A few years back, I got an email from a recognizable family name in the district where I taught for over 30 years. The man sending the email graciously introduced himself and provided the year that he thought I may have been his sixth grade music teacher. Doing the math, I realized it was my first year of teaching.
Once I confirmed that yes, I was the Nancy Flanagan he was looking for, he sent a rather remarkable second email. He was working for the State of Michigan, as an attorney in their Civil Rights division. And he wanted to thank me for my influence on his life, back when he was in the sixth grade, in my general music class.
While large segments of my career as a music teacher are blurry in my memory, I do remember bits and pieces of that first year—I was teaching several sections of sixth grade music, and saw the kids perhaps twice a week. There was no set curriculum, no standards, no published materials to guide me. I was literally making it up, day by day. It was an all-white school, in a charming little town on the outer ring of suburban Detroit—and my job seemed to be keeping the kids busy for 40 minutes, and my head down.
In his email, the man said he remembered singing Black and White, a then-current hit song by Three Dog Night, in music class. You talked to us about it, he said— kind of a little sermonette (his word) about equity and integration. None of my other teachers and nobody in my family ever talked to me about race or civil rights, he said. But the song made me curious. In high school, I started asking questions. And in college, I took a course in African American studies. And then I went to law school, with the intention of doing something good with my education.
The key thing about this story is that I didn’t remember any of it—not singing the song, and especially not talking to sixth graders about the meaning of the lyrics:
The ink is black, the page is white. Together we learn to read and write.
A child is black, a child is white. The whole world looks upon the sight–a beautiful sight.
And now a child can understand that this is the law of all the land.
I have since learned that the song was originally written in response to the Brown decision, in 1954, and first recorded by Pete Seeger. A verse that was part of the original lyrics was left out when Three Dog Night recorded it:
Their robes were black, their heads were white,
the schoolhouse doors were closed so tight.
Nine judges all set down their names, to end the years and years of shame.
How would Ron DeSantis feel about Black and White? Or any of the other things millions of teachers have unwittingly said, done, shared, read aloud and even thought in recent decades? Where does ordinary classroom discourse end—and “indoctrination” begin?
A good way to think about that question is to reflect on what you learned in school—remarks that teachers made, class discussions, books that lingered in your mind. Your mileage may vary, of course, but a lot of what I remember is not “content,” per se—but the odd comment, classroom habits, kindness or lack thereof.
My biology teacher, Mr. Fry, used to show us movies from the Moody Bible Institute on Fridays, 100% creationist in nature. Mrs. Wildfong, fifth grade, let me skip the SRA kit and read whatever I liked from a shelf in her classroom. My HS physical education teacher, Mrs. Firme (yes—that was her real name), once asked me if I had polio as a child, because of the way I ran the 50-yard dash, making me self-conscious about running for the rest of my life.
Was I indoctrinated by my teachers? Nearly every teacher I had subtly changed my academic and life trajectory, from kindergarten to graduate studies, and not all of them had my personal well-being as an educated person in mind. Some wanted to save my soul, others wanted to influence my political beliefs. When William Kunstler came to speak on my college campus, my philosophy professor said his speech was “garbage.” I don’t remember a great deal about introductory philosophy, but I remember that.
Was the Professor right? I had to wrestle with that question—challenging intellectual work, actually, during a time when campus unrest was the hot political issue.
In yet another excellent blog, Jan Ressenger says this:
For several hours in December, as I watched a televised hearing of the Ohio House Education Committee, I was struck by so many lawmakers who seemed to define the role of teachers as mechanical producers of standardized test scores—and who conceptualize schools as merely an assembly line turning out workers who will help attract business and manufacturing to Ohio. I listened to a conversation filled with standardized test scores—numbers, percentages, and supposed trends measured by numbers. The only time human beings appeared in the discussion of education was when legislators blamed teachers for the numbers.
As I watched the hearing, I realized again something that I already knew: Many of the people who make public education policy at the state level don’t know what teachers do. Few people on that committee seemed to grasp that teaching school is a complex and difficult job.
Ressenger gets this absolutely right–read the blog! Teaching has never been about content delivery, effectively measured by tests, where students repeat what they’ve memorized. Good teaching has always been –even if unacknowledged– about applying new knowledge and challenging beliefs.
It’s a complex and difficult job, all right.
Were you indoctrinated by your teachers? Who’s in charge of the indoctrination dialogue right now—and what’s their goal? Good questions to ask.
When I was in middle school, I wrote a book report on Cheaper by the Dozen. I either paraphrased or copied some dialogue that I felt was important. The teacher accused me of plagiarism. I didn’t even know what that was and asked another teacher. Looking back on it, I find the whole incident ridiculous. How do you plagiarize a book report? I’m sure there were no citations since I hadn’t been taught how, but that is beside the point. Sixty years later, I still remember her accusation, but at least now I know she was full of balloon juice and didn’t know what plagiarism was herself!
Several people have commented on ridiculous (or seriously damaging) things teachers said to them, things that did lasting harm–or made them mad enough to push back. Every time I hear that teachers are ‘indoctrinating’ students, I think that maybe that’s what the accuser actually WANTS teachers to do: indoctrinate students in a certain way of thinking.
To use the obvious example–what Ron DeSantis wants is to promote a version of society and history that exonerates the powerful. THAT is indoctrination, not simply telling the stories honestly. In your example, the teacher was trained to see repeating key phrases as plagiarism, not admiration, or the ability to cut to the chase and find important aspects of a memoir.
Also: balloon juice. (snicker)
Nancy, I just wanted you to know that I So Often think about how much I owe and appreciate my grade school teacher, who taught me (and all my siblings) at our Country School for our entire 8 years.
She gave So Much that has enriched my entire life. She Music, Art, Theatre, and so much more in the way of ethics, fairness, and I credit her with giving me a solid foundation for my journey through Life.
Everything was simpler in those early years, but her job of teaching 8 separate grades in one room every day of the school year, making sure that our time there was enhanced by the addition of those extra cultural gains.
I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity and the experience of all she managed to provide to her students.
Perhaps in those simpler days it was not the Strange Land that teachers must cope with today, but my plaudits go to all the Alice Easts and Nancy Flanagans who know the positive effect they can create by their care and integrity as teachers.💖