Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Fundamentalist Teacher

The last few blog posts have described three of the four types of teachers you will find in any school.  Today’s post is about the last group and the most formidable obstacle to reclaiming a healthy school culture; the fundamentalists.    In oversimplified terms, the fundamentalist is an experienced educator whose primary concern is protecting the status quo because that in turn guarantees their continued comfort.  The fundamentalist views change as an enemy and believes that the traditional model of schooling is the best and the only valid approach to education.  In their paradigm, students learn because they have natural ability, work diligently and are compliant.  In other words, when students are not successful, the fundamentalist does not take this as an opportunity for self-reflection and re-examination of their classroom practices.  Students fail because they simply do not work hard or are not capable of learning.  This attitude absolves the fundamentalist of any responsibility for both failures and successes in the classroom.  (For more on this, read my previous post.)

Fundamentalists espouse the ideas of social Darwinism; some students are more talented than others  and fundamentalists see their job as allowing nature to take its course.  Herrnstein and Murray’s 1994 book The Bell Curve ( normal distribution 80% =average intelligence, 10% very bright and 10% very dull) found its way into educational theory and became a justification for social stratification.  This belief is key to the fundamentalist’s heart and behavior. ( Student success is a byproduct of talent or lack of talent.  This is determined by the IQ test that reveals the capricious nature of genetics.)  Fundamentalists do not really believe that all students can succeed; that takes them off the hook of responsibility and guarantees the status quo.  The fundamentalist will aggressively challenge any change initiative that threatens this death-like state of equilibrium and the believer is the fundamentalist’s favorite target. 

The fundamentalist teacher values personal comfort, attachment to daily routines and their personal power.   In order to maintain this status quo, they will seek to undermine any change initiatives by enlisting the help of tweeners who might have felt unsupported after their ‘moment of truth’.  The fundamentalists actively and effectively dismantle change because they understand the power of emotions and prey upon the disgruntled and disappointed to bolster their ranks.  Informal culture is their preferred meeting place and where they effectively build strategies for sabotaging change initiatives.   

This blog post cannot do justice to Dr. Muhammad’s powerful presentation at the QuILL weeklong seminar this past July.   He had our full and undivided attention for the entire day as he deftly described these four types of teachers; believers, tweeners, survivors and fundamentalists.  I felt as if he had been a fly on the wall of every staff room I had ever sat in and stood beside me during my entire teaching career.  It was a powerful and important presentation for all of us because afterwards, we felt that we had tools to take back in September when we began or continued our change initiatives.   We all began our week with different versions of a common question; “why do people resist change?” We had ALL experienced the drama of a staff hijacked by fundamentalists and we had all done what believers typically do in these situations –  not engage the fundamentalists and avoid the conflict.

If you really believe that your work makes a difference in your students’ learning, if you are committed to their success and believe that all students can succeed, then you must be ready to defend that position.  Believers often feel isolated.  Teaching can be daunting and difficult and we need to support one another.  Tweeners also need support but not the kind the fundamentalists want to give.  Survivors need immediate help and we owe it to our students to do so.  What do the fundamentalists need? They need to fall in love with teaching again.  No one begins their career jaded, cynical and thinking only of their comfort.  Teachers naturally feel a call to the classroom and are motivated by their love of learning.  Somewhere in their careers, fundamentalists were wounded by too many unproductive reforms, ill-planned change initiatives, ineffective leaders, unsupportive parents and the list can go on and on!  They stopped believing in their first love and their first dream. 

Believer, tweener, survivor or fundamentalist – in a few short days we will all have the same thing; an opportunity to make a real difference in someone’s life.  In my view, this is a privilege and I chose to honour that.    Remind your colleagues of this privilege and speak up in the face of embittered cynicism.  You are not alone.

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