Thought of the day for teachers (and other professionals): do not ask for permission, ask for forgiveness afterwards.

Larry Cuban wrote this blog post: You Cannot Tell Wisdom: What You Don’t Learn in Teacher Education Programs and Teach for America in which he describe an experience he had as an urban teacher:

As I taught history to five classes a day in the initial years at Glenville High School, it became clear to me that I needed more than what the school and district could supply me with–reams of paper, machines that would make copies of readings for my students, and access to people who could help me reach my students in ways that I could not. I began to locate paper, machines, and people, sweet-talked my way into gathering them by bending school and district rules. A case in point, I found reams of paper unused in another department’s store room at the end of the school year and appropriated them for my Fall classes. After school began, the principal called me into his office and showed me telephone messages and memos he had received from district officials demanding an explanation for my “unprofessional behavior.”

My relationship with the principal was a warm, supportive one in which he judged me as a hard-working teacher who was part of a cadre in the urban school that helped students graduate and enter college. So he faced a dilemma in having to do something stern without alienating an entrepreneurial teacher, given all of the district complaints about my “unprofessional behavior.” I, too, faced a dilemma. In a scarcity economy which is what urban schools are insofar as supplies and resources, teachers had to be enterprising beyond dipping into their wallets to buy things for their classes. I scrounged, begged, and borrowed to the hilt with colleagues but it wasn’t enough. And yet I didn’t want to stop because what I was doing with my classes seemed to be paying off in increased attendance and motivation. Yet my boss was upset.  I had to mollify him and the district officials pestering him to do something to stop my apparent “unprofessional behavior.” So after much thinking about how schools worked and what I had learned about authority structures in schools and districts, I asked the principal to forgive my indiscretion.

I apologized after the fact for not asking permission. He reported to his superiors that I had apologized for my actions and that ended the incident.  And that lesson I learned from my experiences over five years as a teacher I continued to practice when working in urban schools, as a superintendent, and professor. I consider that lesson wisdom I had gained from teaching at Glenville.

His wisdom is: “do not ask for permission, ask for forgiveness afterwards”. It has made me think. Is this still the case? Is this still a good advice to give to teachers? I certainly recognize it, and have to admit lived by it too, but still… As education has become more strict and juridical, it seems more difficult to take this advice as guiding light.

But wait, is education not always about taking risks? Gert Biesta thinks so:

This is a book about what many teachers know but are increasingly being prevented from talking about: that real education always involves a risk. The risk is there because, as W. B. Yeats has put it, education is not about filling a bucket but about lighting a fire. It is there because education is not an interaction between machines, but an encounter between human beings. It is there because students are not to be seen as objects to be molded and disciplined, but as subjects of action and responsibility. Biesta’s book opposes the risk aversion that characterizes many contemporary educational policies and practices and makes a strong argument for giving risk a central place in our educational endeavors. The book is organized around a critical discussion of seven key educational concepts: creativity, communication, teaching, learning, emancipation, democracy, and virtuosity.

And well, maybe I do to. Sorry for that.

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