A recent post by Shelly Blake-Plock at TeachPaperless discusses Diane Ravitch’s slamming of the 21st century skills movement. It reminded me about a discussion I had with Will Richardson and the technology director at my school, Rob Mancabelli. We were chatting about whether or not high school teachers share the same elitism that some college professors have. Now, I must admit that it was right before lunch and I was weak from hunger, but I chose to call it “subjectism” instead. Let me provide a definition:
subjectism (n.) – the belief that one’s subject matter is more important than student learning.
I have thought about this frequently because I did not become a high school English teacher (my position before becoming a librarian) out of a love of literature. In fact, I did not read a lot of the literature that was assigned to me in high school and college. I did, however, love working in the Reading and Writing lab helping other students discuss literature and work on writing. This is what led me to teaching high school (after numerous years of exclaiming that I would never, ever do it). While I do think that a lot of teachers enter the profession because they love helping and guiding, I also think that for some folks it comes from a deep love of subject. Unfortunately, sometimes this deep love gets in the way of learning much like a former lover can get in the way of a new relationship.
I was not happy teaching English because I felt like I was forced to put my subject above learning. Why else would 14 year olds be forced to write 3 literary analysis papers and a research paper in 18 weeks? Why else would I be told to drop my personal poetry portfolio, during which a previously reluctant football player read his amazing poem “I’m Gonna Hurt Someone,” for the sake of dragging freshmen through A Tale of Two Cities? I felt as if I were slowly wringing out my students’ love of reading and writing.
Gratefully, our English department has changed. In fact, our leadership in general has begun to focus on teachers as learning experts rather than just subject experts. This is a very difficult transition; I totally get that. However, it is necessary. I realize that many folks feel threatened by letting go of what they love. I felt this way over the summer while co-teaching an Introduction to Graphic Novels to other teachers. I felt like I needed to provide more content in order to earn my pay, gain the respect of my peers , and basically prove that I am knowledgeable. It was so difficult to let go and provide room for the participants to explore and create. However, my co-teacher (and husband) knew it was the right thing to do, and it worked wonderfully.
So here is my challenge to teachers (and myself): fight your own subjectism. Don’t let it get in the way of learning! I know you love your subject, but that love may actually prevent your students from learning. Does that mean we never teach directly and explicitly again? Of course not…that would be silly. Content is still important, but it should not be the main focus. It’s all about the learning, including teachers learning to let go. As Blake-Plock explains, it is not about choosing between teaching skills or teaching content but about teaching both simultaneously. We must be subject experts in order to guide inquiry and give students a voice in the classroom. I would argue that you need even more subject expertise than one would need in a more traditional classroom. Don’t let go of that love because it will inspire your students. Just don’t let it blind you to what your students can contribute. Then breathe…ahhhh!
Have you fallen victim to your own subjectism? Do you believe that too much love for a subject can get in the way of learning? Let me know what you think!