WHEN THE STRUCTURE DOES NOT PERMIT DIALOG: A RESPONSE TO MY FORMER TEACHER

Written by Alex Kemp

When I first read the Washington Post article about my former high school, I was unsure exactly where to place my frustration. The op-ed, centering on a disgruntled former teacher and his problems with the students, faculty, and just about anyone who disagreed with him felt incredibly…far off from the lived truth from those of us who took his course. A class called Theory of Knowledge (TOK). TOK is a two year course that was one component of a specialized program for the supposed best and brightest minds, called the International Baccalaureate Program (IB). This class, according the IB website, can be described as a place in which “students reflect on the nature of knowledge and on how we know what we claim to know.” In a lot of ways, the course is similar to a critical thinking course one would take in college, stretched out over the course of two years. This course is a requirement for completion of the IB Program, along with multi-day exams, foreign language assessments, and a 4,000 word extended essay. This course, then, ought to be crucial to fully understand, and be taught by someone with a desire to provide that to a group of 16-18 year old kids. Or so you would think.

I had heard the rumors ever since graduating that Mr. Noonan was displeased with the fact that he was removed from teaching the Theory of Knowledge course and was reassigned to teach non-advanced courses, but the op-ed published last week by Jay Matthews at the Washington Post paints a picture that by far and large his former pupils do not agree with in any way. Matthews claims in his piece that Jeremy Noonan’s students “revolted” against him, due to his refusal to water down his course. The irony of this being all teachers in the IB Program assigned a mind-numbingly painful amount of work –in no way is hours of homework, projects, and studying special to an IB student.

The frustration of Noonan’s course always, it seems from the wide collection of stories from students over his four years of teaching (which many can be read in WaPo’s comments section), stemmed from a lack of desire to teach anything outside of what is best described as a White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant perspective. A consistent tokenizing of marginalized students. A general disdain for anyone who felt, thought, or approached the incredibly ambiguous material of Theory of Knowledge in a way different than his own.

But more importantly, the far reaching results of Noonan’s teaching style may be what most interests me most here. As a recent college graduate, I was apprehensive of taking any philosophy courses because of the lack of encouragement and guidance I received during this time. The combination of a WASP teaching perspective to a class full of culturally and racially diverse students, paired with an inability, or lack of desire to, connect and aid these students, could only lead to, at best, a problematic course. It seems that blaming the amount of coursework, as opposed to teaching a group of purposefully diverse students, may be the root of the issue at hand. An issue that festered for many into being worried about how well we would do at critical thinking, philosophical courses when entering into higher education.  Luckily for me and many other students who went on to attend universities across the nation, we were met with teachers who did encourage us, told us we were on the right track, and helped us to unlearn the bad habits of a class that was very much made to only suit students who were liked, or white, or male, or Christian.

Anita Minniefield, recent Cornell graduate, and former student of Noonan’s, had this to share about her apprehensions in furthering her education, following her time in TOK:

“I had to work with a safe, boring, and overused subject matter that I could never explore in a way that had not been done a thousand times over, simply because Noonan was afraid to allow me to take a chance that would reflect badly on him. This negative experience was so lasting that until taking the History of Anarchism in college freed me, I had become a student who operated on the notion that if you give the system what it wanted, you would be rewarded. But if you deviated from that path, you will be unjustly punished. If that is not robbing a student their critical thinking, then I do not know what is.”

What does it say when a teacher who was unfit, or at least not a good fit, maintains a position within a program that is monitored by an international board for four years, before anything is done about it? If this can happen within one of the most rigorous programs for students out there, what happens within the rest of our public education system? A 2012 research report issued about student-teacher power dynamics, sampling at-risk youth, indicates that higher levels of conflict between teachers and students can be related to lower levels of achievement for students within the classroom. There seems to be a strong correlation between the power dynamics of a teacher and the success of the students within the classroom. Therefore, it becomes imperative that we ask ourselves, what ought to be done to breakdown these power structures, and focus on students in a way that produces adults who can be critical thinkers, and succeed within the education system while they are a part of it.

I am reminded of the work of Paulo Freire, who argued for students to have access to an education that encouraged free thinking, agency in decision making, and having the ability to empower oneself with knowledge to challenge authoritarians. The irony of this, of course, TOK is a class that theoretically should encourage the same values. Until power structures of teacher dominance like this are broken down, it is hard to imagine a world where public education anywhere will truly benefit students. But what does that even look like, exactly? Can it be resolved? When we have students receiving vastly different educations based on their district and standardized testing scores, it seems like a bit of a reach to ensure that students are able to access an equitable education. However, it does appear that a positive place to start ought to be ensuring that the teachers we do have are teaching students to think for themselves, which will be impossible to achieve if we allow this sort of power structure between teachers and students to continue. As Freire said, “Leaders who do not act dialogically, but insist on imposing their decisions, do not organize the people--they manipulate them. They do not liberate, nor are they liberated: they oppress.”