Critical Response to Teaching in the Undertow

In this story Gregory Michi discusses the underlying pedagogy in schools, and how they are like the undertow of an ocean that make it hard for a teacher to stay anchored to their ideals. The “Undertow” of the school systems is essentially a process by which new teachers loose their optimism and become jaded, resulting in them loosing their steam to be innovative system-changing teachers and allow themselves to simply become part of a perpetuated current.  

I wanted to talk about this article because I think it touches on some of the most burning questions I have, which all pretty much are about how to be an affective teacher. How does a teacher with a lot of heart put their good intentions to the best use and prevent themselves from being burnt out? How do you answer the extreme complexities of the urban demographic and students in the poverty margin without becoming jaded or causing more damage? Too often teachers resort to meeting the status quo and adopt a mindset of just getting through the day or getting through the year. The author points out that teachers end up falling into the trap of focusing on all the impediments of their work because it provides short term therapeutic benefit but is ultimately a dead end for effective teachers As a teacher in training I have a lot of high ideals about the kind of impact I want to make, because I want to be a teacher that genuinely empowers his students. 

The book points out that part of the issue where things go wrong for a teacher is they come in with naive expectations and assume that their good will, high ideals, and simply having their heart in the right place will be enough to accomplish their goals in the classroom. Michi points out that our experiences have been coloured through by teacher stories and feel-good movies which has set unrealistic expectations about what can be achieved in only 10 months. When reading this I would say I have to agree. Particularly, films like “Freedom Writers” come to mind as a movie that perpetuates this ideal, and gives teachers the impression that they are lone crusaders in the fight for justice in their schools. This is not true however as the author said that she was able to find many caring teachers in every school she went to, so one of the steps a teacher should take towards achieving their goals is by forming alliances and support networks with fellow teachers. The bridge between the reality and the ideal needs to be built through a team effort. 

Something else that struck me is how the author emphasized the importance of small details within the big picture, such as doing things to improve the environment in your classroom because social justice in practice is as much about the environment you create as it is about the explicit lessons you teach. Gregory Michi continues to emphasize a focus on the little things as a way of slowly taking ground. Too after teachers bite off more than they can chew instead of trying to win one battle at a time. I find this encouraging and also very helpful because now I understand that change doesn’t need to occur all at once across the whole day. We can focus on one subject area for even once a week and use that as a starting point for investing in a more engaging class. As Michi says, “You can’t do everything you planned or imagined but you can always do something.”

Finally, I think the thing that influenced me most from this story is the understanding that we can’t always expect results to be obvious. We can’t expect every aspect of our teaching to be constantly giving our students a new perspective on the world. We can’t see ourselves as failures when every moment isn’t an “Aha!” moment for students. It’s important to understand that the impact we make will likely be gradual, and often times have to trust that what we’re doing is really genuinely helping to give students a deeper understanding, a deeper sense of self, and a deeper sense of empowerment.

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One thought on “Critical Response to Teaching in the Undertow

  1. Good discussion of really important questions: “How does a teacher with a lot of heart put their good intentions to the best use and prevent themselves from being burnt out? How do you answer the extreme complexities of the urban demographic and students in the poverty margin without becoming jaded or causing more damage?” The questions themselves are a really good start to thinking critically and anti-oppressively in the classroom. I think that accepting the notion that is not all or nothing, that our impacts as teachers are sometimes gradual and hard to see, that we can’t change everything at once, that we will make mistakes is a necessary first step for teachers who have high ideals. Another step is figuring out how to maintain and continue to strive for those ideals despite the fact that we know they are not simply or quickly achieved and that in some moments we may not feel they are achievable at all.

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