The bonds that exist between educators and families in small towns are unmatched in larger metropolitan cities. The tenures are more stable and a faculty’s community connections are as deep as family ties . It was 1983. Mrs. Doyle watched us file into her classroom as she clutched a handful of worksheets behind her back. She stood squarely at top of the stairs looking down on us over her horn-rimmed glasses which typically hung from a beaded lanyard around her neck. In her right hand was her yardstick. It was not the regular yardstick that my mother used to measure fabric when she was making a dress from a pattern. Mrs. Doyle’s yardstick had more girth and its function was not for measuring. While she never used it as a teaching manipulative for mathematics, it was used to increase student engagement and participation. It was her scepter. It was thy rod and thy staff that did not comfort us in any shape or fashion, but only offered chastisement, binding and casting out the spirit of disobedience when it settled amongst us. She was an older African-American woman with small moles underneath her eyes like my grandparents. Mrs. Doyle was more like a grandmother to us than a teacher.
She’d taught many of our parents, so there was no room for any of us to “run home to tell on the teacher” in those days. Our parents knew how Mrs. Doyle ran her class and we all understood that there was no one coming to rescue us from her if we didn’t meet her expectations for behavior or academic excellence. She never sent anyone to the office and never paused our instructional time to write a discipline referral. Our days were busy with working on our handwriting, revising verb tenses, and perfecting pronoun usage. We remained with Mrs. Doyle all day and she taught us how I imagined children were taught in the days of the one-room schoolhouse. We were her children while we were there. That meant something. She was an extension of our parents’ and grandparents’ belief in order, structure, and intolerance for foolishness. She was both judge and jury in that portable classroom that sat on a portion of the large playground at Swainsboro Primary School. In that portable though, no games were being played.
I asked my mother, a retired high school teacher, when she saw a shift in students during her teaching career. She said that there came a point during the 1990s when she began to hear of parents who wanted to come to the school in a rage to “fight and curse out” the teachers because of what a student said. It was a change from the respect she’d seen given to teachers during the first part of her career. She began to see a generation of parents whose primary aim was to defend the behavior of the child at all costs rather than allow the child to be held accountable. The teacher’s voice began to fade behind that of the child, the parent, and the district. Teachers were losing their voices.
My brother and I never had the luxury of having our parents come to the school to defend our misbehavior. Jimmie and Marie Mountain made it abundantly clear that they were not our friends. When my mother would say, “That teacher better not call me”, it was not a warning being issued to the teacher or the school. It was a warning for us to “govern ourselves and act accordingly.” We’d been birthed into a school setting that was only a few generations removed from the independent church schools and one-room schoolhouses that littered the south during Reconstruction. My class was all-Black, but my school was racially integrated. If you’d ask me where the children of other races were, I’d have to assume that they were assigned to classrooms inside the building. During those years, I only recall seeing White students during recess, lunch, or during dismissal. The structure of our school was an echo of an unspoken culture in our town that affected every aspect of life including real estate, school bus routes, Sunday worship, and the type of education we received.
“Sit down and be quiet! Mountain, pass out these papers.”
She handed me the papers and they had that damp feel that the worksheets always had when she’d just left the teacher’s lounge. I sniffed the stack and smelled that familiar smell. We never knew what it was, but we liked it. There was nothing quite like a ‘wet stack’ of copies. Nearly everyone sniffed their papers as I went up and down the rows of wooden desks. The smell on those damp papers was from the fluid in the risograph machine which consisted of methanol, a highly toxic chemical used to make antifreeze, and isopropanol, a key ingredient in rubbing alcohol. After everyone got their fix, I handed the remainder of the papers back to Mrs. Doyle and took my seat near the rear of the room. In those days, teachers would create a ‘master copy’ by hand, crafting sentences, drawing blanks, and writing questions that we would have to respond to in complete sentences. She used the risograph to make 30 copies of her hand-crafted activities. We’d be tasked with writing our words as neatly as she’d done on the master copy. If it didn’t meet her standard, you were quickly dispatched back to your seat to make another go at it.
Technology always has a way of being bittersweet in the end. The introduction of the risograph and other types of copy machines in the 80s was no different. The risograph itself was not a problem. The way the risograph would eventually be used became problematic for the profession. The purple pigment on those papers was the new blood being pumped into the teaching profession, gradually transfusing out the creativity and autonomy of teachers. My generation unknowingly witnessed educational euthanasia at the hands of publishers with glossy and colorful teacher editions and workbooks that would in the coming years supplant Mrs. Doyle’s handcrafted lessons with scripts for teachers and worksheets that corresponded with the units she was assigned to teach.
Education at its best is a gumbo where relationships, collaboration, motivational theory, and relevance are among the ingredients, but the artistry of the teacher is the irreplaceable roux.
Those worksheets she created were extensions of Mrs. Doyle’s creativity, duplicated for us all to complete. Later, publishers would supplant even this practice by providing schools with workbooks and worksheets that, by the mid to late 80s, would constitute much of what we did during the school day. Teaching moves in the classes I would join would become increasingly scripted. Planning a lesson was now as easy as preparing a bowl of Jello or a pan of StoveTop stuffing. Little or no planning is required, just add risograph fluid. Publishing companies were performing educational ventriloquism as the unseen hands turning the pages of the teachers’ editions and determining what we’d learn next. America’s teachers are too talented to be limited by the strings of publishing puppeteers. Principals and teachers have to find common ground and fight to ensure the artistry of education is preserved. While some of our teachers resisted this wave of educational ventriloquism, others saw it as a way to save them the time and stress of preparing lessons and further the agenda of absolute standardization.
Creativity in public education has been under assault for decades. The newest incarnations of weapons of mass instruction include the many prescriptive programs that promise to increase scores by assigning specific lessons, Teachers Pay Teachers, and workbooks that promise to prepare scholars to ace the upcoming assessments. None of these new developments are more impactful than the vision and innovation of a committed teacher. They only enhance the pedagogical gifts a teacher brings into the classroom just as a pair of athletic shoes enhance the performance of a gifted athlete on a soccer field. Are teachers losing their voices behind instructional materials? Are they able to hear and see themselves or are they being drowned out by the prepackaged resources they use? Is the profession D.O.A. – Devoid of artistry? Teachers entering the profession must understand that our work is much more than mastering the tips, tricks, and techniques of instruction. It is the wisdom of knowing when to play a note, repeat a note, bask in silence, and stand on a table. The preparation of the ingredients before a lesson is served is as much a part of the artistry of education as is the delivery of the lesson. Pupils are our patrons whose tastes are more inclined toward the eclectic than the efficient. At a moment when we are forced to decide whether schools should be reopened, are we listening to the voice of our teachers? Have we placed our teachers on mute or made them fear for their jobs to the point where they’ve muted themselves from the discussions about reopening schools at the height of a global pandemic? Education at its best is a gumbo where relationships, collaboration, motivational theory, and relevance are among the ingredients, but the artistry of the teacher is the irreplaceable roux.
Soundtrack: Babylon System by Bob Marley