Thanksgiving 2017 - Teaching Versus Schooling
I am most thankful for the 20 of you who have become patrons by the time of this essay.  I am intrinsically motivated to do the work that I am best suited to do, and, because the family farmland was sold before I was born, that intrinsic motivation doesn't feed or shelter me.  I'll have plenty more to say about intrinsic motivation and teaching, as it relates to my teacher identity, in a few paragraphs.

First, here are a few pictures made over the brief Thanksgiving weekend, as I was traveling late in the afternoon of Friday the 24th.

I was born with this compulsion to visualize and to tell stories about what I see.  I think that society could benefit from so much of the work that I do based on that "God given" talent (that's not a brag, because I'm suggesting that whatever "talent" this might be is not the result of hard work or determination, even if acting upon the talent might be work), but I need to be able to eat!

Hey, look, it's a self-portrait!

I made a stop in Sorrel, Louisiana, while on my travels last week, and I got these images of the St. Mary Sugar Co-Op, as it is sugarcane grinding season in southern Louisiana!  This mill is this smoky and steamy only during this time of year.

Those are cane trucks lined up to offload their cargo straight from the cane fields, and you can see that they are designed to dump the cane to the side, with a hoist over the top edge of the bucket.

Of course, if you've followed my work for a long time, you know that, in years past, I did much more of this process of exploring the world with photography and posting for the entire world to see the images along with all of the geographical knowledge that I know of the subject matter.

Now, however, I can't really do this work anymore due to lack of means.

"You're not teaching anymore?"

That's what a former school-teaching colleague recently asked me via text message.

My response?

"Not in a classroom, not for money, and not nearly as much as I could if I didn't have to worry about money."

Generally, I am somewhat circumspect with my former school-teacher colleagues who are still active in the profession about why I left the traditional school profession (please notice, too, that I qualify the particular type of teacher and the particular type of factory school), because I fear that if they were able to see the system the way that I came to see it, they, too, would no longer be able to countenance remaining in the old system.

So, I will say this.  Rates of domestic partner violence among police officers are much higher than for the rest of the population.  Yes, I'm sure that some of that stems from the fact that police work might attract the kinds of people who want to violate others' bodily autonomy, but I think that the causation works in the other direction, too; I am sure that the nature of police work, with its need for officers to be always vigilant combined with both the authority and the expectation to use force on other human beings, would create such tendencies within people who don't already have them.

I have never been a police officer, nor have I ever struck a domestic partner, but I relate all too well about how a job that makes you hyper-vigilant and that requires you to ensure that many human beings together who are compelled to be in your charge follow the super-rigid dictates of the system (that won't bother to do much to adapt to the student), and a positive professional culture that expects - for good reason - you to make the entire process appear as anything but coercive, can turn you into a terrible, judgmental person at home.

That was not the effect that teaching itself had on me.  That was the effect that working in a traditional "factory" school - with all of its built in coercion, compulsion, and "standardization," as if I were part of a machine and as if students were products - had on me, and, once I saw that (and it took a while), I was unable to unsee it.

As an agent of the system, I was tasked with subjecting those forced to be in my charge to rigidity and rules, and I made it as enjoyable as I possibly could, but it took me a long time to see that subjecting others to rigidity subjected myself to rigidity.  The rigidity that I had to impose on others was, in the process, being imposed on myself, and it was destroying me, smashing and sucking my creativity.  It is what I imagine being an employee of a prison would be like.

And that's precisely why I am incapable of following advice that some friends and family give me when they say that I should solve my survival problem by just returning to be a classroom teacher.  They don't realize the double dosage of poison that their prescribed antidote actually is; they are telling me to not only (once again) become part of the problem (now, unlike before, with the undeniable knowledge that becoming a part of the problem is exactly what I would be doing) but also to (once again) destroy (what remains of) myself in the process.  It's not even possible anymore.

"Well, you should work to change the system," they say.

I would love to work to change the system!  But, I need to eat!  Hello!

I am, through my work that you see here, attempting to build a less coercive society, a civilization that involves less compulsion.  Returning to work in a factory school - and, once I saw traditional schools as factories, I could not unsee it - would be a step backwards; it would be suicide.

This gets at the dilemma that has underpinned so much of my adulthood, and, indeed, since I come from a family of teachers, my entire life: the duality of how a good teacher has to have Enlightenment values and, as such, teach students to be suspicious of authority and to question it, but the nature of the way that the job of school-teacher is done is very authoritarian.

I had never really put it that simply until this year, but that is the dilemma, the duality, at the heart of why I suffered a precipitous burnout after several years of being a good school-teacher. 

A significant factor in what made me a good school teacher is that I appealed to students' intrinsic motivation; I fostered a love of learning, a love of the subject matter, to make them care to learn, to make them better citizens, and so that I didn't have to rely on threats and punishment - i.e., extrinsic motivation, which includes external rewards, too.  

However, all of that had to take place well within the rigid confines of a system that is very coercive and compulsory, with super-rigid schedules, the extrinsic nature of the system's motivation undermining the intrinsic motivation that is necessary for true education and enlightenment to happen.

For years, I felt, mostly subconsciously, that contradiction, and it quietly tore at me, but I had never found the words like that for it until recently.

The new blended-learning models are supposed to address this, and, from what I have seen, largely do address it; they leave plenty to be desired, still, and they are still far too rare, but they are, unlike almost any kind of educational "reform," a very big step in the right direction.

The old way of factory schooling - the way that probably 99.9% of the persons reading this essay experienced "education" - had many merits, but probably most of its merits vanished as soon as modern technology in the form of computers, laptops, smartphones, and the internet became ubiquitous.  In a world in which nearly every high-school student has a device in his pocket (and probably another larger device in his backpack) from which he can access the sum total of all publicly available human knowledge, there is something wrong with the practice of telling a random group of 30 students that all of them will go into the same classroom at 09:32 and learn the same lesson of the same subject on the same day until 10:56, with every student learning every lesson at the same time.

Once I saw that, I could not unsee it, and I saw it right at about the time that smartphones were becoming very common.  That's why I can't return to a method that I think is counterproductive; I'd rather be part of the solution - or even do nothing at all - than be part of the problem.

Especially with the way that "teaching" is done in the traditional factory classroom with the very rigid schedules, a teacher must have a good - and, usually, carefully crafted - personality in order to survive.

So, as I have often said in the last couple of years, my success lied in making the inherently authoritarian system seem to not be authoritarian, and the way to do that was to create a carefully crafted persona that would inspire, rather than threaten, students to learn.

But what it took me a really long time - and some bad personal drama - to realize is that that success came at a huge cost.  In order to maintain that positive personality day after day, in order to essentially engage in a performance every day in which my success depended upon how well I could manage a captive audience, I had to do all kinds of psychological contortions on myself.

And it took me a long time to realize what kind of person it was making me into being even at home.  It's like those TV shows that show the behind-the-scenes footage of how a movie is made, and you see an actor spend hours putting on makeup before the shooting begins.  I'd leave and go home, but I could never really turn the drill sergeant switch off, except maybe in summers, and my creativity was stunted because it was monopolized in the service of my classroom character.  (Brenda Knowles has a great essay related to that topic.)

I could never step out of character, and it caused significant destructiveness in my personal life.

It also meant that my employer essentially owned my personality.

So, as I view these images that I made of a place of manufacturing (of products, not of human beings), and as I consider how decreasing percentages of the population are needed for all of the manufacturing needs, I think of what anthropologist David Graeber calls our "rule-bound lives," and how coercion and violence underpin society; "we’re taking a very large percentage of the greatest creative talent in our society and telling them to go to hell," he said, and, only recently have I come to see that that is so true, and the same is true for his assertion that the threat of violence underpins society and that that threat is largely invisible - but it is certainly there!

Like Graeber, I wish to change that, wish to make society and civilization less coercive, even if our methods and the other details of our respective desired outcomes may differ.

I think that many people see the role of traditional public schools as preparing students for all of the crap that they will have to endure in this sick, coercive, bureaucratic society.  Maybe, instead, we should change and improve society; that is the work that I now wish to do.

Of course, I cannot do any of this work if I don't have food and shelter or the time and freedom to do this work; so, if you have both the means and the willingness to help, please click on the home page here and consider becoming a patron of my work.

I appreciate the consideration, I appreciate you viewing the pictures, and I appreciate you enabling me to do more of what I am best at doing!

Thank you.

JBX 


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