One of the best parts about my career shift from the academy to elementary (middle-level, specifically) education is the level of support and enthusiasm offered when educators get together to discuss how to be better at what we do. When I visited another independent school last year on a fact-finding mission, the faculty and administration were genuinely kind and were open books in discussing how they designed and instantiated their curriculum. When I presented at NCSS in the fall of 2018, the room to which I presented was sympathetic (and packed!). It was encouraging. It was also a big surprise to me.
When I attended philosophy conferences between 2003 and 2013, and I think I probably attended ten or twelve in that time period, the vibe was different. I presented two or three times, organized a few conferences, attended national and regional conferences – the works. I loved conferences, and I still do. I loved that for a few days at a time, philosophy was all there was. Even though I spent six or seven years straight during which my entire job was focused on philosophy in one for or another, conferences were special.
However – and this will come as no surprise to many of you – conferences weren’t all rainbows. Sniping, takedowns, and constructive criticism served with a hint of superiority were common (they weren’t the rule, but they were common enough that many folks presenting at conferences were right to be terrified). What I’ve realized, though, is that that field either naturally led to or even required that sort of approach to feedback in public forums. In academic philosophy, careers are built on identifying other people’s mistakes – sometimes people build careers on new and exciting ideas, but even if that’s a place where a philosopher arrives, that can’t be all there is. In academic philosophy, it’s almost exclusively true that two people cannot be correct about the same topic at the same time. (The American academic philosopher hidden inside me is now wanting me to hedge this claim, but let’s just let it be.) The point is this: For me to be right, you must be wrong, and vice versa. The whole gig is pointing out precisely how this is so.
Teaching and coming together to present what we learn and know about teaching are different. It’s obvious that they’re different, but let’s put a point on it: Teaching is a polar opposite from academic philosophy in some interesting ways.
If I help you to be a better teacher, I also become a better teacher – and vice versa. If we share our lesson plans, our strategies, and our ideas, we don’t lose our shot at making an impact in our careers. We get better from it. I’m going to be presenting on a few topics at the American Middle Level Educators (AMLE) conference this year, and I’m thinking about what I can do to help other educators (and in so doing, I can help myself). I’m excited!
I’m six years into teaching kids and into that career shift, but I’m only heading into year three of attending conferences in my new field. And I’m realizing that there’s a value in the thing philosophers do that teachers are missing. Teachers can learn from philosophers to be critical, look for the flaws, and suggest changes. The great thing about teaching is that two can both be top-of-class teachers. Pluralism works in classrooms because classrooms are varied and variable. We can be genuinely constructive at every stage of our critical-feedback procedure. We can trust, if we develop relationships properly, that the feedback is meant in a spirit of helping us both to improve. I like that about what a peer learning group can be in education.