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Teacher in a Strange Land: The Return of the Tradteacher

Been reading about the tradwife lately? Although explicit definitions vary, the general gist is returning to a post-war conception of a stay-at-home wife, most likely with children (or planning for children), in relationships where men make all the family decisions, and control the finances. Reinforcing patriarchal norms and glorifying the satisfying and ‘natural’ role of housewife.

If you’re hearing a touch of cynicism there, well—I lived through a time when the tradwife, even if she was working, could not get a credit card or substantial business loan. While I certainly defend any woman’s right to stay home and support her children and spouse in places other than an outside workplace, the whole “tradwife” schtick (especially combined with the rollback of Roe) makes me itchy.

It also strikes me that tradwives are just another glitzy, social media-driven facet of a larger wave of backlash against a whole lot of un-trad trends in American society: Full-blown reproductive freedom. The continued shrinkage of mainline religions. Honoring personal sex/gender choices. Women running for office and corner offices–and winning. And so on.

I also see lots of pushback against untraditional teaching, curriculum and school organization models. The whole “Science of Reading” battle rings very familiar to those of us who started teaching in the 1970s, when teachers were pushing back against the “Why Johnny Can’t Read” –because teachers theoretically weren’t teaching phonics–crusade in the late 50s.

Nearly all of the folks who taught me were tradteachers, using trad methods, and when I entered the classroom, many of my teaching colleagues were 100% traditional-minded as well: Straight rows, direct instruction, textbook-based, daily homework, and off to the principal should you disobey orders. And some of those folks were effective teachers.

But lots of the opinion writing I see from Moms4Liberty, NYT columnists, conservative politicians and ed-bloggers focuses on how different education looks and feels from the classrooms they remember, decades ago—classrooms that may have been racially and economically monolithic, and headed by a series of teachers who did things in the same way.

Peter Greene recently had a good piece about Gloria Jean Merriex, a Florida teacher who broke out of her traditional mold and had some great success. A couple of lines jumped out at me:

Once she had her degree, she chose to teach at Duval Elementary, where for about twenty-five years she was a middle-of-the-road, competent-but-not-exceptional teacher.

Then came No Child Left Behind, and with it, high stakes testing. In Florida, that meant the FCAT, used to give each school a grade, with rewards for A schools and punitive “interventions” for F schools. In 2002, Duval was rated F.

Merriex was troubled. She concluded that if the school was going to be transformed, she would have to transform herself. She dumped the state pacing guides and teaching materials. When she got caught, she begged Duval principal Lee McNealy for a chance to give her methods a try, and McNealy had the guts and trust to give it to her.  Merriex developed materials and approaches of her own, and for the early 2000s, her choices were unconventional. She wrote raps and dances to do with her students for learning math vocabulary and basic processes. She used call and response, movement and arts in the math and reading classroom. If some of her techniques seem less radical twenty years later, that is in part because of her influence.

For many, perhaps most, teachers, their first years in the classroom might look very much like the way those newbies themselves were taught. It was certainly that way for me, wanting to be the World’s Greatest Band Director and following the exact procedures and ideas I had experienced in bands and at music camp in high school. For many years, I too was a competent-but-not-exceptional teacher, like Ms. Merriex.

I also broke out of the traditional mold, and while not all of the things I tried were big successes, I was able to redefine what I wanted students to take away, for the rest of their lives, from being in my classroom. I accomplished many of those goals. I read social media for music teachers now, and I see great changes in thinking about the Big Ideas—from competition to creativity—in music ed.

Traditional teaching—and like tradwives, the definitions are murky—is not always or even often the best bet. Especially if that teacher’s goal is to move every student under her watch forward.

Stanford Professor Jo Boaler is something of an iconoclast in non-traditional math education, and recently–no surprise–there’s been yet another dustup over Boaler’s ideas.

She advocates for ending tracking by ability in math classes, getting rid of timed tests and starting with conceptual understanding before introducing procedures. Most importantly, she wants to elevate the work that students tackle in math classes with more interesting questions that spark genuine curiosity and encourage students to think and wonder. Her goal is to expose students to the beauty of mathematical thinking.

Right there in the first sentence, there are three uber-traditional practices—tracking, timed tests, and doing a series of problems to iron in an algorithm, to get the right answers rather than seeking to understand the concepts underlying the calculation. And who’s out to get Boaler? Well, men who have been the beneficiaries of understanding and excelling at traditional mathematics.

It’s an enormously complex endeavor, teaching. Sticking to the habitual, and ignoring students who check out, only works for awhile. BUT—listen to legislators and parents talk about schooling, and a lot of what you’re hearing is somewhere between nostalgia and flat-out misinformation. The book-banning, faux CRT, Tik-tok blaming, skeptical-of-teachers crowd hasn’t got a clue about what it’s like to teach kids in 2024, beginning with some clarity about the purpose of public education.

As Jess Piper says, in a wonderful column called You Don’t Like It? Move!:

None of us is safe so long as there are folks living in states that are unsafe. They will roll over us first, and you next. The billionaires are using my state AG and other regressive state AGs to file suit to dismantle public schools. They sue to ban abortion and the medicine for self-managed abortions. They sue to stop college loan forgiveness. They sue to overturn civil rights and anti-discrimination policies.

As Piper says—hey, we can’t all move, or teach in a private school where we can craft our own processes, research and convictions. But returning to traditional methods isn’t the policy answer. You have to move forward. It’s the way of the world.  


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Nancy Flanagan

Nancy Flanagan is a retired teacher, with 31 years as a K-12 Music specialist in the Hartland, Michigan schools. She was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 199...