But what about when…. [Critical Pedagogy]

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I have this vision in my head of the teacher I want to be.

I want to have the courage to love my students, as Darder encourages.

I want to be a role model and a create a climate of respect, as Freire wants me to do.

Freire writes, “The climate of respect that is born of just, serious, humble, and generous relationships, in which both the authority of the teacher and the freedom of the students are ethically grounded, is what coverts pedagogical space into authentic educational experience.”

That’s the kind of vision I have in my head when I start every class.

And then…

No one did the reading.

Only 5 people have their camera on.

Someone says something offensive or obtuse.

Two students in the corner smirk at me and whisper to each other.

2 out of 5 discussion leaders blow off class on the day they are supposed to lead it.

Those two smirking students say something incredibly disrespectful to me.

A phone goes off and I can’t remember what I was saying.

3 students commandeer the discussion.

A pandemic happens and we have to move online and act like nothing has changed.

An election is going on and I have to pretend everyone is looking at me instead of the obvious screens of news reflected off their glasses.


I want to do so many great, innovative things. I want to trust that without attendance and technology policies, students will show up. But most days, I’m just hanging in there until the “bell rings.” I know most of you will say I should keep trying. I also think that other schools I have taught at had students who I was more comfortable with and who were more respectful.

I think that teaching courses need to train us better for thinking on our feet. We should be trying out classroom scenarios, reacting, and getting feedback. We should be swapping stories about non-ideal classroom spaces and students. I think I would feel less like a failure if we could all talk more about how to cope with real situations. The theories of ideal settings are nice, sometimes inspiring… but most of the time they take the backseat when shit hits the fan. And TBH, that is what always seem to happen because we are teaching young adults at a school that doesn’t value writing and the humanities and puts its young GTAs in classrooms without so much as an introductory class on basic classroom management skills.


So… yeah. Ideal theory, peace, love, respect are all well and good, but what about when….


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3 Responses to But what about when…. [Critical Pedagogy]

  1. hleah

    I’m sorry you’ve had students say disparaging things about you. I’m sorry you weren’t prepared for teaching. I’m sorry you don’t have a teaching support group. All too common problems, from what I can gather, and I don’t think you’re a failure or that you’re alone. I suspect that you’re already a much better teacher than many of the underprepared research faculty who teach the same students you do.

    Not to be that guy that shows up ranting about “praxis”, but to me, having well thought-out theory, ideals, and values about teaching is both important and integral to the kind of teaching I want to do and also not enough to get me there. Things not going well once isn’t enough reason for me to give up (even though part of my brain tells me it is), because I will never be perfect, and that in and of itself isn’t a reason to stop trying to find the best way to teach consistently with my ideals. I think those can all be true, and it sounds like we do agree on a lot of it.

    I’m interested by the fact that you’ve called out a lack of technology policies as something that only works in an ideal world. I’ve TAed in classes with and without technology policies, and how much attention the students were paying (or how on task they were on their devices) did not correlate with how strict the technology policies were. I’ve seen a non-punitive “please use devices respectfully” technology policy work, imperfectly but well, in the real world. I think some of that depends on your metric of success. I don’t think a single person I knew, in academia or any other job, was really focused on their work this past week as the election results slowly rolled in. The fact that you couldn’t hold your students’ attention through that does not make you, specifically, a “failure”.

    To address difficulties with keeping student attention and bad faith contributions to discussion: how are you capturing and holding student attention? What actually happens to them if they aren’t paying attention, and is there a way to make the expenditure of their attention pay off more quickly, say in the same class? What rules are being set for discussion, and how are they set? Do the students have a chance to voice frustrations or disagreements with the ground rules before discussions happen? Do they understand the importance of what they’re doing in class? Maybe these are theory questions, but many of them can have concrete applications in your specific classroom–should students be allowed to suggest rules for discussion, or to explain why they think the rule is or isn’t important? Does something other than reminding them of the rule need to happen when one is broken? Do rules need to be communicated differently? That’s where I always try to end up, personally, when I’m thinking about theory and praxis. If I think I should have the courage to love my students, then I ask myself what that has to do with the problems I’m having in the classroom or what it would look like to do that with the lesson I have planned tomorrow.

    If Freire is a little distant and idealized, might I recommend looking at bell hooks’ writings about teaching? She definitely writes about critical pedagogy (including Freire) but I’ve found her work much more helpful about thinking it through in practice. She was most certainly not teaching in an ideal world.

    I’d also encourage you, if you’re feeling adrift, to try and find a group of other new teachers/instructors/TAs who are willing to talk shop with you on whatever problems you’re going through in the moment. I suspect our class is a bit big to address specific classroom problems in the moment, and I’ve gotten a lot out of the ~10 person teaching cohort I’m in for that sort of thing. Also, if you figure out how to stop the same 3 students from commandeering the discussion… well, let me know, I’m definitely still working on that one.

  2. Allison Castaneda

    This post really struck home for me – the first time I taught as a GTA, I was shocked at just how much some of the students don’t try. I felt that no matter what I did as a lecturer, grader, or TA, there were certain students who could not be encouraged to learn, no matter what I did.

    I think your comments on teaching programs needing to be better and more rigorous are very on the nose. I have enjoyed the Future Professoriate certificate coursework, and I do feel like I have learned a lot, but my program does not do anything in the way of actually teaching how to teach. I am a bit at a loss for what will happen the first time I step into a classroom that’s truly my own. Similarly, I agree with your comments on teaching young instructors to be adaptable, but I feel that even before that, we need a foundation on teaching itself first.

    Regardless, through your words it very much shows that you care about your students and their learning, and I’m sorry that you have been so disrespected in the classroom.

  3. I appreciate your post and I have also had many of these same problems in the classroom. Back when we were still teaching in person, I had a group of students who decided to talk during the class lectures–as if I wasn’t actively trying to lead the class. Perhaps they were rebelling against the fact that I was formatting the class in too much of a traditional way with the inclusion of lectures. However, when I tried to get the students to discuss the course topics in groups, I found them to be very reticent about that as well. As you mention in your post, I think that it is very relevant that students at this particular school do not place the highest value on humanities courses or writing skills. From the perspective even of self interest, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. Even if their only goal is to be a successful corporate professional, writing and critical thinking skills are professional skills even in those contexts, but for whatever reason it is clear that they aren’t perceived as such. One of the students who was talking during lecture later asked me to “change their grade” so they would have a better chance of getting into graduate school, and mentioned how much they “loved my class.” Perhaps they were getting something out of my class, more than I perceived, but it is hard to tell, and it is clear that the transactional element of it all was front and center. Nonetheless, my criticism of Freire and other idealistic pedagogy theorists is that it seems that so much of the burden is placed on instructors–often, as you say, underpaid, extremely busy graduate students with very little pedagogical training. It is as if we are supposed to become individual heroes or martyrs to help to save the system, while it is clear that only systemic change will ever affect any of these dynamics. I think that anxiety about the job market and exploding student loans contribute to a consumeristic, anti-intellectual approach to college coursework, although there are other cultural trends (social media, etc.) that probably contribute to this as well. I think that it is unfair and unjust to expect individual, underpaid instructors to bail out this system, but to the extent that we derive personal meaning from certain aspects of our teaching, it is worth devoting energy to cultivating those aspects, and Freire’s insights have a lot to offer in this regard.

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