Teacher Bergeron: How to Handicap Great Teachers (1-31-14)

I once had a visitor to my classroom–someone I wanted to send a message to about the standardization of teachers. I had my class read the short story “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, I’m not “subtle” but I am “effective.” Effective, that is, at making a point. Not necessarily on a teacher evaluation system.

If you haven’t read “Harrison Bergeron,” go and read it now. The link is above. Well, if you don’t want to, I’ll tell you that it’s about a future (2081 to be precise) when everyone is made equal to everybody else using sash-weights to equalize strength, noise-transmitters to shatter thoughts and equalize intelligence, and ugly masks to equalize looks. Harrison himself is a 14 year old rebel: a seven foot tall genius, with a face like a Greek god, mighty strength, dancing skills, and the ability to defy gravity. To counteract these traits, he is draped in scrap metal, disfigured by mask-like facial accessories, and fitted with a large-sized set of headphones transmitting loud random noises to scramble his thoughts. All of the “handicapping” in the story is under the jurisdiction of the United States Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers.

Harrison is not a teacher – so how does his plight relate to that of teachers? 

Well, imagine you are a teacher. For the good of your students, and to make your job more satisfying and meaningful both to you and to your students, you actually want to exercise some of your particular strengths as a teacher. For the good of your students, you want to actually think about what you teach and how your students learn to find the sweet spot where the two things meet. For the good of your students, you want to find ways to make your subject and its attendant skills and knowledge attractive and appealing to your students. 

You might think that we’d want teachers to exercise their particular strengths, use their intellects, and work to make learning seem attractive. It appears that this is not the case. 

If you have particular strengths as a teacher, they want to weigh you down. The Diana Moon Glampers of the education world will strap a textbook or workbook to you and tell you to stay within the four corners of the book. Those textbooks can be heavy. 

If you really want to think for yourself as a teacher, about how to order the activities and assignments in your room, about what those activities and assignments should actually be, the Glampers will strap a headset over your ears. This headset will blast into your head every hour of every day, reminding you to follow the curriculum map, to stick to the pacing guide, to do what everyone else in your Professional Learning Community is doing, to teach in the same order and in the same way as everyone else teaching your grade level and subject. 

If you have ways of making your subject particularly attractive to your students, things like coming up with reading or writing assignments or projects or learning experiences that you know will particularly engage your particular students or get them to think certain ways or see things in a new light– look out. They will put a mask on you to hide those attractive ideas. These masks go by names like Common Formative Assessments and Common Summative Assessments and Standardized Assessments. Every student in every class must be approached by the same face. 

You go to make a move as a teacher, and find textbooks and maps and pacing guides weighing you down. You can’t just think about your students and how to help them. The minute you take a step in that direction, it’s like your ankles are shackled to the ankles of everyone else in your PLC– and you aren’t supposed to make a move without them. You stand in front of your class, but you are not really teaching–you are going through the motions of teaching, weighed down, masked, and unable to think straight. 

And supposedly getting some kind of results that you are supposedly responsible for. 

Of course, some of us have done what Harrison did. We’ve torn off the scrap metal, ripped off the mask, and torn out the headset so that we can use our strengths, share our enjoyment of our subject, and think for ourselves. 

In the end, Harrison got shot down from the ceiling by Diana Moon Glampers, but those of us who really want to teach rather than go through the motions can hope to escape such a fate. The person who visited my classroom got my un-subtle message, and gave me the blessing to do what I do for students– even though “Harrison Bergeron” isn’t on our curriculum map. 

There are brave people out there who are willing to be the anti-Glampers, who are willing to Just Let Us Teach

Of course Harrison tore off his handicaps for his own aggrandizement. Maybe that’s why he couldn’t win. We need to tear off our handicaps for our students. 

I can’t think of a worse example to set for children than to show them that it’s okay to let other people weigh you down and make you less than you are. 

We need to show them how to be free.