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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Goodbye, Reflective Educator

I think it's time. I've quasi worn the pseudonym on this blog for over two years, and its utility seems to have run its course. As much as I cherish The Reflective Educator as an identity, it's become something of a barrier in advancing my purpose.

I can't just leave it at that, though. There's a story to be told, a discussion to be had. What's the purpose of pseudonymous blogging for teachers, and what are the consequences? What are the dilemmas associated with speaking out as a public educator, and what do they say about our system at large? If you'd indulge me, I'd like to puzzle this out.

Inspired by a colleague, I began this blog as an outlet for my thoughts and, occasionally, a means of documenting my experiences as a public school teacher. Attaching my name and face seemed a bad idea initially. I didn't want to draw attention to myself or my school, and I wanted the opportunity to blog as openly and honestly as possible about my thoughts and experiences. I thought a pseudonym was appropriate.

I think the pseudonym served me well until a little over a year ago. That's when I began developing strong negative opinions about the school I was working at in DC and the course of public education. The school's administration discovered the blog and branded me an ineffective teacher my last day on the job after two overwhelmingly positive reviews. It became clear that many in the DCPS central office were aware of my identity, and so I became lax about maintaining absolute anonymity. I gave Bill Turque and Jay Matthews opportunities to comment on my writing in their respective blogs at the Washington Post, and I became more openly critical of DCPS and corporate reform off the blog.

One might think, at this point, that the pseudonym might have lost its purpose entirely. I kept it, however, for two reasons: 1) I knew I would be applying to schools that might be disinclined to hire someone with my views, and 2) I wanted the blog to be more about ideas than people.

I've discovered, however, that maintaining the pseudonym has, at times, harmed my focus and my voice. It's allowed me to treat my blog like a confidant one day and an opinion column the next. In doing so, my voice has fluctuated between extraordinarily sardonic and journalistic. It has led me astray from the values I hold most dear.

I chose my pseudonym because I've always admired those who've resisted ideologies in the name of pragmatism. Rather than imposing some worldview I acquired in my formative years, I'd prefer to examine every problem in light of its particular context, remain open to divergent opinions, and be forever willing to change my mind in light of new information/perspectives. It is ironic, therefore, that in treating this blog as a confidant, I'm afraid I've done violence to those aims. I've criticized those that I've disagreed with not with the goal of engaging them in an honest dialogue, but with the purpose of venting my frustration and demonstrating to those who agree with me how wrong they are. While this method has its therapeutic merits, I think it is only destructive in terms of advancing meaningful problem solving. And if I really do want to engage in this meaningful problem solving, it needs to be done authentically, without the caricature and pseudonym.

I would note, however, that this does not mean that I believe everyone out there is worth attempting to engage in honest dialogue (there are plenty of people out there whose agenda, consciously or unconsciously, does not include the search for truth). I do think, however, it's incumbent upon me both as a teacher and as someone who professes to search for what is truly best for public education to dialogue honestly with those worth engaging, even if the only purpose is (in my own tiny way) to foster a more virtuous discussion in a country so starved for one.

There are cons to giving up the pseudonym, though, and I might not have decided to shed it if I didn't face those cons already.

Earlier this year, during a visit to a private school in Denver, one of the teachers there said something that has completely altered my perspective on teaching in a public school. He said I was a bureaucrat. I'd never thought of myself that way. I'd prefer to think of teachers as free thinkers, as liberators of students' minds. But, in far more ways than I'd like to admit, I think he's right. Working for the NYC DOE, the largest system in the country, has made that crystal clear. I am expected to comply and given limited opportunity to meaningfully affect a number of top-down policies that I think harm my students. I am likewise constrained from publicly offering my honest opinions or experiences for a number of reasons, many of which are a result of an overly litigious system that constrains meaningful discussion and problem solving. If this blog were truly anonymous, which is has not been for some time, I could more freely document my experiences as a means of shedding light to those interested in the public education discussion but lacking experience in schools.

It is with these thoughts in mind that I shed the pseudonym. I am optimistic about the way attaching my identity will shape my writing and dialogue with others, but nevertheless deeply disappointed (as I've considered the number of teacher bloggers using pseudonyms) in our collective inability to have an open and honest discussion about the failure of our system. I can see myself cloaking the knowledge I've gained (and would like to share openly) from experiences in the system in vague generalities, as I did in just the previous sentence, in an effort to avoid riling things up here or there. This will be difficult for me. I've never been much for PR talk. And I think therein lies the ultimate challenge in shedding The Reflective Educator. How will I continue to write meaningfully about important experiences I have and their impact upon my thinking while considering the often negative consequences of telling the truth unvarnished? Will losing my pseudonym teach me to more skillfully balance this dilemma while remaining true to my purpose and values?

While The Reflective Educator will be leaving, I will look to that identity for guidance as I go forward. I hope that if that desire ever dies, my teaching career will shortly follow.

2 comments:

  1. Hello, James! Looking forward to continuing to read your posts without the anonymity...

    ReplyDelete
  2. Keep writing, great to connect a name with the persona.

    ReplyDelete