If Teaching is a Human Act, I Need a Sea Change

I have always seen myself as a compromiser, as a person who can bring together different perspectives and create harmonious outcomes from seeming chaos. However, as I reflected on this approach following the readings by Freire, I feel this is less virtuous and more of fence-sitting neutrality. I have always seen my use of diplomacy and deference as a strength, that this was the best path forward through incremental growth and change. In the classroom, I try to create consensus, and try to respect both sides of an argument regardless of my personal beliefs. But Freire makes the point that neutrality is not only dangerous, but incompatible with effective teaching. He writes, “What is my neutrality, if not a comfortable and perhaps hypocritical way of avoiding any choice or even hiding my fear of denouncing injustice. To wash my hands in the face of oppression.” The notion of being openly political as an educator is terrifying. I think I have always felt that there was something inherent in the role of the teacher to be above the fray, to avoid the struggle and contentious bits or to avoid them for the sake of peace-keeping. I guess I had never thought about the ethical implications of that in a serious way until now. What if by not taking a stance, I am inhibiting learning rather than encouraging it?

Moreover, how does my neutrality appear from the perspective of the student? If you asked me last week about how I felt about neutral versus political perspectives from a teacher, I would have said that have always appreciated neutrality. As a naturally curious person, the neutrality of my teachers and professors past seemed to leave fertile ground for me to plant my own roots without their influence. But having reflected now on Freire’s treatise on teaching as a human act, I wonder if that belief of mine was founded on some false reality. Because to be honest, I know where all of my favorite and most effective professors fell on contentious issues. While I did not feel pressure to accept their worldview (and thus could plant my roots without fear of doing so as an ‘automaton’), I nevertheless was conscious of their beliefs and can still recognize them today. If I were to surmise one of Freire’s main points, it is that you do not need to hide your personal politics, but that a good teacher will nevertheless reckon with how they might affect how their students perceive them. So perhaps rather than be neutral (as I had previously perceived), these teachers were merely being open-minded and democratic, allowing me to make up my own mind as they themselves had done (and as lifelong learners continue to do). The respect that they showed may then manifest itself in a safe learning environment, where I know I would not be discriminated against a student. It seems, therefore, that the fertile ground where I planted my roots of comprehension and discovery was the product of my teacher’s political humanity, not neutrality in the absence of it.

Yesterday the world celebrated Armistice Day, marking the end of The Great War. It seems appropriate then, that I also reflect on freedom and how it must be balanced with authority. Freedom does have its limits, but as an educator I must find a way to ethically integrate those limits without creating a sense of loss. Freire writes “freedom becomes mature in confrontations with other freedoms.” To me, this means that real freedom has to be impinged in some ways, but that the individual has authority in how those decisions are made. That is why “consequences are what make decision making a responsible process.” It is not possible to have freedom without authority or vice versa.

As I continue to grapple with Freire’s philosophy as teaching as both a human act and one of love, I know I will struggle. Change for me has always been a gradual thing, partly owing to my stubbornness, but I have also believed that slow and steady was the best way to make lasting progress. It is not an exaggeration to say that issues of neutrality vs. politics and authority vs. freedom hit me as totally radical, but I also find it hard to argue with Freire’s points. So as much as I’d love to take measured approach, I believe what I need to do as an aspiring pedagogue is a sea change – to radically change my approach for my own benefit and for the food of my students.