TL;DR version: good pedagogy is emancipatory and empathetic. Thanks for letting me be your teacher.
We’re done with readings. We’re moving on to presentations. I always feel like the end of the class is the part that I fail at most–that I want to say something that is meaningful but not overwrought, to thank my class for their time and try to summarize how much I value the experience of being their teacher without coming off like an over-emotive weirdo.
The night that we discussed failures–one of my favorite discussions that we had in this class–and I rode home reading from Helen MacDonald’s excellent memoir H is for Hawk, which spends a lot of time discussing T.H. White and his relationship to teaching. And falconry. And his sexuality. And a lot of things. But coming home from our discussion about how we can nurture positive ideas failure in our class, I was hit with this:
White had escaped school by running to the woods, but he’d rented a cottage on the old road to its door. He’s gained freedom by changing his life, but he’d not escaped the concept of freedom that school had given him. At school you move up from year to year, gaining more power and privilege until you finally leave. It was this notion of freedom–as the natural end to an ordeal-filled education–that never left White, and it was working within him when he lengthened Gos’s [his goshawk’s] leash with breakable twine. As a schoolboy he knew that the boys over whom he had authority would one day have authority over themselves. And as a schoolmaster, too. And a falconer. Deep down he knew he was always training his charges for a time when they would be free.
Out of context, this quote doesn’t convey how very constrained this hierarchical sort of freedom is–that it is available to a particular type of ruling class and rests not only upon personal autonomy but dominion over other people, animals, and landscapes–and is maintained by force and ritualized ordeals of belonging. White himself was devastated by the brutality enacted upon him, and uneasy with wielding this power over his pupils–and his bird. But he was never free of it.
In current times, we’ve come to the era of “zero tolerance” and “no excuses.” We are asked to disregard the playing field without attempting to level it. So the next day when this article, “Why Are Americans So Inclined to Disrespect Students” popped up in my feed several times over, I stopped and paid attention. The author brings up the idea of “pedagogies of kindness and respect.” What would that look like? What would it feel like? Is it a move away from the stark, derisive, and racially-charged political focus we now have on “success” and “failure” (the bad, shaming kind) and towards understanding, empathy, and freedom? I hope we find out.