Well-intentioned Wings

Maybe your brain doesn’t wander like mine but I recently considered the question: would a butterfly make a good teacher in a caterpillar school?

I was travelling on a bus recently and reading Biesta’s chapter on Emancipation from his book ‘The beautiful Risk of Education.’ He challenges pretty much everything there is to challenge on the subject of education and enables you to see it in a completely different way. I always thought emancipation was a cornerstone of my practice, but the more you immerse yourself with the critical analysis of the subject you soon begin to question what you have been doing.

One of the key strands of thought is the idea that emancipation within learning is problematic as it implies an inequality which needs sorted by someone who can bring ‘freedom’ to those less able. He addresses this problem by suggesting emancipation should be achieved by exposing the power struggles or imbalances within a system to allow people to go through a process of subjectification – the ability to become self within the system without cohesion. He suggests we start from a position of full equality rather than trying to close the equality gap.

I started to wonder how teachers can expose power imbalances within classrooms through a process of normalizing equality. This can be a tricky ask, as the power imbalance often lies within the relationship between the teacher and her/his class. The teacher’s role is therefore to shine a light on where oppression lies, not by teaching WW2 or the Suffragettes, but by exposing what power looks like in the classroom, playground and school. This process creates a lived-experience for pupils to embody a process of emancipation which becomes transferable as they move through life.

To allow this to happen the teacher must allow for co-creation with their pupils. These spaces are far removed from the teacher as ‘knowledge-giver’ and student as ‘empty vessel’. If we believe in equality as standard we must accept the that teacher fulfils a different role – one of questioner, provocateur, and collaborator. Within these spaces we must understand the roles of adult and child, as they are key to understanding power imbalances. This is where we pick up my original question – do butterflies make good caterpillar teachers?

Let’s play with the metaphor a bit. Butterflies where once caterpillars. Much like adults where once children. The same – but different. Butterflies are bigger, more skilled, seem more confident. Caterpillars are limited by their bodies, more vulnerable, and seen as not yet fully-evolved. You see where I am going. However, a caterpillar is still a caterpillar. It thinks, behaves and grows like a caterpillar. Likewise – a butterfly is a butterfly. Or, does a butterfly hold onto their experience of a caterpillar even though they are now a different being?

Within the metaphor, who is best placed to be a teacher of caterpillars – the creature that is still crawling and munching leaves, or the creature that has successfully survived beyond this primitive stage and is able to fly?!? What assumptions would the butterfly make of their time as a caterpillar that would be either useful or out of touch? Can something with wings connect to something that crawls? Can adults still know what is best for a child? What role can a butterfly have if it isn’t there to teach the caterpillar how to be a butterfly? Can an adult separate their understanding of childhood with the child in front of them?

Here is a poem I wrote as a response:

Well-intentioned Wings

Do not tempt me with your well-intentioned islands of sanity where butterflies dance in the treetops. We see it sinking in the rising tide.

I am from another island – an island of insanity. The butterflies don’t visit us here, as it is where the caterpillars’ rule. It is wild, there is disorder, conflict exists and danger is welcomed.

Our island is growing, the others are coming. They see the false promise of sanity – they want to be free.

Do not try to understand our island from your sinking shores; we welcome all, but leave your well-intentioned wings behind.

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