Teaching from Inside the Coalmine

I recently participated in a book club through Teach Resistance. Together we read Troublemakers by Carla Shalaby. The book resonated with me deeply. Since reading it, many of the words and broader themes have echoed in my head as I have challenging interactions with "troublemakers" in my classroom on a daily basis. 

One of the book's most resonant ideas was the idea of classroom troublemakers as "canaries in the coalmine." School, Shalaby argues, is in many ways a toxic, oppressive environment. Her book profiles four young troublemakers and asks readers/teachers to learn from them. Shalaby asks us, What does their behavior teach us about the toxic nature of schools and schooling?

Thanks to my book club friends, I was able to reflect more deeply on this metaphor. We talked about the structural challenges to freedom in schooling, and how these structures often constrain teachers as well. Some examples include standardized testing (and their impact on curriculum), lack of planning time, and lack of social emotional supports for kids and teachers.

Another line that has stuck with me is from Shalaby's conclusion. She writes, "It's hard to learn freedom from inside a cage." We know the type of world we want to create. We know we want our young people to help us build it. And yet we expect them to envision a more just world within an environment that doesn't provide much of a model for this world.

I feel about as invested as a teacher could be in Shalaby's thesis. Throughout the year, as her book has bounced around my brain, I've tried to treat my students with as much love, care, and respect as possible, and to partner with them around common problems. I have run into a number of the structural challenges that we discussed in our book club. It's hard to find time for this approach. It's hard to take this approach without a communal buy in from other teachers and parents. 

And as Shalaby said, "It's hard to learn freedom from inside a cage." To interpret this another way, I've found it hard to help kids make a switch to autonomy and independence after having little to no experience with it at school or at home.

But, this week I'm realizing how hard it is for me as a teacher to envision and enact this approach. After a couple of rough weeks of arguments, bullying, and other disrespectful behavior in our classroom, my co-teacher and I are attempting a "reset." I tried to include the kids as much as possible in this process, but many of their ideas rely very much on systems of consequences and rewards that contradict Shalaby's vision of a democratic classroom. But it's not just the kids struggling to do this.

Today, our first day of our official reset, we leaned very heavily on consequences to try to shift our classroom culture. This is only one part of our overall effort, but I can't help but feel disappointed. Over nine years of teaching, I think I've learned a lot about how to build community without relying too much on carrots and sticks. But at this point in the year, my co-teacher and I are tired. We're tired of repeating directions, resolving conflicts, and dealing with lots of other typical 5th grade behaviors.

So, for now, we are staying with the familiar. Hopefully it leads to more respectful interactions between students and teachers, and to more learning, which I think will be an improvement. But, I still wish I didn't feel like I was giving up on a vision that I really believe in.


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