One Teacher Can't Save the World

Nick Covington
Chris McNutt
October 28, 2020
What is it about the world that is worth preparing students for, and are we dedicated to the work of building that better world alongside them?

*This article was written for a presentation for Teacher Powered Schools National Conference 2020.

'You have a morbid aversion to dying. You probably resent the fact that you're at war and might get your head blown off any second.'

'I more than resent it, sir. I'm absolutely incensed.'

'You have deep-seated survival anxieties. And you don't like bigots, bullies, snobs or hypocrites. Subconsciously there are many people you hate.'

'Consciously, sir, consciously,' Yossarian corrected in an effort to help. 'I hate them consciously.'

'You're antagonistic to the idea of being robbed, exploited, degraded, humiliated or deceived. Misery depresses you. Ignorance depresses you. Persecution depresses you. Violence depresses you. Slums depress you. Greed depresses you. Crime depresses you. Corruption depresses you. You know, it wouldn't surprise me if you're a manic-depressive!'

'Yes, sir. Perhaps I am.'

'Don't try to deny it.'                
— Joseph Heller, Catch-22

On January 23rd, 2020 - in what now seems like a prophetic forecast for the distressing year to come - the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists announced to the world that it was “100 Seconds to midnight”:

“It is 100 seconds to midnight. We are now expressing how close the world is to catastrophe in seconds – not hours, or even minutes. It is the closest to Doomsday we have ever been in the history of the Doomsday Clock. We now face a true emergency – an absolutely unacceptable state of world affairs that has eliminated any margin for error or further delay.”

Citing nuclear proliferation, climate change, and “cyber-based disinformation” as specific immediate threats, the assembly pleaded with the world: “Now is the time to come together – to unite and to act.”

Since then, you may have woken up every morning feeling like the “manic-depressive” Yossarian, simultaneously depressed and antagonized; desiring nothing more than to be locked away in a sensory deprivation tank in a vain attempt to avoid metastasizing anxiety. It’s the sensation of being the only passenger to cry out that the plane is on fire while being reassured that, actually, the flames are good for you, but instead of a plane it’s the entire planet.

Our roles as educators hold so much power and promise. Before the pandemic, the classroom was a place of solace and connectedness to the best of us: our kids. This year, however, teachers have been alienated even from that work. Our individual influence may help slow the countdown to midnight and contribute mere milliseconds to its reversal, yet 2020 has heightened the sense that school systems are role-playing normalcy and functionality in an ever abnormal and dysfunctional environment. It’s never been enough to “prepare every learner for a lifetime of personal success”, but a pedagogy of normalcy seems particularly maladaptive for the challenges our students will face. What is it about the world that is worth preparing students for, and are we dedicated to the work of building that better world alongside them?

Urgent problems - like climate change - require not just immediate, widespread, and collective action but also a recalibration of our educational values and the measures of achievement that normally define personal and institutional success. Holding teachers and students “accountable” to the educational outcomes created by the same systems that have reproduced dysfunction and inequity elsewhere  - through massively racialized and inequitable economic outcomes, a mental health and suicide epidemic among young people, an opioid crisis, gun violence, police violence, democratic backsliding, etc.  - is nonsensical. It’s not enough to innovate within a system, to find ways of doing bad things better. Rather than demand young people spend their youth waiting around for the moment they become fully realized human beings, a humane education is one whose organizing principle is the innate capacity of students to be critical, empathetic agents in their communities and on the global stage.

So what does a humane education look like and how do we realize this in our individual contexts?

Cultivating purpose-driven classrooms through experiential learning & community connection

Research supports what teachers intuitively understand: that students ask fewer questions the longer they remain in school and engagement steadily declines over time. At the same time, rates of depression and anxiety have steadily increased to become among the most diagnosed mental health disorders in children. Kids who feel isolated from school and their community frequently drop out turn to self-harm and self-medication through alcohol and drugs.

Purpose-finding, on the other hand, has been linked to prosocial outcomes and healthier lifestyles, and is inherently tied to positive identity and self-worth. By directly participating in building a better society and reflecting on the experience, students are gaining valuable insight to the world around them. When students connect to the community, they build lasting relationships that improve the social capital of all involved.

Understanding social justice as a key to educational equity means demanding inclusion and employing critical pedagogy.

Inclusive classrooms are more than a legal obligation. Inclusion means instruction and assessment are created with a universal design in mind, one that preferably draws from perspectives and ways of understanding beyond white, middle-class heteronormative perspectives and supports students in varied means of acting on and expressing their learning. Critical pedagogy gives us the lens to examine who has access and power, whose stories are represented, and, in the words of Tara Yosso, “whose culture has capital?”

Remove dehumanizing practices like grades.

You may not be able to get rid of grades entirely, but if we desire to shift from a language of grading to a language of learning in a feedback-driven classroom, diminishing the salience of grades and grading is necessary. Assigning a grade instead of purely focusing on feedback leads to decreased motivation and understanding, lower academic achievement, and increased rates of cheating. If you must assign a grade, that should be a process done with students, gathering and reflecting on their work as evidence of mastery. If we stop rank-and-filing students, who cares who “knows more” on the test, what are students going to do with it? How is the world a better place because you’re acting in it, and how can you make it better for someone else?

Respecting each other’s innate human worth by encouraging collaboration over competition.

When we ignore the dehumanizing systems that make education all about the individual, leave others behind, reward competition, and stream past complex, inclusive conversations, it’s no wonder that the society-at-large reflects these norms. The system produces generations who, without revolting against the system itself, are expected to fight against others to “get ahead”, “keep up” with society, and leave all others behind. This has manifested itself in our economics, our inequities, our culture, and our government.

“It is 100 seconds to midnight.”

An individual teacher can have a lasting impact on their students, but this is marginal in comparison to the collective impact of tens of thousands of teachers in thousands of classrooms. And, to be honest, many of these individual teachers are burnt-out and tired of going against the fold to provide a purposeful education for their students. The conversation must switch from burning out caring, empathetic individuals - the Yossarians of the world - to changing systems and structures that will have an impact on all young people. This conversation in education finds itself nested inside other necessary social movements for change: from climate change, to Black Lives Matter and police and prison reform, even to the very nature and impact of capitalism itself. It’s not that there are not individual actors doing great things, but that the system itself is destined to fail - and fail those within it - based on the values it seeks to uphold and the policies used to achieve those ends.

What if we changed the conversation from individual, great teachers to a system that was, in-it-of-itself, great for students? What would it look like? In a teacher-powered school, we have the power to recreate systems, transform the conversation, and restore humanity to education.

An image of a white man with a black goatee and glasses.
Nick Covington
Nick taught social studies for 10 years in Iowa and has worked as a labor organizer. He is currently the Creative Director at the Human Restoration Project.
An image of a white man with a black goatee and glasses.
Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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