From Reflection to Praxis

"Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”

When Rudyard Kipling wrote these words in 1892, he was most definitely not thinking about teaching, at least in the sense we are accustomed to. On the surface, Kipling was lamenting what he saw as the unbridgeable gulf between the European metropoles (specifically Britain) and their colonies (specifically India). This declaration of radical incommensurability imagines "West" and "East" as wholly exotic and foreign to each other. They cannot communicate or speak to one another. They have nothing in common. As my short, but busy career in research, education and writing has demonstrated time and again, post-secondary and secondary education are a bit like the "West" and the "East" Kipling was writing about: they never speak to one another. When they do interact they often do so in order to complain about one another. Never it seems shall this twain meet, either.

When I finished my bachelor of education and began teaching, I was excited and enthusiastic about the possibilities of secondary education. I was also excited about learning, researching, teaching and writing at the graduate level. I still enjoy all these activities and feel like they fit almost seamlessly together. Karen Dubinsky, in an open letter to university administration, said she couldn't imagine being a great teacher without being a great researcher. I can't either. Some may want to debate the ideal split between the activities: is it 50/50, or 90/10? In the end it doesn't matter. The basic truth holds that if you aren't genuinely and critically engaged in your subject matter and if you don't know a lick about how to teach, you can't be a very effective high school or university educator.

Yet, many I've met in the academy and in secondary school feel the opposite.

When I was a student teacher on my second practicum I received the good news that I had been accepted to a master's program in history. Word quickly spread and the principal saw fit to congratulate me at a staff meeting. It was an unexpected and slightly embarrassing kindness. Later, when I was speaking with my Associate Teacher - a vocal critic of "academic history," by which he meant anything not resembling military, political or economic history - I was confronted with a very different reaction: "How is a master's degree going to make you a better teacher?"

The question, to be honest, took me by surprise. It seemed self-evident to me at the time that knowing more about history than was on offer in undergraduate survey courses would make me able to share new and exciting information and keep my lessons fresh. I also thought that having experience teaching in a world that many students would find themselves in after high school would broaden and enhance my perspective. Knowing content inside and out meant, in my mind, that I could devote more attention to planning better lessons. At the time, I didn't worry too much about this objection, brushing it off on my way to an experience I was convinced would only enrich my practice as an educator.

On my first long-term occasional contract I was given a course called the West and the World since 1500 (now thankfully renamed World History since 1500). When I was handed the former teacher's binders I was perturbed. Every resource covered Europe. There was not a single mention of the rest of the world. One binder was two by the end of my semester, with content that actually addressed the other two-thirds of the curriculum that was initially missing. The teacher who took over for me, as I left to begin my PhD., asked me how I had done it. She had been teaching for a number of years and was an excellent teacher. She confessed though that she would have to spend her summer reading to teach the course content I had created. In the end, they opted to return the course to its previous state: a history of modern western civilization.

My brief conversations with former students after they graduated only reaffirmed my earlier belief in the value of content knowledge to effective teaching. A number sent me messages and emails letting me know that having a rough idea what post-colonial theory was and how it worked, or who Michel Foucault was and what he said was very useful to them in this new and different learning environment. It seemed to me and my students that content mattered as much as how it was delivered.

Despite these successes, the objections of my associate teacher that I had shrugged off at first revealed themselves to be well-established prejudices in the minds of many others in secondary education. In a number of interviews and discussions I've had about jobs in secondary teaching I have received the same kind of questions, sometimes as a friendly prodding, more often as a deeply felt concern. For a number of individuals, my advanced degree was viewed as evidence of a narrow set of interests and an inability to relate to students. As soon as those three letters - PhD - come up, the 7+ years I have spent as a teacher at the high school level evaporate. Often high school educators would claim that teaching at a university didn't apply to high schools, or that classroom management wasn't much of an issue in post-secondary education. This was certainly not the case at all. The issues are different, but no less numerous, or challenging. Assumptions like this seem to suggest that the same students that stalked the halls of high schools were like caterpillars who would magically transform into beautiful and brilliant butterflies in the two months between the end of high school and the beginning of post-secondary education. Teaching can be powerful and transformative, but it isn't magic. The students are a little taller, certainly a little more self-assured, maybe even a little hungrier for success, or knowledge, but they are the same students in so many other ways. There is no cocoon from which the university or college student emerges, fully formed and radiant, eager to drink deeply from the font of professorial knowledge.

In some ways I can excuse the concern about my background and the suspicion of academics. It is the product of a long-standing series of disagreements and misunderstandings. For instance, the last time I was in a room with academic historians and history teachers I was privy to one of the most absurd and telling spectacles I've yet witnessed. The teachers were there to receive the Governor General Awards for History Education - a top national award recognizing them as leaders in their field. Yet, from the ensuing academic diatribes, one would have thought these excellent teachers were being dragged in front of the principal for a scolding. One academic after the another went on about how teachers weren't doing enough to teach Canadian children about the past. Perhaps this is partly the result of the particular academics on stage failing to recognize their audience, trapped in some never ending struggle with another colleague that had simply spilled out into public on that day. But regardless of the cause, the effect was nothing short of insulting and ridiculous. Here was the professoriate, most of whom had probably never taught outside the ivory tower, lecturing the very best high school history teachers in the country about what they were doing wrong. 

Evidently, the dismissive attitude that prevails between secondary and post-secondary education cuts both ways. When I was preparing CVs for the an academic job search, a number of professors told me that my high school teaching wouldn't be of much interest to hiring committees. I was confused. Why would institutions creating centres for teaching and learning excellence at great expense left right and centre be uninterested in someone who was actually formally trained to teach? This attitude only seemed more problematic to me as I was confronted with brilliant, hard working, and well intentioned colleagues who struggled to make their seminar courses work and found it a challenge to get students to engage with course material. Worse yet, some had been convinced that a class of 22 should conform to a bell curve and worried incessantly about their marks producing a standard distribution. Marking to a bell curve in a class of 22 is as arbitrary as throwing papers down the stairs and giving the best marks to the one that goes furthest. 

My course, without exaggeration, was the opposite of this. I was fixated on student learning, not my grade distribution. I eagerly shared when others asked how I did things. Good teaching is almost always the result of collaboration. Many of my colleagues eventually learned how to teach through the painful process of trial and error, but a number still persist with strange attitudes to assessment and evaluation, classroom management and student learning. There are some absolutely fabulous teachers in post-secondary education, but they are the product of chance, or self-motivation. There are many who could very easily be great teachers if only someone would take the time to show them the way. Teaching is a craft that requires just as much dedication as mastering a field of knowledge. Teaching means doing more than lecturing and providing relevant content to students. Students are paying to learn, not to be talked at. Whether research is your passion or not, you owe it to your students and the public to be a great teacher as well as a great researcher and academic writer.

For the last seven years since simultaneously joining the teaching profession and entering graduate school I thought I was straddling an arbitrary and artificial divide; feet planted firmly in the ivory tower and the high school. While I still think this is the case, as I feel equally comfortable in both worlds, to others inside the academy and secondary education, I look more like an aging gymnast, trying desperately to do the splits - unsteadily divided and straining - unable to make a decision, or stay firmly planted in either world. I am a troubling curiosity to them and their world-view. Whereas I understand both these environments as well as any junior scholar and teacher might - their strengths and their many flaws - those in the academy and in secondary education have rarely ventured beyond the boundaries of their profession to sample the different flavours on offer.

Maybe the school will always be the school and the academy will always be the academy, but I hope that we can find a way for these two worlds to learn to speak to each other more intelligently and ask the right questions of one another.

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© Braden Hutchinson 2014