Unsettling Education

Searching for Ethical Footing in a Time of Reform

by Brian Charest (Volume editor) Kate Sjostrom (Volume editor)
©2019 Textbook XIV, 236 Pages


Unsettling Education: Searching for Ethical Footing in a Time of Reform offers a counter-narrative to the prevailing orthodoxies of schooling and school reform that conflate education and learning with that which can be measured on state-mandated examinations. Despite the push to "settle" the purposes of teaching and schooling in ways that see education as the teaching of a discrete set of skills that align with standardized exams, there are teachers and students who continue to resist standardization and whose stories suggest there are many ways to organize schools, design curriculum, and understand the purposes of education. Unsettling Education shares stories of how teachers have resisted state and local mandates to teach to the test in dehumanizing ways, how such teachers have sought to de-commodify educational spaces, how they have enacted their ethical commitments to students and communities, and how they have theorized such practices, sometimes even reconsidering their roles as teachers and the very purposes of schooling. Volume contributors offer concrete ways in which teachers might challenge the structures of schooling to reveal the full humanity and potential of students through different forms of resistance pedagogy, institutional critiques, and critical self-reflection. Featuring a wide range of voices and contexts, the collections’ chapters blend story and theory, resulting in a volume both accessible and thought-provoking to varied audiences—from undergraduate students of education and concerned citizens to veteran educators, teacher educators, administrators, and policymakers.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • Advance Praise for Unsettling Education
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction (Brian Charest / Kate Sjostrom)
  • Section I: The Promise of Unsettling Moments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Against Measurement: Making a Case for School Play (Avi Lessing / Glynis Kinnan)
  • 2. Calculating Justice? Using Mathematical Mindsets for Teaching From a Social Justice Perspective (Angela Whitacre de Resendiz / Will Hudson)
  • 3. Challenging Misrecognitions Through Reflexive Teacher Education: Knowing and Growing in an Age of Commodification (Noah Asher Golden)
  • Section II: Pedagogies of Resistance
  • Introduction
  • 4. Beyond Mandates and Measurement: Imagining a Gradeless Classroom (Sarah J. Donovan)
  • 5. Pedagogies of Resistance: Reflecting on the Successes and Challenges of Humanizing Classrooms in a Time of Standardization and Accountability (Matthew Homrich-Knieling / Alex Corbitt)
  • 6. Compulsory Heterosexuality: Unsettling and Undoing the Hidden Curriculum of Heteronormativity in Schools (Mikela Bjork)
  • Section III: Unsettling Education Through Institutional Critiques
  • Introduction
  • 7. Managing Teachers: Efficiency and Human Relations in Education (James McCoyne)
  • 8. Motivation, Mental Health, and the Eclipse of Social Imagination (Kevin Christopher Carey)
  • 9. A Look Into Leaving: Learning From One Equity-Oriented Teacher’s Resignation (Samantha Young / Deborah Bieler)
  • 10. “all schooled up”: One Teacher’s Path Toward Deschooling (Russell Mayo)
  • Epilogue
  • Everyone Knows Whose Side I’m On: Teachers, Students, and the Struggle for Freedom (Jay Gillen)
  • Contributors
  • Series index

| xi →


We thank our series editors, Les Burns and sj Miller, as well as Megan Madden and Monica Baum at Peter Lang Publishing. Thanks, too, to Carolyn Lesnick and Josh Staub for formatting and cover art, respectively.

Our mentors Bill Ayers, Todd DeStigter, Kevin Kumashiro, and David Schaafsma have provided continual guidance and insight.

Many colleagues and friends, too, deserve our appreciation: Chris Bass, Lauren Bell, Mikela Bjork, Jake Burns, Amy McGrail, Sarah Donovan, Angela Gutierrez, Nicol Howard, Abby Kindelsperger, Kate Manski, Russell Mayo, Manulani Meyer, Sarah Rutter, Jennifer Tilton, Beverly Troiano, Andrew Wall, and Christopher Worthman.

Special thanks to this volume’s contributors, all of whom challenged us to “unsettle” our thinking on schools and schooling: Deborah Bieler, Mikela Bjork, Kevin Carey, Alex Corbitt, Sarah Donovan, Noah Asher Golden, Matthew Homrich-Knieling, Will Hudson, Glynis Kinnan, Avi Lessing, Russell Mayo, James McCoyne, Angela Whitacre de Resendiz, and Samantha Young. And special thanks, of course, to their and our students, past and present.

Finally, we are grateful to our families for their support and encouragement.

| 1 →



Last fall, Christopher, a former student of Kate’s, entered student teaching excited, but exited unsettled. He documented his development in narratives such as this one:

This is Freshman English. There are rules here. This is supposed to be the year that we “prepare students for their entire high school experience.” These kids are not babies anymore. This is High School. And yet, I am reading “Where Have You Gone, Charming Billy?” [O’Brien, 1975] and all I can think about is how the Vietnam War feels like what we are doing to these kids. The first sentence in the story: The platoon of twenty-six soldiers moved slowly in the dark, single file, not talking. Twenty-six soldiers; twenty-six students in a class. Single file lines. No talking. Aren’t these elements of the story the things we should dislike about the training that occurs in war? Earlier in the week when doing vocabulary with the sophomores, one of the students says, “School is a synonym for prison.” The class chuckles and I am left wondering whether I should copy this onto the board and validate the student’s contribution. I smile and editorialize: School sometimes feels like a synonym for prison. I cannot tell if my mentor teacher is amused. I erase the vocab for the day and we move on. Back in Freshman English, our protagonist, Private First Class Paul Berlin, “pretend[s] he [is] not a soldier.” I write in the margin of my text: Pretend=Imagination=Childhood. What is this thing that we call childhood, that we need to beat out of people in order for them to “go out into the workforce/go fight for their country”? The students do not wear dog tags on metal chains, but they do wear plastic IDs on cloth lanyards. Straining my eyes throughout the day, I cannot identify the students’ faces or names on their plastic IDs. The students do, however, get castigated for not wearing theirs.

Christopher was deeply unsettled by how his host school’s practices seemed to erase his students’ unique identities, the “faces and names” on students’ plastic IDs unidentifiable even up close. He worried that, despite educators’ best intentions—indeed, he liked and respected his mentor teachers—schools ← 1 | 2 → sacrificed children’s imaginations in the name of productivity. Christopher found that he was no longer sure why he was doing work that so blatantly contradicted his understandings of what education was about.

During the weekly seminar that accompanied student teaching, Christopher asked “Why?” a lot: Why must he mark down students for using incomplete sentences in their class notes? Why did his peer spend more time having students label elements of a story’s “arc” than engaging students in conversation about the story’s meaning? Why? In Christopher’s understanding of education and learning, asking this question—Why?—was a fundamental piece of what school was supposed to be about. In this view, schools become spaces where students and teachers engage in a process of critically examining the prevailing orthodoxies. The issue for Christopher, however, was whether or not he would be able to carve out spaces to ask critical questions about the organization of the school, the design of the curriculum, and the need for things like standardized examinations.

During seminar, Christopher also apologized a lot; he could tell he was unsettling otherwise happy student teachers. These happy student teachers, it seemed, were more interested in starting their jobs than in asking the kinds of questions that Christopher wanted to ask about the purposes of education. Eventually, Christopher just kept his questions to himself, but his narratives, such as the following one, show that his concerns only grew:

We are in an impromptu department meeting. The department head is showing us the new Excel sheet that was made for checking students into “Auburn [school pseudonym] Hour,” the school’s new RTI period. In the first column is a list of students’ names highlighted in red, signifying that they have not been checked in today, because there is no Auburn Hour today. The department head demonstrates how students are checked in to Auburn Hour. There is a handheld scanner like one would find at a checkout line that will be placed on every teacher’s desk for use during Auburn Hour. At the beginning of the period, the teacher is supposed to scan the barcode on the students’ ID card that is hanging from their necks, and then the students’ names will go from being highlighted in red to being highlighted in green on the Excel sheet. This is supposed to streamline the attendance-taking process. There is a new student teacher at the meeting who is enthusiastically nodding at everything that is said about the new streamlined spreadsheet. After explaining other logistics to the new attendance-taking process, the department head brings up the topic of “Won’t” students. The department head says that if the students who keep getting assigned to Auburn Hour are “Won’t” students that teachers should remove those students from the attendance sheet and assign them to a study hall instead. A teacher asks what the study hall is like. Someone says it is silent and the students just sit there. Auburn Hour, the department head says, is for “Can’t” students, not “Won’t” students. In this school, there are “Can’t” students, and there are “Won’t” students. ← 2 | 3 →

Christopher is clearly attuned to the ways that schools dehumanize the young people in their care, reducing them to scannable bar codes and to “‘Can’t’ students” and “‘Won’t’ students.” Again and again throughout his student teaching, Christopher zeroed in on moments of opportunity—a class period devoted to supporting struggling students, a student’s critical (if flippant) inquiry into the purpose of prison-like schools—when humanizing students was possible. Why did these missed opportunities seem so discomforting to Christopher, while many of his peers—including the “new student teacher … enthusiastically nodding”—seemed willing to ignore or gloss over them so quickly? How was it, in these instances, that schooling became “settled” in ways that allowed the participants to, as Maxine Greene notes, “accede to the given” of the institution and leave so much unsaid and unchallenged (1998, p. 7)?

We believe that all of us—educators, administrators, parents, and community members—should be uncomfortable when students, teachers, and learning are objectified. We also believe that to counteract such objectification, we need a conscious and deep ethical commitment to the work of schools, as well as a political analysis to go with it. Enthusiasm for kids (or spreadsheets) isn’t going to be enough to wade through the contradictions and challenges of education without sacrificing our young people’s humanity. This book tells the stories of those who have worked to articulate a humane understanding of the role of schools in society and worked towards solidarity with students, colleagues, and community members. Their stories are not heroes’ tales. Indeed, sometimes these stories leave us to confront more questions—questions that unsettle our understandings of teaching and schools. That’s okay by us; we believe education is in need of some unsettling right about now.


When Kate last observed Christopher student teach, he used discussion of Brave New World as an opportunity to invite students to consider what they think education should and could look like. Though he tried to remain buoyant throughout the class period, his spirits steadily sank; though he finally coaxed ideas out of a handful of students, they were narrow in scope (“teachers should explain directions more”) and, ultimately, uninspiring. Worse yet, when Christopher tried to offer an alternative vision of education, he struggled to paint it in any particularity. It was as if the purposes and practices of schools had been settled, even for Christopher. This collection of stories, we hope, can help teachers like Christopher—teachers who intuitively understand ← 3 | 4 → that education can be so much more than test scores—to develop a political analysis and a voice to articulate a new vision for schools.

What’s Supposedly Settled

The last two decades of reforms have tried to reduce education to the teaching and learning of that which can be measured on standardized examinations. Education becomes “settled” precisely when there is some agreed upon “stuff” that we call the curriculum (and standardized examinations to go with it) that we import into our schools. The curriculum and the examinations are developed, packaged, and then disseminated to our schools, neatly wrapped in the perceived efficiency and neutrality of scientific language. We are told that all teachers in all schools should simply implement this curriculum using the “best practices” defined by those elsewhere. Students who fail are either the victims of “bad” teaching or, worse, lack sufficient grit or have yet to embrace a growth mindset.

The examination has, in many ways, become the single most important factor in many schools today. Not only does it inform and produce the need for future testing, but it also informs teacher training and licensing, provides or denies access to further education, and influences instruction and curriculum development. There is currently a national movement underway (and this is already happening in many states) to link teacher evaluations to student performance on these exams, raising the stakes even higher for both teachers and students.

This scheme to link teacher ratings and salaries to student test scores has been euphemistically termed “merit-based” pay. The seduction of these common sense reforms is undeniable, because the logic of these reforms appeals to deeply held beliefs about rewarding those who work hard to raise test scores (good teachers) and punishing those who do not (bad teachers) (Kumashiro, 2015).

Standardization in this system comes to mean fairness and equity, though, interestingly, these terms are never used in relation to community investment, school funding, or extracurricular or economic opportunities. In the latter realms fairness, equity, and standardization are irrelevant. The neighborhood or community from which a student comes, in fact, becomes irrelevant, too, since what matters here is access to curriculum, a good teacher, and the individual’s self-discipline and work ethic. We are compelled to understand, through the logic of neoliberalism, that where you are from has nothing to do with where you might go.

Suggesting that the purposes of school and the role of the teacher are settled (i.e., uncontestable and immutable) is precisely how neoliberal education ← 4 | 5 → reformers have framed the remaking of public schooling as a market-driven proposition. Wrapped in the logic and efficiency-speak of science, technology, and business, the rhetoric of neoliberal reforms helps to mask the problems and contradictions inherent in neoliberal policies—ones that diminish the work of teachers, decrease funding for social services in urban areas, privatize public schools, and ignore the political, economic, and social conditions affecting schools and their surrounding communities (Harvey, 2007). The effects of the misleading but powerful narrative of neoliberal education reform continue to ripple outward, reshaping the way we understand the work and preparation of teachers, the responsibilities of students and our responsibility to them, the nature of learning, the value of schools and communities, and, of course, what counts as knowledge.

Unsettling the Roles of Teacher and Student

The purpose of the teacher in the neoliberal framework is to implement the curriculum which has been aligned to the state-mandated, standardized examination. The student’s job is to learn the tools and tricks to perform well on these standardized examinations. This scenario ignores the contribution and potential of students and teachers to collaborate as fully human agents capable of defining their needs and interests. Teachers are never explicitly told not to attend to the complex humanity of students and their lived experiences, yet the entire accountability apparatus looms in ways that compel teachers to do just that.

In his book, Educating for Insurgency, Jay Gillen notes that “imagining that the purposes of schools are settled is a way of hiding the political role of young people” (2014, p. 50). We might add to Gillen’s analysis that such an approach also neutralizes the role of teachers in paradoxical ways—both underscoring teacher agency and denying it simultaneously—since once the goal of school is made clear, isn’t it the teacher’s job merely to make sure that students reach it? Gillen tells us that this understanding “misrepresents the sociological and political problem,” and that “the problem is that the social and political purposes of the country are contested, and young people are already participating in working toward a settlement of the contest, even while their political role remains unacknowledged” (p. 50). In this way, too, the role of teachers in public schools is also contested. Teachers, like students, continue to push back and resist efforts to standardize curriculum and learning outcomes. Teachers, like the ones in this collection, suggest that there are, in fact, many ways to organize schools, design curriculum, and understand the purposes of education. ← 5 | 6 →


XIV, 236
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (June)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. XIV, 236 pp., 1 table

Biographical notes

Brian Charest (Volume editor) Kate Sjostrom (Volume editor)

Brian Charest, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Redlands. He has presented locally and nationally and published articles on teaching, equity, civic engagement, community organizing, social justice, ethics, and radical pragmatism. Kate Sjostrom, PhD, is a lecturer and assistant director of English education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her research and teaching focus on writing teacher identity development in the context of education reforms, as well as on the potential for teacher-writing to build teachers’ advocacy.


Title: Unsettling Education
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
252 pages