From the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship
This post was written by NCTE member Michael Seward, a member of the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship.
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”— Lilla Watson
As a committee member and a teacher, I have been pondering the notion of helping as framed by Lilla Watson, an indigenous academic, artist, and activist from Australia. Teaching is, after all, a helping profession, right?
Early in my career, I wanted to be the kind of teacher that created safe spaces, classrooms that were accepting and supportive. Even though, as a cis, white, middle-class man, I did not question the field of English, I did strive (being liberal and queer) to open the canon to voices of those historically excluded: people of color, immigrants, those with limited access, queers. I embraced multiculturalism, adding The Color Purple, The Grass Dancer, The Joy Luck Club, The House on Mango Street, and Stone Butch Blues to my reading lists. With the diversity box checked for my materials, I taught composition, creative writing, and literature with an unexamined confidence that I was “helping” my students.
I was helping them, I believed, by welcoming and celebrating them all and by teaching them English. I was acting out of an uninterrogated belief that most of the content of my English courses was intended to aid students. Who would not benefit from learning how to read, write, and speak “better”? Who did not stand to profit from reading “good” literature?
I designed learning outcomes, assessments, and activities around academic writing, writing as a process, literacy, and critical thinking. For years, I taught using this approach—in a variety of classrooms and locations: as a high school teacher in an affluent suburban district; as a teaching assistant at a large university; as an exchange teacher with eighth and ninth graders in Germany; as an instructor for other educators in courses on teaching methods and curriculum design; as an exchange teacher in literature, language, and American studies at a Slovak university; and, for over 20 years, as an English faculty member at an urban community college.
Questioning the Basic Tenets
Only in that last role did I come to question the basic tenets of teaching English.
Why did my community college—including the English department and my own courses—have persistent equity gaps? The institution made with pride many public claims about the diversity of the student body, yet the college was not serving all its varied students equally well. The multicultural approach of embracing diversity without examining the underlying differences in power, resources, and access among distinct demographics was not enough, it seemed, to transform the lives of a significant number of students from disadvantaged groups. The more I grappled with this inequity, the more I realized that the gaps in student mastery were related to the curriculum itself, not simply to the chosen texts, but to the learning outcomes. Those things that the institution was asking—that I was asking—students to learn and demonstrate were inherently oppressive—because they were forged in the crucible of academia, with its history and culture of racism, sexism, homophobia, and inequity.
My own good intentions were irrelevant. By requiring students to master academic writing and to engage texts selected by academics, I was perpetuating systems of oppression on them. For students from marginalized groups, such an act might mean a re-traumatization.
As a queer person growing up in a deeply homophobic culture, I had known intense fear, shame, and inadequacy; I had come to judge, doubt, and despise myself as a result of being told that I was not good enough, that something about me was wrong and needed to be fixed. Did I wish to instill such painful experiences and emotions in others? How might I alter my approach to address the harm being caused in my classroom?
Of course my life was, because of my myriad advantages, different in profound and relevant ways from the lives of many of my students, who had lived experiences as people of color, indigenous persons, trans persons, working class and impoverished people, immigrants, non-native speakers of English, or persons facing obstacles to access. The nature of the marginalization of my students—and the contexts that led to the harm they experienced—might have been radically different from the exclusion and loathing I knew, yet the resulting sensations of defectiveness, alienation, and grief might be similar.
How might I learn from the suffering I had experienced as a queer person? Could I leverage empathy to promote student learning?
Empathy alone is insufficient. Indeed, empathy without action might only serve to reinforce the status quo. Do not the most powerful feel a profound sense of humanity stir within their bodies when they experience art—a film, a novel, or a painting? In the moment, they are moved; they might even congratulate themselves on their ability to feel so deeply, to relate to others. Yet once they exit the theater, leave the museum, or set down the book, they can return to their privileged lives and to behaviors that perpetuate oppression. In fact, the moment of empathy might serve to reinforce the notion that the powerful are, in fact, the “good guys.”
Isn’t such a strong sense of connection proof of their humanity and the correctness of their ways? The missionary, the colonist, the patriarch, and the teacher—isn’t the empathy of each simply evidence that they are doing good in the world?
Empathy without a subsequent and impactful action shaped by empathetic understanding can be dangerous. If empathy does nothing to change the lived, material conditions of the marginalized, whom does it benefit?
As a teacher, I pondered the actions I might take. How might I embody and enact empathy? Moreover, if empathy can lead to positive change, I wondered, what might be the impact of working with students to develop in all of us the skills and mindsets of empathy and the means of taking empathetic action?
What Do You Teach?
When people learn that I am a teacher, they often ask, “What do you teach?” The frequency with which this question is asked raises for me other questions: Does what I teach matter more than the fact that I teach or how I teach? What is so important about the subject or grade level? The impetus behind the question might be a desire for categorizations: By putting me into a group with known characteristics, perhaps the questioner hopes to begin to understand me, as if something important about a teacher can be gleaned from knowing the subject or level taught. Which characteristics do people apply to different kinds of teachers? If I said I were a math teacher, how might others perceive me? Which assumptions might pertain if I said I taught music? Or that I were a kindergarten teacher? Or a professor of philosophy? Which category of teachers is the friendliest? The cruelest? The most or least conventional? The most or least deserving of respect?
After more than 30 years in the profession and being confronted with the question—”What do you teach?”—I have come to resent the limitations imposed by any answer I might provide. What if I don’t wish to conform to the questioner’s expectations about English teachers? How often have I heard, after saying that I teach English, that the questioner has “never been good at grammar” or that I should not “judge the language” used? Apparently judgmental and frightening are two of the characteristics that many people have for those teachers falling into the category English Teacher. For a while, I responded thus: “I teach human beings.” That response was, I suppose, my attempt to subvert or resist the question, to nudge the questioner into re-examining the importance of what I teach. But that response also seemed a bit snarky. So I have landed on a new response to the question, “What do you teach?”
Now I answer that I do not teach. Many people’s notions of teaching place the teacher and the student into a hierarchical relationship, with the teacher being active and above—the helper—and the student being passive and below—the helped. I no longer wish to help anyone (other than, perhaps, myself). I hope, instead, to learn alongside the human beings in my classes. My hope, now, is for all of us in that classroom to learn what empathetic action looks like for each of us.
I have come to understand my job, as an educator, to be one of setting up environments that maximize the potential for everyone present to learn. And what I believe all of us can learn is how to move in the world in a manner that is gentle and compassionate.
People’s reaction to hearing that I teach English—the quick, nasal inhalation and the wide eyes, accompanied by a gasping, “Don’t judge me!”—should, I suppose, have been an indicator all along that something was amiss. Clearly, many former students understand that the teaching of English involves rigid judgments and inflexible standards. Was my reluctance to be contained by people’s classifications for English teachers related to my own suspicions that my chosen field was . . . troublesome at the very least, if not outright oppressive?
The Tension between Two Truths
Thirty years of teaching in multiple settings and levels have laid bare for me the ways that English instruction has been used to subjugate, to perpetuate global systems of racism and white supremacy. I have come to realize that, despite any noble intentions I might have had, my role as an English teacher has been harmful and damaging. If one truth of a career that has spanned decades and traversed continents is that I have fostered insight, understanding, connection, and relationships, then an equal truth is that by enforcing notions of a preferred and endorsed language and types of literature, I have contributed to a global system that funnels power and wealth in one direction: from the marginalized and colonized to the already enriched, privileged, and powerful. At this late point in my teaching career, I can only acknowledge and operate in the tension between these two truths.
Yet I am interested in figuring out how to maximize the former and to minimize the latter. My aim is not to salvage the teaching of English (which might very well be an irredeemable endeavor). Rather, my goal is to uncover a means by which those of us engaged in this problematic effort can best leverage our positions to increase the positive impact of our labor while decreasing the degree to which we perpetuate the profound damage caused by global systems of oppression that privilege one way of knowing and speaking while denigrating others.
When I tell people that my job is to learn empathy and compassion, the responses vary—unlike the nearly universally fearful responses to the statement that I teach English. Some people smile, nod enthusiastically, or remark that the world could use more empathy and compassion. Other people scrunch their brows and look at me askance. “What subject is that?” ask some—as if the learning of empathy and compassion in and of itself could not be justified without a corresponding sanctioned “subject.” A colleague of mine (from an English department) stated that “empathy is a feeling and cannot be learned.” An administrator, concerned that I might not be doing my job, prodded me, “Well, yes, that’s nice, but you teach English, too, right?” Once, a person asked me, “Why do you get paid if you don’t do any teaching?” In any case, this new response of mine to the question, “What do you teach?” has, unlike the simple answer, “English,” functioned as a springboard into vibrant conversations about what empathy and compassion look like or about what the role of teaching is and should be. Instead of fearing me, people engage me in ideas.
I have needed 30 years in the classroom to gain the courage to start such conversations, to give myself permission to stake the claim that, indeed, as I enter the final years of my teaching career, more than anything else, I want to move in a space that emphasizes empathy and compassion. I want to interact with others who are interested in this endeavor, to explore the ways we might do so, to articulate the limits of our doing so, to examine how our hopes to be kinder and gentler might themselves be dangerous (and shaped in the crucible of racism and oppression that has charred so much of the world).
I no longer wish to help my students. I no longer wish to teach them. I wish to learn.
Michael Seward has taught a variety of subjects at various levels. He has been involved in global education and has worked as an Assessment Coordinator, an accreditation peer reviewer, and a consultant on assessment and equity. Currently he teaches English at Minneapolis College.
The Standing Committee on Global Citizenship works to identify and address issues of broad concern to NCTE members interested in promoting global citizenship and connections across global contexts within the Council and within members’ teaching contexts.
It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.