Nancy Flanagan is one of the most thoughtful and respected edubloggers out there. Now a consultant, she spent 30 years in the classroom as a middle school music teacher. In an October entry for her blog “Teacher in a Strange Land” in “Education Week-Teacher,” she wrote about Richard Elmore’s new book in which he invited 20 well-respected educators to reflect on the prompt, “I used to think… and now I think…” Nancy’s entry detailed her complex and provocative reflections on the evolution of her own thinking. Nancy is a member of Teacher Leaders Network, and she posted a link to her blog on one of our discussion boards. Another member, Steve Owens (coincidently yet another music teacher!) proposed we all answer the question in that forum or on our blogs. Here then, is my own take on what I used to think and what I now think from my perspective as a long-term girls’ school teacher.
I used to think private education was a different world from public education. Then, I thought they were essentially similar. Now, I think the answer is both a) and b).
Like many people educated in public schools, I had a skewed and inaccurate idea of what private schools were like. When my friend Amy went to Miss Hall’s for her sophomore year and then returned to Amherst High as a junior, many of us thought that she had succeeded in convincing her parents not to force her to spend time in a world of privilege and smug arrogance. She strongly defended her old school, telling us we had no idea what it was like and that it was a really good place. No doubt, that helped open my mind to the possibility of working in a private school. I came here, settled in, and made this place quite literally my home.
During the first part of the 21st century, as I adjusted to and began to love the middle school world, I joined a number of listservs dominated by public educators. At first hesitantly, and then with increasing enthusiasm and confidence, I jumped in to discussions and found exactly what I had expected, that I had a lot to learn from public school teachers and that I could help them as well. My dear friend Bev, a now-retired teacher in Arkansas, used to point out that her kids in an inner-city public school had far more in common with my students in a rural private school than most people would imagine.
But as the 21st century progressed and the noose of NCLB gradually tightened around the necks of public schools, I was depressed to see a gap widening between the lives of many public school teachers and my own. As I worked to continually shape my practice and build the best middle school program possible, most of my friends were finding their creativity and autonomy increasingly undercut and, worse yet, despairing to see their students’ innate sense of wonder and curiosity gradually being snuffed by the focus on “The Test”. Kids are kids, and every single one of them deserves a chance for a great education no matter what school they attend. To so stack the deck against public schools is, in my mind, unconscionable, especially in the name of bettering them.
I used to think teaching girls wasn’t really all that different from teaching boys. Then, I thought it was. Now, I think the answer is both a) and b).
One thing that struck me in my first year here was how quickly I forgot that I was teaching a room full of girls. As a Teaching Assistant at UMass-Amherst and as a Lecteur at the Université de Bordeaux III, I had a decidedly coed classroom, but I didn’t notice a substantially different feel in my classes here. For the record, it’s not infrequent that a given 7th grade class will remark early in the year about how much less they notice the absence of boys compared to what they expected.
As I learned that girls speak In a Different Voice, that Ophelia needed Reviving, that there was a recipe for How Girls Thrive even if the Odd Girl was sometimes left Out, I grew to think that our culture created an atmosphere in which girls were all but inevitably different than boys. By then, I had long known that girls’ brains were wired differently, and it seemed to me educationally indefensible not to acknowledge the biology and sociology of girls as I worked with them.
But then I began to see evidence of what I had long suspected, that while gender helps shape who we are, it not always as binary as we might think it is. Four years ago, the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance did a workshop with the middle schoolers on LGBT people which led me to learn about the lives of transgender people. Additionally, I learned that from 5-20% of girls have “male-wired brains” at birth and the equivalent is true of boys. I learned the effects of sex hormones on the brain. I learned of the brain’s ability to rewire itself in interplay with environment. And I began to realize that when I said I worked to get to know each individual girl and teach the whole child, that meant I had to work to try and free myself utterly and completely from stereotypes and get to know, understand, and care for each of the special people entrusted to my care exactly as they were.
I used to think that teaching was about sharing a passion for something you love with kids in order that they might learn as much about it as possible. Now, I still do, but more importantly, I think that teaching is a means toward social justice, helping kids acquire the tools to find and be their authentic selves.
When I came to this school, I loved French and had for years. After a high-school homestay and two years abroad, I had deep roots in the country. So as I worked with students to teach verb conjugations and agreement of adjectives, I also worked to awaken in them a desire to go visit the country I loved so much, and even led several student trips there.
I still think it matters that students see teachers loving what they do. Why teach, say, music if you don’t love it?! I also want my students to see my own love of learning. And of course, I still want my students to learn as much as possible. But in order for my students to learn as much as possible, they have to be themselves as much as possible – which is to say, completely.
This morning, I read my Humanities 7 class this passage from Curse of the Good Girl by Rachel Simmons: “When girls can no longer agree upon the answer to the question “Who is a Good Girl?” we will know they are free to be themselves.” (p.12) If I can help create some momentum toward meeting that goal, along with a similar freedom from the effects of stereotypes based on race, ethnicity, sexuality, and more – one student at a time – then I will know my career has been successful.