The first social studies methods course I taught served the additional purpose of providing data for a dissertation on preservice teacher development. This first attempt at methods was also my initial, ambitious effort at building a classroom setting characterized by critical discussion, the challenging of assumptions, and an emancipatory discourse. These grandiose efforts were meant to send these beginning teachers into their student teaching semester charged to lead the democratic transformation of public schooling. In the middle of that semester, several class members let me know that my best intentions for the course were not being realized. On this particular day, as the class moved away from a discussion of the appointed topic, multicultural education, and toward a forum for airing grievances with the course, one class member began her contribution by saying, "I don't feel safe in this classroom," and burst into tears. I was taken aback, to say the least, if not totally surprised. That our classroom had become a less than welcoming environment for some was an unsettling sentiment I had detected in the prior weeks, but try as I might to figure out what was so threatening about our class, I had few answers.
Then, 2 months later, after the semester came to an unceremonious end, I was nearing completion of an interview of Amy, a student/study participant from that class. I asked why she thought some students did not feel free to speak their minds in class. Amy replied,
You have to have, like, a safe place, and where you're going to feel
comfortable saying things, and you're going to feel like you can say stuff
and you won't get a funny face. I mean, you kind of have that wrinkled face
when you look at people, like that right there.... You have a face. It's
stupid. It's totally stupid. It shouldn't matter, but it does. Like, it
shouldn't matter, but if you don't care that I say it, I know that people
have said, "And then you're talking and he gets this face like, and it
looks like, what are you talking about? Like, are you stupid?" That's what
the face looks like.... And it's good to, like, criticize and look at
critical parts and pick things apart, but I don't think there was that safe
place and developed relationship to do that yet ... because some days when
we were talking, some days, people around me would say, "I'm scared to say
what I'm going to say." That's pretty sad. People were scared to say what
they had to say, that you would look at them funny and look at them like,
"What the hell are you talking about?"
I was stunned. This response was truly a revelation to me. Promotion of open discourse was, and is, one of the most valued objectives of my teaching, one that I was unknowingly squelching. Immediately after the interview, I phoned several of my closest friends, all of whom worked outside the field of teacher education, to ask them if they knew of this "look." To a person, they did. One of my closest friends told me he knew the look well. I asked, "What does it mean?" He explained that it meant I was thinking very hard about what he was saying, trying to deeply understand his point. He claimed it was one of my most endearing qualities as a friend. I continued, "Could it mean anything else?" My friend continued, "Oh yeah, if I didn't know you very well, I'd think it means that you think I'm stupid."
Several years later, my efforts in teaching essentially the same methods course, with the same aim of promoting critical reflection, meet with far different results. I have since come to more deeply appreciate the enormous complexity of a democratic teacher education project. In much the same way as described by Cochran-Smith (2000), my competence as a teacher of teachers has evolved as I have undertaken the sometimes painful work of carefully examining the assumptions I hold about progressive education. Many explanations account for my increasing effectiveness as a teacher educator, but Amy's words recall one particular change in my professional practice--in the very first class meeting of all of my classes, students hear me explain "the look" and what it means. …