Friends with Books: Class War by Megan Erickson

There are books we seek out and books we discover by accident. And once in a while, if we are lucky, there are books that seem like they were written just for us.  When I first read a description of Megan Erickson’s Class Wars, which discusses education issues by way of a socialist/feminist analysis of care work, family, and the public sphere, I had that feeling: here was something for every piece of my own socialist/feminist/mother/teacher soul. 

It’s a wonderful book everyone should check out.  One of the book’s key points is that despite the speciousness of the claim by so-called “reformers” and many liberals that education can somehow fix economic inequality shouldn’t lead us to downplay its importance as a site of struggle. For one thing, public education is a big part of what we have left of the public sphere – not to mention of the unionized workforce – and so defending public education is a crucial part of defending the public sphere.  Moreover, looking at what actually happens in classrooms (like looking at what actually happens in families) reminds us how much people actually do not accept “the market” as the model for all things.  As Samir Chopra remind us in a wonderful post, there’s a reason corporations have to keep telling us that their workplaces are “real world” and that everything else – especially school – is not:

Corporate recruiters will tell you that the corporate workplace is where you go to get a dose of reality. Your childhood, your school days, your learning in school and college, those books you read, the games you played, the friends you made–all mere specters, ghosts, insubstantial spirits. You were merely prisoners in the cave; the light and illumination and enlightenment of the ‘real world’ awaits. Then mere shapes will acquire substantiality; then reality will slap you upside the head.

I was happy to have the chance to sit down with Megan and talk about her book and her experiences as a teacher around NYC. I’m also excited about the series this I’m kicking off with this interview, “Friends with Books.”  When I was working on my sabbatical proposal, I was thinking about all the great work out there I don’t have time to read, and liked to joke that my project would be to read books by friends and colleagues and friends of friends and friends of colleagues and write to them to tell them it was good, and that would be more of a contribution to the intellectual world than anything I could do on my own. It turns out I was only half-joking. So, kicking things off, here’s my talk with Megan:

LT: To start off, you’ve taught at a range of schools around NYC and you also talked to teachers for your book. For those who are outsiders to this, who follow the news and hear horror stories from friends and parents about testing and ed reform, but also wonder if we’re getting a partial or sensationalized picture, can you talk a little about what things look like from on the ground?  How much room to teachers have to maneuver. How is teacher morale? What do conversations among teachers look like?

ME: It’s a question I’ve been thinking about a lot this fall as I moved to the school I’m teaching at now. To be honest, it’s hard to fight back against it. The city test that I administer, for example, there not really any room to get around that as a teacher. The first week at my new school, my co-teacher, who has taught at the same school for ten years, told me something I recoiled at, but it was true. . .that you can only be the teacher you want to be now, before or after school. One of the reasons I was excited to teach social studies is that there’s no state test associated with it, so I thought, I won’t have to teach to the test. But then there’s pressure from administrators to make social studies more about literacy. This happens in my school and I believe it’s city-wide if not state-wide. They tie social studies to the ELA (English Language Arts) test. They say it’s to incentivize collaboration, but I think it’s to pressure teachers to start  your class a certain way. At my school you have to structure the class in this particular proscribed way. There’s no rationale – to me it’s not just what’s effective, it’s to ensure they’ll be exposed to what’s on the test. I’ve come to see the school operates very differently from the last time I was in a middle or high school classroom which was in 2011, when I student taught. They really have changed since then. Just a few years ago they were doing hands-on project, and now everything is worksheets.There’s no way around that in a  40 minute period.

The whole structure of schools is arranged around the banking model –  so kids can absorb the most information possible in a certain amount of time. That’s really the ethos, and testing is making its worse.

LT: That’s something I was thinking about reading your book. My sense is there are a lot of evil people involved in so-called ed. reform, and lots of opportunists, but some well-intentioned and smart people are receptive that comes from frustration with some of the things you are talking about – it’s jargon but something like “disruption” can seem attractive. Who wouldn’t want to remake the experience they had in school?

ME: I think two things are really important. Everyone who critiques ed. reform needs to reckon with the fact that our schools are failing children of color and low-income families. Schools have historically failed  particular populations. But also, in a deeper way, we *do* want to remake schools. This is part of why education is so fascinating for me. When you talk about the socialist future, if we’re not all working 9-5 or 9-8, what are we doing? When you talk about school, and work, you’re talking about what people do all day. Remaking school and remaking work are similar projects.

LT: That’s something that’s become really interesting to me as a parent: what do kids see us doing, what do the adults around them think is important?

ME: That’s part of what shaped my politics. Not every teacher is a radical, but teachers tend to me more politically open-minded if not radical. Even historically going back to the teacher’s union in NYC and today, CORE and the more radical branches. I think it does make injustice sit with you less when you’re around kids everyday. Kids don’t have the ability to regulate themselves. Neoliberal capitalism is so much about regulating yourself, even in the workplace. You’re supposed to love your work. You have to spend 12 hours in the office and go hang out with only work buddies. It’s so much about who you are is what you do. Kids really . . . make you authentic, think about what is important.

LT: Related to that and also to teacher morale, on a practical level. At CUNY I teach a lot of liberal arts majors who are interested in teaching.  What insight do you have for people who are interested in teaching, but are scared by the horror stories?

ME: I think that’s a hugely important question. I was having this conversation with someone who, after reading my book, said, “Should I even go into education?” I said, start in a progressive school, whatever community it is. It’s important for a teacher starting out to get experience in progressive values, so they can hold onto what’s wrong with other schools they may go into. Other schools can be very demoralizing for younger teachers, newer teachers, when it’s your first experience. Having had the other experience, where things are based on what kids need, not an outside arbitrary sense of what kids should know, gave me the experience and knowledge to say, this isn’t right, and to teach what I can within the confines that I have. I would love to have the day completely reorganized. That’s not going to happen , but I start each class with jumping jacks, for example.

LT: For people seeking out those pockets, are they there in the  public schools?

ME: Yes, absolutely. The good thing about ed reform – it’s so horrible, but it’s unifying for people. All these movements from kids and teachers and parents – that’s really important. The turn of Arnie Duncan in the Obama administration saying recently that standardized testing is used to much – it’s lip service, but it’s an important acknowledgement. A few years ago the idea was, if you’re not standing by standardized tests and accountability you’re against civil rights. But now there’s an opening where it’s acknowledged where they have to respond to that perspective. A lot of that is just labor power – when I was starting out, hiring was completely frozen and now they’re struggling to fill positions. It’s a huge difference – teachers feel the difference and feel strengthened by it.

LT: On a somewhat different related track, in my own research I’ve been doing some archival research on the feminist movement of the 70s, and there’s an interesting range of perspectives on child care and emotional work. Some of felt a lot of it was shitwork and it was just a question of getting men to share it or women not obliged to do it. But there was also a track of people talking about children’s rights, thinking about how children, like women, were not seen as people with full and valid inner lives. So now, for feminists, it’s still a lot of work to say that care work is work and deserves to be respected and well-compensated. But I wonder now, what perspectives we can have on what care work tells us, from the perspective of people who do it and can find it rewarding in the right circumstances.

ME: Doing research for my book, I was reading through the collection of Ellen Willis’ that came out recently and she wrote something where she asked, “Who will do the shit work?” It was a way a lot of feminists saw child care and housework. But she had a different perspective later, raising her daughter. Premilla Nadasen’s recent book, Household Workers Unite, was great and interesting because these workers faced the same questions of professionalization as teachers. But she also talks about, it’s can be satisfying, it’s very subjective, what is gratifying. I think this work tends to be looked down on because it’s very stressful.  It’s stressful because we set it up that way.

Professionalization is a really important question with teaching – there’s different issues in different places and different ways people respond to teachers. Anyone who has raised a kid knows, typically, if you’re working with younger kids, it’s lower paid, and the teachers are more likely to be women and people of color. It’s seen as closer to the home. On the other hand, there’s this instant professionalization with K-12, where I’ve had parents say, “they just ask me to drop off my kid at the door like I’m the maid.” With younger kids there’s less of a boundary which I like about working with younger kids – working with families. On the other hand, because of that, in capitalism, families perceive differently teachers because of that. When I was at one job one of our best teachers, multiple people were like, “I want her to be my nanny.” Even a consultant who should know better said that. And parents would say, “you don’t need professional development to teach my preschooler.” Well, yes you do. It’s not something you’re born knowing.

So professionalization is a double-edged sword, but only under the current system. How do you ask someone making 30,000 a year to get a masters? But if we were committed, these programs would be funded. . . . I think mentoring is really important too – it’s not something that’s natural. Especially with a classroom, with 10-20 little beings running around. What kids need teachers for is different from what they need parents for. One of the biggest goals, you’re trying to teach them to be part of a community.

LT:  I’m curious where you see activism around these issues – we’re in an exciting activist moment on a lot of issues. What do you see that’s promising, what are some of the biggest obstacles?

ME: In 2011, when Occupy was happening, CORE in Chicago, everything was happening all at once. What then happened is what always happens – long term coalescing coalition. For teachers, transforming unions is really important. MORE is doing that here in New York – they haven’t had the success of CORE yet, of course. There’s always different situations on the ground. Doing something is important, because, it’s building. I’m optimistic. Maybe because I have to be, but I am.


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