I was having a chat with my wife last night about our mutual experiences moving from secondary education into working as tutors and lecturers in higher ed as both of us complete PhDs. Felicity has a couple of years on me, being nearly finished with hers while I’m just beginning to dip my toes into the water. Her experiences played a big part in me finally deciding to take a break from the secondary classroom; she told me I’d spend a lot of time grieving the loss of the kids (I know – probably not the sort of thing a burned out teacher says… but we both loved teaching in schools and were very far off being burned out).
During our conversation, I asked Felicity: what had surprised her most about trying to establish herself as a higher educator?
“What surprises me is the fact that, in doing the best job possible, I’m no longer a threat to anyone. There are plenty of senior lecturers and professors with more years of experience, publications and knowledge of the research than I may ever have. Any of them could easily cut me down if they wanted. But somehow, in the three years I’ve worked at uni, nobody ever has. People just value who I am, what I have to say and what I do.”
This really got me thinking about the analogy of the academic sitting grandly in the “ivory tower,” far removed from the realities of the primary/secondary classroom teacher. It’s funny that academics are often criticised for their apparent lack of understanding – and I’ve often wondered if that’s really a fair assessment.
My own experiences in schools isn’t entirely dissimilar to Felicity’s. Being keen, saying yes to great initiatives, working in teams to solve problems and collaborate, sharing who I am transparently with people – all of these things matter so much to good teachers and are important to the future of education. Any Google search reveals that there are brilliant teachers out there who willingly share ideas, resources, solutions and important questions with the world; their transparency and generosity speaks volumes about their professionalism. So when does that become a threat? For whom?
I think the answer to these questions has a lot to do with power and the simple paradox that while true education is empowerment of the individual, it should never really be about power, at least not the kind of power that corrupts. The real power can and should be in the knowledge, understanding and openness that we foster as teachers – in getting our students to become the people they want to be.
In being well-educated, each of us has enormous power in the world. We have, for example, privilege over those in developing countries simply by virtue of being born where we are. As teachers in Australia, we’re a part of the global minority, the 6.7% of the world’s population with a university degree. The perspectives on the world that we acquire through our education is an enormous part of the privilege we enjoy.
So if we use our education to assert control over others, for our own political gain or otherwise, we’re abusing the power we have. Fortunately, the academics with whom I’m very lucky to work try extremely hard to be the best teachers they can be, knowing that they’re helping more people to gain a university education and become empowered. Fortunately, the vast majority of primary and secondary teachers with whom I’ve worked try extremely hard to empower the minds of young people and help them move towards the next stage in their lives.
So for all the BS that goes on anywhere – the rhetoric, power-play, cards held close to the chest or cutting down – it doesn’t seem like there are any ivory towers anywhere near me. What a wonderful thing.