My Thoughts on “Talks Between Teachers”

The other day I stumbled on a great piece in the New Yorker about the sociologist Howard Becker. What intrigued me about the piece was Becker’s view on how “worlds”are created. Worlds in this sense is really how people come to understand who they are and the roles that they create around that collective understanding. Becker has studied many different “worlds”and his work is fascinating, but what really captured me was how the “Beckerian world” could be applied to thinking about school.  Oddly enough, as I researched a bit more about Becker I found a piece of his titled “Talks Between Teachers.”

This article stood out to me because it laid bare the anxieties many of us face as teachers, but never really talk about. Also, I was struck by the simplicity of Becker’s advice and how pertinent it is to creating the classroom “world.”

Some key points that I took away from this piece were:

  1. Develop a spirit in the class that creates an environment where students want to help each other and do not expect the teacher to do all of the work. In other words, support students in being self sufficient. I think the key here is the idea of supporting a classroom rather than taking complete control. By letting the students have autonomy and responsibility, the classroom becomes a place of shared learning, rather than a passive environment of information absorption. As Becker says, “The thing to work for is developing a kind of group spirit in the class, so that they help each other and teach each other. You mainly do that just by expecting them to and by not doing too much of the work yourself.”
  2. If we want to develop students that are confident, independent critical thinkers then we need to create a classroom environment that fosters that. We can not expect students to take charge of their learning, if school simply trains them to sit back and passively take in information.  As Becker says, “The thing to remember is that whatever you do in class is a form of training the students in what you want them to do in class, so be sure you teach them to do the right things.”
  3. Related to points one and two, as teachers we need to give up control. In the article Hecht makes the point that we need to (but struggle to), “give up all those things we are trained to think we should do in front of people: control them and express ourselves in the usual ways.” If we think of school as a “world” that is created by the actors in it, we quickly see that our view of school is very much based on the way we were schooled. As well, students view school the way they do (ie. sit back, take notes, pass test, move on) because that is what they have been trained to think that school is. In this case, while difficult, a new “world”needs to be created in which both students and teachers rethink (or recreate) their roles. By letting go of the idea that a teacher is a person who stands in front of a crowd, controls them and delivers information to them the whole “world”of school can be changed. To me, it seems the difficulty in doing this is both in the letting go of control (never easy) and also in the creating of something new, of which we don’t necessarily have a model to base our conduct off of.
  4. Related to point three, by giving up control we also remove a lot of the discipline that generally runs the classroom environment. In taking on a new role as guide/supporter we no longer have to “bend”students to our will, because the class is collectively pursuing learning with autonomy. Along those lines, the worry of “whether you were satisfying all the students or teaching them all something useful or doing a good job for all of them” can be dropped because this simply “puts all the responsibility on your shoulders.” I really liked Becker’s point that the responsibility does not solely lie there because we need to expect each student to be responsible for their learning. While assignments, tests and homeworks may make students jump through the appropriate hoops, it does not make students learn. I found Becker’s approach very Zen when he said,”I always figure that I’ll do my best, not try to persuade people who don’t want to learn, for whatever reason, what I could possibly teach them, help the ones who want to learn something in whatever way I can, and be glad if anything comes of it at all.”

The full “article” (which is really an email exchange between Becker and Hecht) is definitely worth a read. In short, the main take away for me was the idea that the classroom is a world that we create with our expectations and that overall we are often far too controlling as teachers. This dynamic could be changed by getting students “out and doing stuff,” while also making them partners (rather than subjects) in their education.