I Went to Public School

In 2008, I created a video project as the final assignment for a Philosophy of Education course during my teacher preparation program. The project was accompanied by a three page paper that investigated my personal pedagogy at the time, which was particularly supported by an overwhelming sense of self-defined justice. More importantly, to be the type of teacher that was mindful of her own judgements. I was pushing myself to be critical of my own positionally before ever being exposed to Zeus Leonardo or Gloria Ladson-Billings. I was questioning my part in the contructs and normalization produced by the institutions I was about to become a part of and poking at their limitations before ever reading Micheal Apple. All I had at the time was a belief in the empowerment of society and a sense of humanity destined for a better future, birthed into the world by the labor of teachers, because I was living it in my own personal recovery. I hadn’t been exposed to critical theory yet. I had not worked my first licensed job in a Federal turn-around school yet, that was two years down the road in my story. All I knew in that moment was how I had survived a series of “unique” circumstances during my childhood, which I thought had equipped me to reach some of the children that other teachers may have written off as unreachable. (In some ways that is true. It comes at a great cost in personal balance and self-care along with an acceptance of socio-economic privilege because, despite the adversity one has faced, when a white American makes a decision to “pick themselves up” or escape harm, the path is laid clear. But that is an conversation for another time.) Most of all, I Went to Public School became a continuum that would hold up a mirror to teachers (to myself) and ask if they’re ready to embrace anyone that walks through the door. To me, that’s what the job required. It’s who I wanted to be.

Each year I revisit this work when I’m invited back to speak to teacher candidates at the same program. I share this project as part of a small presentation, and we discuss our preconceptions of teaching, concerns about not being able to “reach”every child, the importance of remaining reflective in our relationships with self, colleagues, students, and families. Many common threads and themes around teacher identity weave through this conversation from year to year, the teacher as some kind of hero, a person who is flexible enough to enter public service willing to embrace all — in some sense sounding similar to the ideology prescribed by the Statue of Liberty. Most candidates express concerns about sticking to their own values with hopes of carrying them into their teaching so that they can “change the world” with their particular antidote, as if it’s never been tried before. In the moment, we can’t see how impossible it will be for one person to carry that out. We haven’t had enough time to analyze how the institutions we plan to infiltrate are designed to make that even more difficult than we perceive. We believe we are different enough to make a change, but often times, we are scattered so thinly across the cloth of education, that we are unable to collect enough strength to make waves. In other instances, there are moments of collective synergy and massive student growth, where schools and families build a community that pierce through the stagnance with a possibility lived, and we stand in awe of it, though impermanent.

The project gains relevance for me in some way year after year, yet hits me differently each time. It’s like having written a letter to myself that I read again and again as a reminder of that inner space where I started before the imprint of the institution reshaped me. I’m brought back to a reflective and artistic space through which I would channel my teaching for the coming years. I glance at the photos, taken over the course of a month as I bounced from location to location across the city gathering images of as many people as were willing to be involved. (View still photo set here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jennd/albums/72157615645612933) I re-read my words from 2008 and I can’t help but notice how important it’s been to remind myself and those around me that school, or more importantly- the right to learn, is for everyone. I’ll stand by that. It’s for all of us. It’s for all teachers, and families and learners, whoever will stand by their callings, or more importantly their visions, and that’s the harder part. And we stand next to those whose voice has been drown out, listening. Here we are, amidst the experiment of trying to cultivate cooperative interdependence, if minimally trying to co-exist. We are tight rope walking our way through with incredible heights from which to fall, and we keep getting back up. The theorists, the writers, the teachers, the paras, we keep trying new stunts and achieving new feats despite the pain because we believe in something created for everyone. Maybe it’s not what everyone needs, or the way in which they should have it, but for some reason we remain fixed on the project.

From 2008: “I Went to Public School” is a prototype of a body of work that exists on a continuum. This photo set creates a juxtaposition of images that are intended to prompt critical thinking about diversity and our tendency as human beings to judge others in society. In the film, interview clips from people from a variety of backgrounds who went through the public school system are placed intermittently with these images to give a voice to subjects such as school success, high school drop-outs, race and gender issues, and learning styles.”

* COPYRIGHT: (c) 2016 Jennifer Dauphinais, All Rights Reserved, Images & media: jcdauphinais, 2008

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