The extraordinary Jaime Escalante (immortalised in the film “Stand and Deliver”) died two days ago following a lengthy battle against bladder cancer. Escalante was clearly as maverick as he was brilliant. He proved what can be achieved with the education of inner-city children by a combination of incredible dedication and personal teaching talent. For the right, with their hatred of teachers’ unions and progressive education, Escalante has always been an ideological weapon. Quoting the example of Escalante, they blame teachers for “educational failure” amongst the working class, rather than the material circumstances of society. If Escalante can do it, they argue, then why can’t other teachers? Escalante, despite his lack of any experience in bi-lingual education, was also recruited in the right’s campaign against the same.
Leaving aside the most obvious point that modern education is built around the concept of people doing less well than others (the richer members of society ensuring it isn’t them or their children who fall into his category) this emphasis on “superhuman teachers” is quite damaging. We also believe that this concept is alive and well in ELT. We would recommend, therefore, as an antidote to the rightwing outpourings which will inevitably follow the death of Escalante, that teachers read this moving chapter from Thomas Newkirk’s “Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones” Here is how it starts:
In the movie Stand and Deliver, Jaime Escalante, an inspiring mathematics teacher in a difficult urban school, has an exchange with a colleague who argues that, given the poverty and lack of resources in the district, it is unreasonable to expect high achievement comparable to more affluent schools. Escalante dismisses this argument, saying that success will come if he “teaches harder.” As viewers, we are clearly invited to read this colleague’s comment as an example of “the soft bigotry of low expectations” and to cheer on Escalante for refusing to give in to rationalizations for poor performance. It would take a real gremlin not to cheer on these students, and Escalante, when he finally reads off their AP Calculus scores (after being accused of cheating because on an earlier test no one believe that they could be so high). And I find myself momentarily lifted up by this true story of educational transformation against all odds.
But only momentarily.
In fact, I find the message of the movie demoralizing—that in any situation, no matter how difficult, teachers can prevail through the purity of effort, through “teaching harder.” Even when they are operating alone,in conditions of urban poverty. I began my teaching career in such a school, and students came in with such bewildering behavioural and learning problems I didn’t know where to start. On some days, particular students were so out of control that nothing happened educationally. Attendance patterns were erratic. I finished almost every day with a level of fatigue that I have never experienced since. I was clearly a victim of my inexperience, but in retrospect I could no more have been a Jaime Escalante than I can now be a Michael Phelps in swimming or a Tiger Woods in golf. Even in the privileged environment where I now work, I rarely feel myself capable of the transformational effect Escalante achieved, and to the extent that I feel this should be my goal, I fall short and experience failure—the poorly chosen book, the discussion that falls flat, the student who fails to engage with the course, the explanation of a writing problem that meets with a look of incomprehension from the student.
Although I suspect that all teachers have these moments of failure, I realize that not all respond as I do; they may not feel the acute sense of disappointment, the flat waste of time, the second-guessing about flawed decisions, even the way these moments can erode my sense of professional competence. There are those teachers with sunnier dispositions, the optimists, who delight in their successes and don’t dwell on problems (and rarely even talk about them), who do not feel this sense of disappointment. This chapter is not about them, or perhaps for them. I realize that arguing against depictions of excellence—of transformative teaching—may seem self-centered, like arguing that Annie Dillard shouldn’t write so well, because she makes me feel inadequate. I realize there is a place for heroes and saints, for those who selflessly, with a purity of purpose, devote themselves to helping others. And I realize that to some, it will seem self-indulgent to focus on the emotional life of teachers, when the accepted purpose of schools is to serve students—it is, after all, about others.
Fortunately, I am not alone in finding some of these teaching narratives troubling.