The Ground Tipper - National Council of Teachers of English
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The Ground Tipper

This blog post is written by NCTE member Sue Kenney. 

Sue grading papers while cooking [“While we don’t recommend this method, we appreciate the dedication.”]
“People wish to be settled—only so far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson (from The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Modern Library Classics)

When I was in the sixth grade at Our Lady of Mercy grammar school, our principal hired the school’s first male teacher in its history—Mr. Joseph Pandolfi. We’d had lay teachers before; the once inexhaustible population of nuns was starting to wane. All nonclergy teachers were women, usually from the neighborhoods where we lived. Our most exotic instructor up to this point was Mrs. Gaffney, who was from New Orleans and always wore her hair in a French twist. At recess, we tried to emulate her strong southern accent, luxuriating on our a’s and twanging our words like so many out of tune guitars.

On the first day of school, my classmates and I lined up tentatively in the playground, waiting for the bell to signal summer’s official close. We yanked up our navy blue knee-highs and whispered nervously to each other. We could see the new teacher in his brown tweed jacket and rumpled green tie, chatting with Sister Anna. My friend Patrice made jokes about Mr. Pandolfi’s short curly hair, and we collectively prayed that we didn’t get him. When life follows a predictable pattern, a certain level of comfort develops. Expectations are low. Anything that disrupts the pattern becomes, well, unsettling.

And it was. Having Joseph Pandolfi for a teacher was the most disruptive, unsettling, frustrating, demanding, exhilarating, and challenging educational experience we had known thus far. It was also the most gratifying. When we parroted back to him the standard answers from our religious text, he asked, “How do you know?” When we gave him dates and battle locations from the American Revolution and the Civil War, he said, “That’s nice. But why did these things happen? How were families like yours affected?” We couldn’t answer. We could only sit there and ponder. We started out that school year feeling cheated, thinking that Mr. Pandolfi was playing a dirty trick on us. He was asking us questions that seemed unfair, as they had no “set” answers, just when we thought we had reached a point in our young lives when we finally got it. It was an uncomfortable feeling, like the ground beneath us was sliding sideways. I can remember snapping at him one day in a most accusatory tone, “We were all happy Catholics until you came along.”

And we were. But there is the happiness of static familiarity, and there is the happiness of dynamic discovery. We intuited that the expansion of the self and the expansion of the universe are not only interconnected but mutually dependent. We began to question everything—why certain groups of people were treated unfairly, why there were so many poor throughout the world, why our sense of reality seemed different than we sometimes perceive it to be. Troubling, yes. Unsettling, definitely. But we ended that school year knowing that we had actually learned. We learned that sometimes there is no “right” answer, that certain problems are complex and need to be analyzed at length. We had discerned for the first time what we thought and felt about the world around us. We had learned to think for ourselves, and it was wonderfully empowering.

That year with Mr. Pandolfi taught me to recognize “settling in” as a dangerous thing. We settle into jobs, relationships, ideas, biases, and prescripted roles that may be comfortable but are not necessarily our own. It is only through questioning our assumed realities that we truly begin to learn. When we stretch our muscles, they become sore but better conditioned. The same holds true for our minds. If we allow education to wash over us as we sit passively in our chairs, the outcome may be adequate—but barely. It is only when the ground tips beneath our feet, causing us to scramble, to dodge, to cling, and to let go that our minds become more agile. Worlds open to us, galaxies collide, and hope rises from the rubble.

Sue Kenney with former student, Maria Economou
Sue Kenney with former student, Maria Economou

Now I find myself in the position of the ground tipper. I am the one who vigorously shakes the snow globes of my students’ lives. Like Mr. Pandolfi, I want my students to question, to seek, and to challenge the universe that has been presented to them. I want them to maneuver thoughtfully through culture; to negotiate, to dance, to leapfrog if they have to in order to live purposeful, deliberate lives. I want them to do anything but settle. There is a certain predilection we have toward the comfortable, the familiar, and the normative. It is easier to rest than to struggle, simpler to accept than to question. My job as an educator is not to encourage blind acquiescence to the world as we know it, but to create a sort of ordered chaos—one that upheaves the roots of passive thought and foments new and critical intellectualism.

Sue Kenney is a language arts teacher at Immaculate Heart Academy in the Township of Washington, NJ.  She has a doctorate in interdisciplinary humanities from Drew University, and she is an immigrants’ rights activist.