Given that you are reading this textbook, you are most likely approaching your first year of teaching, or perhaps you already are experiencing (or have recently experienced) the rite of passage through which all first-year teachers must pass. If you want to start a lively conversation among veteran teachers, wander into the teachers’ lounge and ask your colleagues what they remember about their first year of teaching. Be prepared to sit and stay awhile. Notice how your colleagues bond over the retellings of their early days of teaching. Surviving the first year of teaching is akin to an initiation rite—a feat confirming one’s worthiness for membership into hallowed ranks—in this case, the teaching profession. What is one of the best parts of being a first-year teacher? Knowing that you are only a first-year teacher once.
Yet experienced teachers, ourselves included, also look back on that first year of teaching with a blend of sweet nostalgia and pragmatic appraisal of our younger selves in the classroom. For most of us, our very first students are unforgettable. They are, after all, the original cast in the long-running production of our teaching careers. From our vantage point in the present, it is tempting to reminisce about the “good old days” when we were both young and eager to change the world…but we will spare you our memories that, we admit, are polished by the passage of time, and instead reassure you that your first year of teaching likely is typical of most people’s who enter the profession.
It is natural to feel overwhelmed during your first year of teaching. Right about now, you are probably wondering why your teacher education program failed to instruct you in traffic management (e.g., bus duty, carpool supervision, monitoring hallway and cafeteria activity), business strategies (e.g., organizing and managing field trips, fund-raising activities, materials fee collection), office skills (e.g., collection, analysis, and storage of assessment data; student file maintenance; general record-keeping; special education paperwork; phone, text, and e-mail correspondence; classroom website maintenance); human resources (e.g., collaborating with colleagues, administrators, and paraprofessionals; responding to and engaging with parents and caregivers; creating warm relationships with school secretaries, custodians, lunchroom staff, and security officers). Need we go on? As you have no doubt concluded on your own, teaching is a complex act that requires constant shifting among multiple and simultaneous skill sets—not all of which are, or can be, taught in schools of education.
And if it is not enough to think about all of the above (while you are, of course, constructing curriculum, organizing your classroom, delivering motivating lessons, establishing and sustaining classroom routines, meeting the academic and social needs of all students, preparing students for standardized assessments, reflecting thoughtfully on your classroom practice, and exercising self-restraint toward friends, family, and strangers who suggest that teaching is a breeze because of all the vacation days), we are about to ask that you consider the historical, political, and social stage upon which public education takes place, how the role of teacher is played, and the material consequences (intended and unintended) for all students performing in our national drama of schooling.
The Historical Complexity of Public Schools
Surely a ritual ought to occur that officially marks the transition of Student to Teacher—a ritual apart from successful completion of student teaching or college graduation. After all, it is a passage to “the other side” of sorts. Among the benefits awaiting on “the other side” is freedom of access to formerly forbidden territory, such as the teachers’ lounge, student records, parent–teacher conferences, the teacher lunch table, faculty meetings, the teacher workroom, and the storage closet. Whatever the myriad reasons are that inspire us to become teachers, we share the headiness that comes with legitimate border crossing
into Teacher Territory for the very first time. Once on the inside, new teachers find answers to questions long held (“So this
is what teachers do in here!”) or confirmation of old suspicions (“I knew
they talked about students!”).
For others, border crossing represents a kind of loss of innocence brought on by close exposure to the humanness and foibles of teachers. As teacher educators, we are privy to the reactions and reflections of new teachers regarding their work in public schools. Certainly, we hear positive reports from the field. Yet, most new teachers also experience varying degrees of incongruity between their idealism and the realities of public schools. They might question administrative responses to students and their families that “don’t feel right” or feel uncomfortable when colleagues label their beliefs about children as naïve and temporary. And in speaking about such struggles, they inevitably muse, “You know, it’s never about the kids—it’s all this other stuff!” It seems that the complex, and often contradictory, context within which teachers work is anything but stress-free.
Remember those foundation courses you took at the beginning of your education program? You know—courses that covered topics such as the history of public schools in American society, political and legislative aspects of public education, issues in urban education, and the like? If that material did not seem particularly relevant then, now might be the time to reread those textbooks and articles (as well as those copious notes you no doubt took) to shed light on the complexity of school culture. Okay, maybe you might not have the time right now to dig through your college boxes (or perhaps you sold those textbooks back to the university bookstore long ago), so we offer a critical (albeit brief!) historical review of public education as a reminder of the major points to consider about “all that other stuff.”
The Purpose of Public Education
Every reader of this text has a personal narrative about what led him or her to choose the teaching profession. Some of us, inspired by teachers who opened some aspect of the world that forever changed our lives, wish to ignite passion for learning among students. Others of us may be motivated by negative school experiences and commit ourselves to making a positive difference in the lives of children. Whatever particularity of experience led to entering the profession, it is reasonable to assume that teachers generally do so because of a genuine devotion to the nurturance of children and commitment to the ideals of education.
Enter the new teacher. Freshly graduated. Brimming with the latest theories of child development and instruction. Eager to guide and inspire all children to achieve beyond what they believe is possible. Committed to making a difference in the world. Surely the context into which the new teacher is about to step corresponds to such ideals. The stage is set with the accoutrements of schooling—tables, bookshelves, chairs, computers, maps, smartboard, books, bulletin boards—all awaiting the entrance of the principal actor who will make this set come alive. What could be afoot in this benign setting where teachers and students meet to do their work? Plenty. And most of it unseen and unspoken.
Most new teachers survey their very first classrooms and imagine the future they will construct there. They see a neutral canvas upon which they will paint their best dreams and hopes for children. Yet the context of schooling is anything but neutral. That classroom, like all other classrooms in America, is deeply embedded within a culture
that is public education. And like all other cultures, public education has been and continues to be shaped by patterns of human activity and social structures that embody its history, beliefs, attitudes, practices, and values. Understanding “all that other
acknowledgement of and awareness about the ways in which this culture actively influences everyday life in schools.
Let’s start with a seemingly simple question. What is the purpose of public education? An obvious answer might be that public education is the means by which a civilized society uses public funds to teach its young people the academic and social skills necessary to become responsible, productive, and self-fulfilled citizens. Certainly, public education is one of the major cornerstones of our democracy. Textbooks have long referred to America as “the melting pot”—a land of opportunity for all people. And undeniably, a free public education is one of America’s greatest opportunities. Given that teachers participate in the legacy of one of America’s greatest opportunities, why do they continue to report disillusionment and frustration? Perhaps we can more clearly understand where we are if we return for a moment to where we came from—in other words, how did we get here from there?
How We Got Here from There
Consider the historical context within which compulsory schooling originated during the early twentieth century. Despite romanticized notions of “the melting pot of America” described in history textbooks, the dominant culture of the time (Anglo-Saxon Protestant) actively sought to preserve itself within what was rapidly becoming a diverse and sputtering societal stew (Kliebard, 1995). By 1918, all states had passed compulsory schooling laws. Recognizing the potential of compulsory schooling for creating a common citizenry, reformers targeted public education as a means by which to preserve the position and values of the dominant culture. Thus, the arena of public education became “part and parcel of a national morality play in which those hopes and fears were enacted” (ibid., p. 291). It is worth noting that political and social agendas became embodied early on within the institution of public education—a pattern, we might point out, that is unmistakable in the current context of public education.
Let’s revisit the social, political, and economic landscape of early twentieth-century America. Major population shifts occur as industry lures rural citizens into urban areas. Overtaxed cities strain to accommodate the heavy influx of immigrants as well as social and economic challenges. Science penetrates American society giving rise to “scientific management” of factories, a new class of scientific professionals, and scientific study of human beings. American nationalism increases in the aftermath of World War I, heightening suspicion and distrust of immigrant populations as well as governmental targeting of political radicalism. Industrial democracy theories emerge that promise greater control over workers. Low-status groups, such as African-Americans and Indigenous peoples, face an increasingly hostile society that controls access to cultural and economic collateral (Anderson, 1988).
So where does public education figure into this historical landscape? In response to the complexity and multiplicity of social issues in the early twentieth century, public education is conceptualized as a social institution through which to enculturate the nation’s young (immigrant children in particular) into the dominant culture. How to accomplish enculturation, however, becomes the subject of intense debate among four major interest groups with differing ideas on curriculum: humanists
(supporters of a classical education in the tradition of the Western canon), developmentalists
(advocates for curriculum grounded in the new science of child development), social meliorists
(champions of schools as agencies of social change), and social efficiency experts
(proponents of operating schools by industry principles) (Kliebard, 1995). In the end, no single group controls the American curriculum; however, it is noteworthy that social efficiency emerges as a
major and long-lasting influence upon public education. Indeed, the footprints left by social efficiency experts explain much of the taken-for-granted assumptions and values that circulate within schools today. As you read on, you might recognize vestiges of social efficiency lingering within your own school context.
The Factory Model of Education
Let’s consider the early twentieth-century milieu in which science and industry reign supreme. Social efficiency proponents, influenced by mechanical engineer Frederic Taylor, who applied scientific methods to industrial management, believe that scientific rationality and technology are the answer to public education. Drawing upon Taylor’s notions of scientific task analysis and scientific training of individual workers to perform industry tasks...