Educational goals Teaching

Work with What You’ve Got: Advice for Teachers from Ken Teitelbaum

This post is a review I wrote of a new book by Ken Teitelbaum, which will eventually appear in the Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy

At its heart, this is a book of advice for teachers, and its messages really resonate with me.  You can’t change the world, but you can do something important where you are.  Small victories are a big deal.

Teitelbaum Cover

Critical Issues in Democratic Schooling: Curriculum, Teaching, and Socio-Political Realities, by Kenneth Teitelbaum. Routledge, 2020. 310 pages.

On the face of it, this book shouldn’t work.  The publisher didn’t do it any favors by giving it a graceless title and a glumly generic cover, which fairly shout the news that this is going to be a tedious academic monograph: read it at your own risk.  Equally off-putting is the price, $120 in hardcover and $48.50 in paper. 

The reader’s stomach sinks on hearing the author say in the introduction that “Some of what I have included has its genesis in comments I was invited to give as a dean or department chair, or shared in classes, and so is not available to be read anywhere else. Other essays were originally published as journal articles, book chapters, and newspaper op-eds….”  Lord, you think.  This isn’t a book; it’s a scrapbook, filled with fragments and academic orphans – 21 short chapters published here solely on the principle of waste not, want not. 

In the unlikely event that you ignore all the warning signs and keep reading, however, you will discover that this book really works.  You’ll find yourself in the hands of a thoughtful, gracious, and extraordinarily experienced senior educator who knows how to write and has important insights to pass along.  You’ll come to see the book as an illuminating set of reflections about what it means to be a teacher, teacher educator, administrator, and education scholar and what gives meaning to all of these practices.  Throughout, Teitelbaum’s voice is engagingly conversational, avoiding the usual academic jargon and pontification in favor of just talking to you as a fellow educator about why we do what we do, how we do it, and why it matters.  He draws a lot from his own experiences – as teacher, teacher educator, scholar, chair, and dean – which makes his insights both more personal and more compelling, as he somehow manages to be inspiring without being preachy or unrealistic.  And he welcomes a continuing engagement with the reader, even giving us his email address.

The chapters are gathered together into three sections: Teaching and Teacher Education, Curriculum Studies, and Multiculturalism and Social Justice.  My favorite is the first.  Here he walks us through some of the things that make teaching so demanding and at the same time so rewarding.  People think teaching is easy, just a matter of being good with kids, but it’s actually extraordinarily difficult.  You can’t make students learn but instead must find ways to motivate learning, which means your professional success or failure is in their hands as much as yours.  And it doesn’t help that you’re in an educational system that is increasingly driven by accountability metrics that undercut the ongoing pedagogical relationship that makes learning possible.

But he always balances the bad news with the good.  Teaching can bring rewards that are hard to find in other lines of work.  The self-contained classroom may lead to professional isolation but it also allows you a remarkable degree of autonomy, so you can establish your own approach to engaging your students.  It’s a practice that draws upon the whole person of the teacher – your intellect, affect, values, experience, and personality.  You get the satisfaction of watching students develop under your tutelage and of knowing that you’re making a small but meaningful contribution to forming a better society.  He also walks the reader through the challenges and satisfactions of being a teacher educator, trying to shape the teachers who will try to shape the students.   

In the second section, Teitelbaum takes us into his scholarly field of curriculum studies, showing the importance of intellectual exploration for being an effective educator.  You need to understand the system in order to function within it, and you need to explore the nature of curriculum in order to recognize what we are actually teaching students and why.  Theory can help us see that what students are learning in school comes only in part from the formal curriculum of school subjects.  A lot of learning comes not from the content of schooling but the process.  We think of process as the means to facilitate learning while failing to recognize that this process may be teaching them lessons we don’t want them to learn: do what you’re told, play the game, suppress yourself. 

In the third section, he explores issues of justice and multiculturalism.  As his pattern throughout the book, he approaches these issues as both ethical questions that teachers need to wrestle with in trying to forge a more equitable society and also as practical techniques for enabling them to do their work effectively.  You can’t engage students if you can’t establish some grounds for mutual understanding.  It’s nice to see an academic talk about this issues judiciously, without feeling the need to shout.

If I were still teaching prospective teachers, I would have them read chapters from this book in order to get a richly informed and gently instructive introduction to the profession.  They need to hear that being an educator is a balancing act.  You are an independent actor in a complex organizational setting, which both facilitates and limits the possibilities of action for you.  Teitelbaum consistently establishes a reasonable middle ground between trying to change the world and just doing your job.  His message is simple and compelling:  “Work with what you’ve got.”  You do what you can within the constraints of your current situation, pushing the limits without threatening your own viability.  And you do what you can within the constraints of your own personal capacities without worrying about what you’re not able to do.  “Keep trying to understand and to create positive change. Don’t get down or lose hope. Keep trying to help carve out islands of decency wherever and whenever possible, even if in limited ways.”  Small victories are a great accomplishment.

David Labaree

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