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Good Teacher / Tired Teacher


I often overwork myself, spending the first days, or sometimes weeks, of a vacation sick. Just as I felt my body giving way as spring break approached, I read this Tweet, which subsequently received over 1000 retweets and likes:


Now, I don’t doubt that Steele tweeted this from a progressive point of view.  One subtext of this tweet could be that we should care for the whole child and nurture their individuality and well-being. However, I see a more troubling subtext because of the larger ideology that says teachers must be passionate at all times and above all else. Not only that, but we should be passionate about our passion, ‘liking’ all of the tweets that proclaim our love for the job. But what if I love my job and I’m exhausted? Or, as I ask myself on those more difficult days, what if I don’t always love my job, much like most adults feel at some point? Isn’t it a mark of professionalism rather than passion that I keep going through those difficult patches?


As my spring break comes to a close, I read two posts related to this topic today. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Robin Bernstein tells professors that it’s “not unprofessional or callous to say no” when random high-school students email to tap into their expertise. As the title of the article says, “You are not a public utility”. Just as we need to re-think how we might treat the time and energy of teachers as a public utility that can be turned on at will by any inquiring student, we also need to re-think how the discourse about ‘grit’ and ‘mindsets’ implies that students fail because they haven’t turned on their own private utilities. Writing in Education Week, Christine Yeh argues that we should focus on inequality rather than grit:


“Perhaps this idea of grit resonates with so many people who believe in the popular American adage that if you work hard and pull yourself up by your bootstraps, then you can achieve anything. This belief unfortunately, assumes that individuals have the power, privilege, and access to craft their own futures, regardless of circumstance and systemic barriers.”


We need to critique the progressive discourse that associates good teaching with passion and good learning with grit just as much as we need to critique the conservative discourse that links good teaching to authority and good learning with discipline. In a brave post called Please don’t call me ‘passionate’, Faculty Jacobin writes:


“Praising teachers for their emotional enthusiasm rather than their academic preparation, classroom experience, or talent and success with students can also implicitly justify low pay and a lack of respect. After all, teachers are “pursuing their passions” so it’s just…unseemly… even ungrateful of them to demand better pay and benefits, or a more meaningful voice in curricular decisions.”


In what follows, I take on the idea that innovation – our current word for the pinnacle of education – comes primarily from grit, passion, or a mindset.

‘Stay foolish’: Innovation as a ‘mindset’


As Steve Jobs famously said in his commencement address at Stanford (2005), “you’ve got to find what you love” and “stay hungry, stay foolish”. In contrast to those engaged people who ‘stay foolish’, the disengaged “account for more quality defects” and “are sicker”, according to Gallup. Taking a broad view of the matter, Thomas Friedman argues America is a “nation in decline”, failing to innovate because of a failing school system.


This overall pattern of thought, offloading socioeconomic issues onto the education system and then blaming the issues on individuals who don’t ‘stay foolish’, is known as privatizing public issues. In The Sociological Imagination (1959), C. Wright Mills makes an important distinction between troubles which “occur within the character of the individual”, and issues which concern the “institutions of an historical society as a whole.” As Mills observes, “people do not usually define the troubles they endure in terms of historical change and institutional contradiction,” and so the job of the sociological imagination is to illuminate our internal struggles in the context of history and institutions. Henry Giroux calls our growing inability to do so the ‘new illiteracy‘: tired teachers and under-performing students suffer from character defects – lack of passion or grit – rather than signal issues with the larger system of neoliberal economic and social forces. And just like that, social issues of overwork and inequality become private troubles.1 I have taken the majority of this paragraph from an essay I wrote about teachers and blogging


This privatization of public issues happens on several levels. Since the 18th Century, public issues have been educationalized, which means “isolating educational questions from the social, economic, or political problems of society in order to champion education as a solution to these perceived social, economic, or political problems.”2 Daniel Trohler, The Educationalization of the Modern World: Progress, Passion, and the Protestant Promise of Education in this collection, which is ...continue Then, in the last 30 years, public issues have been learnified, or passed on from the level of the education system to the level of the individual, as Gert Biesta argues. To paraphrase Biesta, instead of the right to lifelong education, we have the responsibility for lifelong learning.3 In The Beautiful Risk of Education, Biesta traces the shift in discourse to the OECD’s Lifelong Learning for All (1997). I know that ...continue


Taking the privatization of public issues to a new level, in The Innovator’s Mindset, George Couros writes that “Innovation is not a skillset, it’s a mindset”. Couros’ idea fuses ‘grit’, ‘growth mindset’, and passion into the individualistic propeller of innovation. However, this way of looking at innovation deeply misunderstands what it is and where it comes from.


In The Entrepreneurial State, Mariana Mazzucato debunks the idea that Steve Jobs made Apple through passion and individual talent. Mazzucato argues that Jobs was able to innovate “largely because Apple was able to ride the wave of massive State investments in the ‘revolutionary’ technologies that underpinned the iPhone and iPad: the Internet, GPS, touch-screen displays and communication technologies. Without these publicly funded technologies, there would have been no wave to foolishly surf.”


Mazzucato’s work deftly traces the massive role that the American government played in both funding and directing many of the technologies that we worship as the products of private genius. Most importantly, this leads her to pose larger questions about the supposed ‘free market’ and the lack of returns to the public who assumed most of the initial risk, but reaped none of the financial rewards.


So far from being a mindset, innovation is a large-scale path-dependent enterprise: future innovations depend on the infrastructure and technology that has already been invented, and no amount of positive thinking alone will overcome structural barriers that are in place.4In her essay in Rethinking Capitalism, Mazzucato argues that because innovation is ‘path-dependent’, “grasping the collective, ...continue Teachers push against the path-dependency of education all the time when we resist the logic of the system; but once the system runs on grades and scores, for example, it lies beyond the reach of any individual teacher to simply stop giving them completely.


In Work’s Intimacy, Melissa Gregg critiques Jobs from the angle of emotional labor, complementing Mazzucato’s structural analysis of the economics of innovation. As “the language of intimacy” increasingly shapes our discourse about work, Gregg argues that it signals a “troubling form of freedom” where the apparent ‘flexibility’ that comes with digital technology really signals the “presence bleed” of work into the rest of our lives. Given the way that our patriarchal society works, this means that “women are prepared to wait until the cooking and cleaning are done, and the rest of the house is asleep, to have time alone to work.” The ‘freedom’ to perform our work passionately also depends on other kinds of undervalued and dangerous labor: “the choice to engage in long hours of sacrificial labor in generally enjoyable jobs stands in stark contrast to the forms of the world’s poorest workers. These include the legions of employees whose job it is to assemble the devices that deliver so-called flexibility to the wealthy workers of the West.”


Perhaps this Tweet from Katie LaFever in reply to George Couros’ misquote of Lao Tzu says it best:


Careful, empirical studies like Mazzucato’s and Gregg’s can help us see beyond the mythology that innovation and success can be reduced to a ‘mindset’, ‘grit’, or passion. More importantly, they help us understand the effects of that mythology on our lives. If we recognize the massive public role in assuming the risk behind many innovations, we might just see a Universal Basic Income as a right, as a return on investment. If we understand the inherent structural inequalities that lurk below the surface of emotional labor, we might all hesitate before asking teachers and students to pledge their allegiance to passion and grit.


header image by Martin Reisch

References   [ + ]

1. I have taken the majority of this paragraph from an essay I wrote about teachers and blogging
2. Daniel Trohler, The Educationalization of the Modern World: Progress, Passion, and the Protestant Promise of Education in this collection, which is worth reading in it’s entirety.
3. In The Beautiful Risk of Education, Biesta traces the shift in discourse to the OECD’s Lifelong Learning for All (1997). I know that educationalize and learnify are ugly verbs, but they sure capture the zeitgeist.
4. In her essay in Rethinking Capitalism, Mazzucato argues that because innovation is ‘path-dependent’, “grasping the collective, uncertain, tacit, and persistent nature of innovation is crucial to asking the right policy questions.”
I footnotes