Dr. Judith M. Newman



(Preface to TENSIONS OF TEACHING, 1998, Canadian Scholars' Press)

Judith M. Newman, Ph.D.

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 with educators.

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 launch.

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 our practice.

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 what?"

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 teaching.

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.

Judith Newman
Halifax, NS

November, 1997

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 Educational Books.

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 York Press.

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: OISE Press.

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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