacher emotional support motivates students: The mediating roles of perceived peer relatedness, autonomy support, and competence. Learning and Instruction, 42, 95103. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.learninstruc.2016.01.004
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