A Different Kind of Teacher – John Taylor Gatto

I picked this book up at my last library visit.  It is my stop gap reading until his book, “Dumbing Us Down”  arrives from Book Depository.

John Taylor Gatto was a school teacher for 30 years before leaving the profession and becoming an advocate for a different way of doing things.

I became interested in reading his work after seeing him mentioned on more than one homeschooling email list or blog.   His is an American experience, and may not be directly translated to other countries, but I was interested to see what this often referenced man had to say about conventional, mass education.

This book is a collection of his essays and speeches.  It is organised in three sections:

  1. Schoolrooms Speak Bluntly
  2. Analyzing the System
  3. The Search for Meaning

As I start this review I am only just heading in to Section Two, but it has become quite clear to me that there is more than one blog post to be written on the content of this interesting and confronting book.  So please be prepared to have the socks bored off of you over the next few days.  I am only a little over eighty pages in and the book is riddled with my lovely Japanese stick-it notes marking points I want to raise.  It looks rather like an explosion in the 3M factory.

This particular post will be about the topics raised in the first section.
The context for this part is twenty years old, with We Can’t Afford School Reform being his speech from 1990 when he was named New York City Teacher of the Year and Why Do Bad Schools Cost So Much? being his 1991 speech from his presentation with the New York State Teacher of the Year Award.

The essays are of their time and place, but I do not believe that the questions raised by them should be ignored with the assumption of “that was then, it won’t be like that now” or “that is in their country, it won’t be like that here”.  As I’m sure most cynics would agree reform, whether beneficial or not, does tend to be a process run by snails where government departments or ministries are concerned.

In Why Do Bad Schools Cost So Much?, he produces some rather jaw-dropping financial statistics around how schools are funded and what the cost, per seat, is.  It makes me wonder what it is like here, and if it has improved at all in the US in the past twenty years.
By way of example, the City of New York spends $7,300 per pupil.  New York state schools, on average, after three layers of administration costs and sundry non-teaching costs, have 25 cents in every funding dollar for actual teaching costs.  The breakdown of the costs leaves you in no doubt that the administrators are skinning the cat in no uncertain terms.
I wonder how our system here would fare if we looked closely at the average operating costs of most state schools.  Would it be the same, better, or radically different?

Financially speaking, those of us who choose (or may be considering choosing) to homeschool or home educate their children, are a boon to the general taxpayer.  If a child costs anything like the US figures in our economy then we are helping out by ensuring a bit more cashflow to those children still attending classes.  I hardly think the approximately $500 a year (or so I believe it to be) grant from the Ministry of Education to cover costs is likely to go very far.  Clearly you don’t choose to home educate in this country for the big bucks.

Still on the financial side of the story, it is interesting to see that private schools in the US spend about half that of public schools on average, and parochial schools even less.  Naturally their homeschool fraternity cost next to nothing or nothing at all.  I’m not even sure they get any sort of grants.  Yet the latter three institutions (yes, the family is an institution) produce superior results.

Gatto has some very interesting ideas about what the problems are with government monopolised, compulsory, mass education.  They are quite confronting and I can’t quite bring myself to believe his viewpoint wholeheartedly.  Yet, I know that some of his observations on the outcome of mass education are some of my primary drivers for wanting to home educate the Oh Waily kids.

Moving on to We Can’t Afford School Reform we get into the more gritty aspects of his views and observations.  This passage was certainly an eye-popper.

What schools are about in their structural design is dependency, obedience, regulation, and the subordination an orderly class system needs – in which people stick to their own kind and don’t get out of line.  Schools achieve these goals by endless exercises in subordination.

He goes on to explain the roots of this structure and intent, but I will come to that in the next post.  In the meantime, be assured he continues along a similar path.  Speaking about the outcome of this he says,

By and large my kids are indifferent to the past, indifferent to the future, indifferent to each other, and indifferent to themselves.  They don’t seem to be able to hold interest in anything for very long.

And on the wider implication of mass schooling,

No effect of compulsory mass-schooling is more resistant to remedy than the damage it has done to the American family by separating parents and kids.  If teachers claim privileged information about education, and school-time takes the best time available for the self-discoveries of growing up, then the most important reason for families to exist at all vanishes.

Are you still with me?  Just a bit confronting.  Don’t write it off though, at least before you have read the whole and in context.  There is more historical information provided later that is the support for his viewpoint.

This last passage strikes me strongly though.  I have always felt that it is my job to raise my kids, otherwise why would I have wanted to bring them in to this world.  I have never wanted to “farm them out” for someone else to teach or look after.  I do take advantage of sessional daycare so that I can take care of myself, that’s the reality of full-time parenting, finding gaps for yourself.  But, for me*, this is the extent of my farming out.
Reading that final sentence sums it all up for me.  What is the point of my family if I am merely a bystander and an after-school and weekend teacher for my kids?  It just doesn’t feel right and it just doesn’t sit right – for me.  I can’t explain to you exactly why this is the case for me, it just is.

And this rather fragmented post is the first in a series I feel coming on about some unorthodox views on the mass education system.  I hope I don’t frighten you all away into brighter corners of the internet.  I promise it will all be over soon, and relatively painlessly.

* let me be clear.  This is my way of looking at things and how I feel about this.  I do not in any way, as a result of my views, condemn or look down on anyone else’s choices.  Your choices, situation and desires are your own to make and have, just as I would expect my views to be respected.

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