I began my academic career in 1976 at Dalhousie University. As the only
"literacy" person on faculty, I needed to search for colleagues
among people with other theoretical and professional interests. That turned
out to be fortuitous. These colleagues introduced me to a whole new world
of political questions. Ruth Gamberg, a Marxist sociologist, Edgar Friedenberg,
a social critic, Doug Myers, a political historian, all pushed me to examine
critically my role as a teacher educator.
I recall one particularly fractious meeting shortly after I joined that
education department during which Friedenberg self-righteously described
himself as "sitting on the shore recording the sinking of the Titanic."
I immediately thought to myself, "I own a dory; perhaps I can rescue
some survivors." Notice I didn't dispute Freidenberg's analysis of
education as a foundering institution, only his passive role as critic.
In spite of his pessimism about education and his contention that the
sinking of the enterprise was inevitable, I believed it was possible to
institute change and that as teacher educators we had a responsibility
to try. That realization marked the beginning of my political activism
I began by challenging the assumptions of the classroom teachers
taking my courses. I set them tasks that encouraged them
to see their students in new ways. It wasn't long before
a number of teachers were asking me questions about implementing
new literacy curriculum initiatives. Luckily, I didn't have
extensive classroom experience with young children learning
to read so I was unable to offer any prescriptions. Instead,
I invited the teachers to meet with me as a group—the first
of a number of teacher study groups that subsequently I helped
The study group served a number of purposes. It afforded a safe haven
in which the teachers could reveal their insecurities, where they could
share tentative instructional ideas with one another, where they could
critique one another's professional practice. The conversation often veered
to "nifty tips;" my role was to challenge the teachers' complacency,
to push them to ground their instruction within a theoretical framework.
The teachers' prime concern was what they were going to do in the classroom;
I was insisting that they reflect on why they chose certain activities
over others and how those choices affected their students. All of us,
I believed, needed continually to rethink our assumptions and re-examine
I understood from the outset that we were challenging the status quo,
that we were engaged in a political activity that could leave the teachers
vulnerable, that we had to work together and put what we were doing into
writing in order to legitimize it professionally. As it turned out we
didn't begin by writing. We started by holding a series of annual summer
institutes for other local teachers. For three years the core study group
planned and delivered experiences for colleagues based on what they themselves
had been learning about literacy learning and instruction. The members
of this first study group also became involved in the local reading association
and began offering inservices around the province. As a collective we
worked hard to help other teachers examine literacy instruction.
But there was a naiveté to all of our efforts. We thought that
if we told people about an alternate view of literacy learning and instruction,
showed them examples of what children could do, literacy instruction in
the province would suddenly change. Not so. As Susan Church (1996) writes
As I reflected on my own leadership role, I recognized that I had not
invited dialogue within the context of staff development experiences.
There were few opportunities for teachers to question why they were
being asked to change when they believed they were already doing a competent
job. In working with the teachers, I had been guilty of perpetuating
practices that controlled and silenced teachers—at the very same time
that I was promoting the development of student voice, choice and self-direction
within their classrooms. Ironically, the top-down effort to institutionalize
whole language, and thus liberate students from the shackles of traditional
teacher-directed instruction, resulted in many teachers feeling disempowered,
angry and anything but liberated (p.25).
Some teachers thought differently about what they were doing in their
classrooms; most, however, felt pressured to adopt a few new literacy
activities but they did so without changing their underlying beliefs.
Our first foray into writing was a collaborative effort—Whole Language: Theory in Use (Newman, 1985). The anthology
consisted of narrative accounts of classroom experiences.
The teachers were attempting to 'show,' not 'tell,' about
student-centered language instruction. The subtitle was chosen
to signal that we were writing about more than language instruction
activities. We chose the words 'theory in use' intentionally
to alert readers to the need for theoretically grounded practice.
No one noticed the connection.
Reading through the anthology a decade later I can see the political
character of each teacher's writing. Issues of power and control,
of gender, of the impact of labeling students, although not
spelled out explicitly, are certainly evident in these articles.
But the education community received the book as a collection
of 'how-to' pieces. In spite of my efforts to help educators
grasp that our inquiry into literacy learning goes far beyond
reading and writing to a need to articulate beliefs about
teaching and learning, the political nature of the enterprise
was missed completely.
I continued exploring, and helping teachers explore, the
political agenda of language and literacy instruction. A few
years later with a graduate class at Mount Saint Vincent University
I once again had an opportunity to engage teachers in writing.
The specific course dealt with writing; my focus—to help the
teachers explore writing by becoming writers themselves. The
course examined conflicting theories of writing as well as
the research on writing development and instruction. We paid
particular attention to reading/writing relationships. We
also explored various writing strategies by engaging in numerous
writing activities. I didn't know we had a publishable work
until I'd compiled the teachers articles at the end of the
course; then it was certainly evident we had a book.
Finding Our Own Way (Newman, 1987) went a bit further
than Whole Language: Theory in Use had done. The teacher's
narratives were more overtly about the tensions of teaching.
Some of them were accounts based on experiences long past;
others were more recent. In all of them the teachers took
a reflective look at some problematic aspect of their teaching.
They looked at making the shift from traditional transmission
classrooms to open learner-directed environments. They explored
the relationship between learning and teaching, examined assumptions
underlying instructional decisions, discovering that every
teaching act, every decision is based on a what are often
contradictory beliefs. They delved into the conflicting messages
they send students and wrote about the impact of attempting
to change their assumptions. They took risks as they considered
what's involved in learning from students.
Again, the political nature of these inquiries wasn't explicitly spelled
out. In large measure, that was because I hadn't shaped the class discussion
adequately. While we read widely in the research literature on writing
and writing instruction, I failed to include articles, chapters, and books
by critical theorists such as Stanley Aronowitz (Aronowitz & Giroux,
1985) Michael Apple (1990), Stephen Ball (1990), Maxine Greene (1978),
Henry Giroux (1981, 1989), and Roger Simon (1992). Although I was familiar
with the writing and arguments of these authors, I hadn't yet figured
out how to include them in the class conversation. We were so busy reading
material intended to help the teachers question their assumptions about
writing and writing instruction, and exploring our own writing, that I
had difficulty introducing any critical analysis of education which would
have helped the teachers name and situate the issues which were the basis
of their emerging narratives. An astute reader might detect in these pieces
the seeds of a political critique by classroom teachers. Unfortunately,
most readers don't perceive the subtext.
My next attempt to examine the tensions of teaching appeared in a
narrative account of my own teaching. Interwoven Conversations:
Learning and Teaching Through Critical Reflection (Newman,
1991) was a reflective look at my own practice. I used the
story of a two week summer institute to raise questions about
inquiry into one's own practice and to examine the theoretical
underpinnings of my own professional work. I was attempting
to make more explicit for myself and for readers the political
agenda of teaching. Using critical incidents from my own teaching
and from the teachers who participated in the institute I
ventured to show reflection-in-action and to examine the tensions
which affect what and how I teach.
Interwoven Conversations was followed by an anthology
of poetry by teachers—In Our Own Words: Poems by Teachers
(Newman, 1993). I had been using poetry for a number of
years as a reflective tool. I had accumulated a substantial
collection of poems written by teachers; many of them about
the tensions of teaching, about the constraints of classroom
life. I sorted through what I had and compiled the book.
Then I moved from Mount Saint Vincent University to the University of
Manitoba as Dean of the Faculty of Education. The political constraints
I found myself dealing with were no longer covert. Suddenly every working
moment I was confronted with the politics of education, both at the university
and in public schools.
I began a new graduate course—Action Research: Educating
as Inquiry. The first year I successfully built a working
collaborative. I was better at helping the teachers name and
explore the political issues they were confronting in their
practice but I was unsuccessful at helping them bring their
writing to closure.
The following year I was better organized. The participants (elementary,
junior high, and senior high teachers, a program assistant, a principal,
a curriculum supervisor, and a music teacher) began with inquiries into
their professional practice. "Start with a critical incident—an experience
as a learner or teacher that stands out for you, something that's caught
your attention this week or last, and see where it gets you." I was
asking these educators to capture some moments from the ongoing activity
to discover what they might learn from them.
As individual inquiries began taking shape I suggested readings to help
the participants identify emerging issues and to think about their professional
practice in a more overtly political way. Through their inquiries they
learned to notice critical incidents and record them, they struggled for
connections, they read to discover how others made sense of experience,
they found new ways of naming and interpreting their own experience. As
writers they had to push beyond their concerns for fluency to struggle
with clarity in their writing. They had to learn how to write personal
narratives which showed, instead of told, about their experiences. They
had to discover how to help one another make sense of their inquiries.
They had to find ways of answering the question all readers ask, "So
An important aspect of the learning that occurred during the writing
of these pieces was the discovery that teaching and learning are always
a journey. The educators learned a great deal about the political nature
of teaching. Each critical incident opened unexpected doors on issues
that face teachers everyday. They discovered that every action, every
decision, in a classroom carries with it the potential both to support
and to interfere with a student's learning. They discovered how their
decisions make them vulnerable and fearful. They learned, as they explored,
how teaching is fraught with tensions. The action research, and the writing
which brings it to fruition, allowed them to put names to those tensions,
to understand better the constraints under which they work.
The product of their venture into action research is this anthology of
pieces detailing some aspect of their experiences as practitioners and
learners. In addition to the pieces written by the participants of the
1994-95 action research course, I have included two pieces from the Summer
Institute for Teachers at Simon Fraser University where I taught in 1994,
as well as four pieces from my last writing course at Mount Saint Vincent
in 1992-93. I elected to include these pieces in this compilation because
they deal explicitly with the tensions of teaching and I felt they deserved
a wider audience than the limited one our class publication afforded.
TENSIONS OF TEACHING, then, is the culmination of inquiries
into our own practice. In it, the practitioners reflect on
issues which their various critical incidents raise for their
professional practice. They have pushed themselves beyond
an immediate concern for 'tips' to an exploration of the tensions
which arise from the communal life of classrooms and schools.
They grapple with constraints which impact from outside and
they examine the political ramifications of inaction and a
reliance on others for making classroom decisions. They have
all come to understand that there are no simple solutions
to the problems educators face. Each practitioner must him
or herself confront the complexity of the endeavor we call
Twenty years ago I recognized that as a teacher educator I had a dual
responsibility—not only to help educators critique schools and schooling,
but also to provide leadership and support for their efforts to change
themselves. For twenty years I have worked to keep my dory afloat. Every
year I have collected a crew of educators willing to sail hazardous seas.
Together we have gone fishing, keeping eyes peeled for icebergs and other
unexpected dangers, we have returned safely with our catch. With each
voyage I have become more experienced at sailing and fishing.
Long ago I realized I wasn't likely to change the institution of
schools, but I believed I might be able to help others think
about their professional activity in new ways. I have kept
my dory seaworthy and done what I could to help public school
educators identify and understand the tensions and constraints
which impact on them. We offer TENSIONS OF TEACHING
in the hope that others are able, through our insights, to
see and understand their own experiences differently.
Aronowitz, Stanley & Henry Giroux 1985 Education
Under Siege: The Conservative, Liberal, and Radical Debate
Over Schooling. Westport, Conn: Bergin & Garvey.
Apple, Michael 1990 Ideology and Curriculum.
2nd ed. London; Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Ball, Stephen 1990 Politics and Policy Making
in Education: Explorations in Policy Sociology. London;
New York: Routledge.
Church, Susan 1996 The Future of Whole Language:
Reconstruction or Self-destruction? Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann
Giroux, Henry 1981 Ideology, Culture And the Process
of Schooling. London: Falmer.
Giroux, Henry 1989 Critical Pedagogy, the State,
and Cultural Struggle. Albany: State University of New
Greene, Maxine 1978 Landscapes of Learning.
New York: Teachers College Press.
Newman, Judith M. (Ed.) 1985 Whole Language: Theory
in Use. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Educational Books.
Newman, Judith M. (Ed.) 1987 Finding Our Own Way:
Teachers Examining Their Assumptions. Portsmouth, NH:
Heinemann Educational Books.
Newman, Judith M. 1991 Interwoven Conversations:
Learning and Teaching Through Critical Reflection. Toronto:
Newman, Judith M. (Ed.) 1993 In Our Own Words:
Poems by Teachers. Halifax, NS: Braeside Books.
Simon, Roger 1992 Teaching Against the Grain:
Texts for a Pedagogy of Possibility. Toronto: OISE Press.
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