Once a Pirate, Always a Pirate

Teachers are always stealing.

Teachers steal one another’s ideas, strategies, projects — sometimes even elements of one another’s persona, the public image a teacher projects within the classroom and building. Whatever helps the good teacher become a better one. Maybe it’s a well-kept trade secret, but within the world of teaching, thievery is just understood.

Magnanimous pirates – not so much Stevenson’s as Gilbert and Sullivan’s, teachers share their bounty, that which works well and that which doesn’t. Tireless and devoted professionals, these pirates observe one another teach, stealing as necessary. They pilfer during one-to-one mentoring. Divert from online cooperatives. Filch while in professional development workshops. Cabbage from professional conferences. Abscond with rich insights from researchers and graduate school programs. Teachers understand that, in no small way, the success of their classroom craft is related to the success of the other pirates on the ship. So, they steal from one another.

The best pirates keep a keen eye on their students, every single one of them: what will help this student, and that one, learn this idea or that skill better? What has worked well for other teachers? What hasn’t? The focus of the good teacher is always on the development of each student: the critical and creative thinking, the discrete skill development, the human.

As this blog has explored, today there exists a powerful tension in public education, playing itself out within most public school classrooms: simply, the tension between the numbers-driven scientific determinism and the more holistic humanism. Each side views the other with suspicion; nonetheless, each needs the other.

Imagine the two sides put to music. For fun, but mostly for further insight into the tonal qualities within the classroom as the two collide. To the modern American student, sitting in a public school classroom somewhere, what might the music of the scientific determinists sound like — embodied in one song? The music of the humanists?

To students, the music of the standardized test, discrete skill, numbers-driven curriculum of the scientific determinists has certain definable qualities: often aloof and disconnected from the challenges of the “real” world, perhaps comical in that way; imposing in the way generals from the British Empire appeared to those in the “New World”; pittering with language about tinier stuff while missing the bigger “strategy” of how to meet life’s challenges . . .

The pattering Modern Major General from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance embodies these qualities. Below is a delightful version of his signature song, “I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General.” Imagine how the often disillusioned modern American middle or high school student perceives the relevance of this Modern Major General strutting through their public education classrooms:

The pirates, including a younger Kevin Kline, sing along, more from trepidation and curiosity than belief. Much like classrooms today.

Seeking less to impose than to understand, the humanists recognize that today’s young person experiences enormous pressures, many of which are explored in an earlier post. If today’s young American does not live in an environment of literal violence and murder, and so many do, he or she lives in a world of metaphorical violence and murder, where the potential threats to positive self-identity exist within every clique, television, computer, and indifferent home and community. The humanist gets this.

The husky-voiced humanist Bruce Springsteen and his “Murder Incorporated” ask us to see what so many young Americans see, in streets literal and/or figurative:

Out on the street your chances are zero (oh yeah)
Take a look around you (come on down)
It ain’t too complicated
You’re messin’ with Murder Incorporated

Too often, though, swayed by the plight of American youth, the humanists focus on just that, the social and emotional needs of the human student, losing focus on the necessary cognitive development that the student needs for later success.

Pursuing excellence, the pirate teacher is caught within the dissonance between the pottering discrete skill knowledge of the Modern Major General and the humanist pathos of Springsteen’s “Murder Incorporated.” Wisely, the pirate teacher steals from both. But wisdom for the pirate may not be sound public policy.

Trapping teachers within the dissonance will not benefit our society’s children. The direction of American public education policy must find resonance between the sides, numbers and humans, not place magnanimous pirates in the middle.

To do their job well, the good pirates’ job is to steal — not to have the necessary-to-do-the-job-well power of their public personas pirated by the political agenda of the Modern Major General.

(post script: Leonard Pitts, Miami Herald columnist, writes that Springsteen sees “this chasm between America that is and America that ought to be” in his piece “Bruce Springsteen and the State of Our Union,” March 20, 2012)

Author, once an elementary school "Pirates of Penzance" pirate