catholic education

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Explore your understanding of:
•    The purpose of Catholic Education OR
•    The role of Religious Education within the Mission of the Catholic Church
(You are encouraged to support your thinking with Church documents on Catholic education)
please use the following documents to complete the essay
9
AMONG SCHOOL TEACHERS: BEARING WITNESS AS AN
ORIENTATION IN EDUCATIONAL INQUIRY
David T. Hansen
Department of Arts and Humanities
Teachers College, Columbia University
Abstract. In this writing, David Hansen illuminates the aesthetic, moral, and epistemic meaning of
bearing witness to teaching and teachers by drawing upon a recently completed field-based endeavor
that included extensive school visits. Hansen shows how bearing witness can bring the inquirer close to
the truth of teaching. However, the witness must undertake ethical work to ready her- or himself for the
task. Even such readiness, which must be continuously re-won on each occasion, guarantees nothing.
The witness in the classroom must work with faith, hope, and a deep sense of the worthwhileness of
teaching. Hansen suggests that the witness’s practice as well as testimony regarding the work can have
a valuable influence on the consciousness, and conscience, of all who concern themselves with teaching
and teachers.
… not so much looking for the shape
as being available
to any shape that may be
summoning itself
through me
from the self not mine but ours.
— A. R. Ammons, “Poetics”
I have seen such beautiful things in the world which, apart
From desire, I should never have seen. I bless desire,
the fault of its satisfaction; the fault of the world.
I bless that fault: that, in its offering
denying us all, denies us nothing,
offers the world to us, not to have.
— William Bronk, “Unsatisfied Desire”
In recent years, philosophers of education have undertaken fieldwork in
schools and other settings in order to address educational questions traditionally
approached through theoretical analysis. As I understand these colleagues’ work,
their aim is not to transfigure themselves into social scientists. Rather, they aspire
to generate fresh occasions for normative inquiry. Their work fuses three related
moves: engaging firsthand what is happening in an educational setting, reflecting
upon it through a philosophical lens, and posing questions about what could or
should be happening on a broader scale that is more just, closer to a conception of
the good, and/or more beautiful. These scholars’ philosophically based fieldwork
has illuminated value-laden aspects of current policy, practice, and research that
might otherwise remain in the shadows. Their work both complements and
problematizes social science–based research. On the one hand, philosophers have
excavated epistemic and moral assumptions underlying various claims, and they
EDUCATIONAL THEORY Volume 67 Number 1 2017
© 2017 Board of Trustees University of Illinois
10 E D U C A T I O N A L T H E O R Y Volume 67 Number 1 2017
have shed new light on the meanings people ascribe to their work and lives. On the
other hand, philosophers have shown how harmful narrowly framed social science
findings can be in the absence of larger normative considerations.1
The act of engaging in fieldwork can also be understood as a medium for
bringing philosophy into the world rather than regarding it solely as a commentary
on the world. The French expression la philo descends dans la rue can be translated
as “philosophy enters the lived world.” The philosopher moves out into the open
air. The philosopher immerses her- or himself in the experience of fellow human
beings. Through this proximity, the philosopher becomes implicated in what
transpires. This posture leads, in a reciprocal manner, to a reversal of the idiomatic
expression. La rue descends dans la philo: The lived world enters philosophy. The
philosopher becomes a conduit for its entrance. Philosophy becomes receptive, first
and last, and analytical in between. (Here and elsewhere I understand “analytical”
in an everyday sense rather than as a distinctive approach in philosophy.) Fieldwork
forms one doorway, among others, for the world to come into philosophizing and
to influence its trajectory, even as the philosophizing yields insight into what
the world has brought forth. Philosophizing becomes a mode of thinking the
world or, more precisely, thinking aspects of it. It is saturated by heeding those
aspects, through opening oneself to their reality, and by the cumulative influence
of personal experience including significant reading and discussion with others.
In this article, I characterize the idea of bearing witness to teaching and
teachers as an orientation in educational inquiry. The orientation puts the inquirer
into question even as the inquirer ponders events in the school and classroom.
Witnessing necessitates ethical work on the self. To respond to the world of the
teacher in a nonobjectifying manner, the person must cultivate continuously her
or his aesthetic, moral, and reflective capacities. At the same time, bearing witness
necessitates an ever-deepening attentiveness to what Jan Zwicky calls “resonant
1. This literature is growing steadily, but see, among others, Lawrence Blum, High Schools, Race,
and America’s Future: What Students Can Teach Us about Morality, Diversity, and Community
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2012); Walter Feinberg, For Goodness Sake: Religious Schools
and Education for Democratic Citizenry (New York: Routledge, 2006); and Meira Levinson, No Citizen
Left Behind (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012). A noteworthy recent symposium on the
topic is Doris A. Santoro and Terri S. Wilson, eds., “Philosophy Pursued through Empirical Research,”
special issue, Studies in Philosophy and Education 34, no. 2 (2015). For related discussions, see
Nicholas C. Burbules and Kathleen Knight Abowitz, “A Situated Philosophy of Education,” Philosophy
of Education 2008, ed. Ronald D. Glass (Urbana, IL: Philosophy of Education Society, 2008): 268–276;
Meira Levinson and Anne Newman, eds., “Symposium on Philosophy of Education, Empirical Research,
and Policy Analysis,” special issue, Theory and Research in Education 13, no. 1 (2015); and Andres
Mejia, “My Self-as-Philosopher and My Self-as-Scientist Meet to Do Research in the Classroom: Some
Davidsonian Notes on the Philosophy of Educational Research,” Studies in Philosophy and Education
27, nos. 2–3 (2008): 161–171.
DAVID T. HANSEN is the Weinberg Professor in the Historical and Philosophical Foundations of
Education and Director of the Program in Philosophy and Education at Teachers College, Columbia
University, 525 W. 120th Street, New York, NY 10027; e-mail<hansen@tc.edu>. His current areas of
scholarship are the philosophy and practice of teaching, conceptions of the relation between philosophy
and education, and the criticism of educational values.
Hansen Among School Teachers 11
particulars.”2 These are moments, actions, expressions, and gestures that, among
other possibilities, bring the being of a human being into presence, however
fleetingly. Such particulars “resound with being.” They “gather” the wholeness of
the person. These evocative terms shed light on a perfectly recognizable experience
that can happen anytime, anywhere, when a person suddenly and starkly sees in
another’s gesture the fullness, the singular substantiality, the sheer humanity, of
her or his reality. In glimpsing such resonant gestures, it is as if a cloud parts, a
fog lifts, and the person’s “is-ness” and “there-ness” in the world is truly there.
This familiar, unplannable event can also occur when a person absorbs a new lens,
perhaps through the experience of art, which hitherto she or he never imagined to
exist.
To bear witness to teaching and teachers is to hone one’s receptivity to
resonant particulars in the school and classroom. The posture calls for a
patient, ungrasping approach toward the “quiet testimony” such particulars
express. Quiet testimony, as Shari Goldberg elucidates the term in her study of
nineteenth-century American literature, emerges from attention to events and
things that typically go unnoticed. Quiet testimony marks “a range of encounters
undistinguished by official recognition.”3 Goldberg shows, however, that
such encounters constitute “a catalyst for a new approach to the world.”4 Once
witnessed, the world of people, events, and things is no longer only a world to
be analyzed and used. Through heeding the quiet testimony of the everyday, the
person acknowledges reality in a new key. The person transforms even as her or
his horizon of reality broadens and deepens. The person can no longer move in
the world in the same way: the world is richer, more fragile, more precious. This
newly won responsiveness morphs into a new sense of responsibility. Bearing
witness to teaching and teachers is at once an education in responsiveness to
educational work, and an experience of what it can mean to share responsibility
for education.
In what follows, I will flesh out these compressed remarks while tethering
myself to their source: a recently completed, long-term field-based endeavor that
pivoted around two closely related questions. These were: What does it mean to be
a person in the world today?, and What does it mean to be a person in the role of
teacher today? Working with two doctoral research assistants, I devoted portions of
a year to a pilot study with two primary school teachers, in which I explored what
it might mean to pursue the questions through fieldwork rather than in solely
theoretical fashion. Buoyed by how responsive the teachers were to the questions,
as well as by how vividly their classrooms revealed the play of being and becoming
a person, I organized a two-year-long inquiry involving sixteen teachers who work
2. Jan Zwicky, “What Is Lyric Philosophy?,” Common Knowledge 20, no. 1 (2013): 21.
3. Shari Goldberg, Quiet Testimony: A Theory of Witnessing from Nineteenth-Century American
Literature (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), 150.
4. Ibid., 14.
12 E D U C A T I O N A L T H E O R Y Volume 67 Number 1 2017
in eight different public schools in the same large, culturally diverse urban setting.
The undertaking included extensive classroom visits. I devoted seventy-four days
to the fieldwork, typically sitting in on a classroom for two hours or more. The
effort also included twenty-one three-hour-long dinner and discussion meetings
with the participating teachers, and forty-two individually recorded interviews
with them.5 These time- and space-intensive activities brought me close to the
front line of teaching in schools, as well as close to the question of what it means
to be a person in the role of teacher. They drew me into bearing witness to teaching
and teachers.
The first section below examines the concept of bearing witness. My intent
is not to venture a comprehensive account of the idea, but rather to introduce
some key elements in witnessing as an orientation toward teaching and teachers.
The subsequent sections render bearing witness from a lived or experiential point
of view. These sections will not take the form of a traditional philosophical,
normative argument. Nor will they constitute poetry or literature, which have
their own often unspoken normative dimensions. Rather, I intend the sections
to embody a responsive orientation toward teaching and teachers that I hope, to
recast a familiar term of art, will “speak” for itself. I follow this path because while
witnessing is never complete until it has been shared and acknowledged by others,6
this truth does not imply that the communicating of it is necessarily separate
from the witness itself. Rather than writing “about” witnessing, or articulating a
point-by-point theory of it, what I endeavor to write here constitutes a continuation
of the witness I enacted in the classroom. Put another way, there is no break in the
philosophizing, as if being in the field is entirely “practical” while addressing the
latter’s features is where “philosophy” kicks in.7
I will try throughout to steer clear of representing teaching and teachers, in the
sense of objectifying, appropriating, or speaking for them. But to realize this aim,
I must also avoid representing or objectifying myself and the endeavor that is the
source of the witness. I do not know how successful this effort will be, since a final
proviso is that I cannot claim to have actually attained the platform of witness. As
I understand the concept, its ethical and moral entailments deny the individual
such certainty. My hope is to put the orientation forward in a manner that might
serve scholars and teachers in coming to closer quarters with the unfathomably
deep educational meanings in teaching and teachers’ experience.
5. For details about the origins, formation, and activities of the endeavor, see David T. Hansen, Jason
Thomas Wozniak, and Ana Cecilia Galindo Diego, “Fusing Philosophy and Fieldwork in a Study of Being
a Person in the World: An Interim Commentary,” Studies in Philosophy and Education 34, no. 2 (2015):
159–170. The undertaking incorporated a number of orientations — for example, the relation between
field-based and philosophical anthropology — in addition to what I have come to understand as bearing
witness.
6. John Durham Peters argues this point in his “Witnessing,” Media, Culture and Society 23, no. 6 (2001):
707–723. I draw on his detailed analysis of the concept in the section that follows.
7. I think of the poet Wallace Stevens’s lines from his “An Ordinary Evening in New Haven” (XII.1–2):
“The poem is the cry of its occasion,/ Part of the res itself and not about it.”
Hansen Among School Teachers 13
An Introduction to the Idea of Bearing Witness to
Teaching and Teachers
Bearing witness is a familiar if diversely employed term. At one end of its
spectrum of meaning, witnessing conjures a detached, neutral standpoint. At the
other end, it evokes images of passionate moral solidarity with others. The witness
may inhabit the “role” for no more than minutes. Alternatively, the witness’s
experience may transform her or his life, as well as the lives of others. Witnessing
takes its form and substance in response to that which calls it forth in the first
place.
The witness in court attests to the facts of a case, and ideally does so with
the reliability and impartiality of a machine. The “expert” witness operates from
a different standpoint. This person brings to bear in-depth knowledge combined
with professional judgment. The expert witness is counted on to offer interpretive
rather than solely factual remarks. In contrast, the witness at a wedding, a bank, or
a law office signs a formal document and, through this bare act alone, attests to the
validity of what has transpired. The religious witness expresses a revelation or an
insight into scripture, offering her- or himself as a vehicle of religious truth. The
social witness rejects a hierarchical social order and elects to live among the poor,
the downtrodden, the abandoned, and the marginalized. There is no “blueprint”
for the religious or social witness to follow (and the roles may fuse, as well). Every
such witness ultimately charts a unique path.
Many persons have borne witness to large-scale human trauma, such as the
atrocities of World War II. Here, the witness calls for a moral awakening, for justice,
for remembrance, for a reckoning, even while meticulously recording the facts
of violence. There is an ever-growing literature in this trajectory of witnessing.8
Scholars in education have begun to draw out its ramifications for pedagogy,
curriculum, and research.9 As we will see, the idea of bearing witness to teaching
and teachers that I elucidate takes its point of departure from a different, though
8. See, for example, Giorgio Agamben, Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive, trans.
Daniel Heller-Roazen (New York: Zone Books, 2002); Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub, Testimony:
Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (New York: Routledge, 1992); James
Hatley, Suffering Witness: The Quandary of Responsibility after the Irreparable (Albany: State University
of New York Press, 2000); Kelly Oliver, Witnessing: Beyond Recognition (Minneapolis: University of
Minnesota Press, 2001); and Roger I. Simon, The Touch of the Past: Remembrance, Learning, and Ethics
(New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005). I think also of the powerful, unclassifiable oeuvre of the literary
scholar W. G. Sebald, especially his The Emigrants, trans. Michael Hulse (New York: New Directions,
1996); and The Rings of Saturn, trans. Michael Hulse (New York: New Directions, 1998). Sebald’s witness
rarely takes the form of overt, normative argumentation, but his sentences pulse with a profound,
passionate concern for justice and remembrance that truly addresses the attentive reader.
9. See, for example, Ann Berlak, “Teaching and Testimony: Witnessing and Bearing Witness to Racisms
in Culturally Diverse Classrooms,” Curriculum Inquiry 29, no. 1 (1999): 99–127; David T. Hansen,
“W. G. Sebald and the Tasks of Ethical and Moral Remembrance,” Philosophy of Education 2012, ed.
Claudia W. Ruitenberg (Urbana, IL: Philosophy of Education Society, 2012): 125–133; and Michalinos
Zembylas, “Witnessing in the Classroom: The Ethics and Politics of Affect,” Educational Theory 56, no.
3 (2006): 305–324. For an insightful account of Roger Simon’s important work on the relation between
witnessing trauma and education (The Touch of the Past, see note 8 for the full citation), see Mario
14 E D U C A T I O N A L T H E O R Y Volume 67 Number 1 2017
morally allied, origin with regard to fundamental questions of human respect. I
write mindful of the dignity of dedicated teachers, and how misperceived, or simply
not “seen” at all, much of their work remains in today’s zeitgeist. In a broad sense,
bearing witness is an important response to teaching’s seemingly perpetual state
of precariousness and vulnerability to shocks from everywhere.
As mentioned in the introduction, bearing witness to teaching and teachers
constitutes, among other things, an attempt to move beyond objectification and
its attendant forms of representation, even while retaining fidelity with the moral
and intellectual lineaments of the practice.10 The orientation mirrors aspects of
the familiar forms of bearing witness touched on above.
Facts and Truth
Like a trustworthy witness in court, the witness to teaching and teachers
must be scrupulous about fact and dedicated to truth. Plato nicely illustrated, long
ago, the moral, epistemic, and political ramifications of this requirement. Near
the start of the Republic, two young Athenians, Polemarchus and Cleitophon,
breathlessly debate which of them has been a faithful “witness” (M????????????????????έ????) to
the tense encounter going on between Socrates and Thrasymachus. Cleitophon
has been a poor listener, or is reading things into his hearing. He misconstrues
Thrasymachus’s position, and Polemarchus points this out. Socrates intervenes to
say the issue does not need to be resolved, so long as Thrasymachus in fact meant
what Cleitophon has just stated. Thrasymachus mockingly rejects the suggestion,
replying that Socrates himself is a “false witness” who is trying to distort the
argument in order to triumph (340a–341c2). Through this vivid exchange, Plato
dramatizes the stakes in the ensuing dialogue about justice and education. Truth
itself is on the line: not just propositional truth (important as that is), but poetic
truth, in the sense of “the truth of a friendship” or “the truth of a teacher’s life,”
as well as ethical truth, in the sense of spotlighting how “true” persons are —
whether they are “oriented” — toward justice and goodness. For Plato, the idea of
witnessing calls into play the integrity, the seriousness, and the motivation of the
participants. As I show below, these stakes hold for bearing witness to teaching
and teachers.
Di Paolantonio, “Roger Simon as a Thinker of the Remnants: An Overview of a Way of Thinking the
Present, Our Present…,” Studies in Philosophy and Education 34, no. 3 (2015): 263–277.
10. The literature on teaching as a moral and intellectual endeavor is wide-ranging in its purview.
See, for example, John Dewey, “Moral Principles in Education,” in John Dewey: The Middle Works,
1899–1924, vol. 4, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1977), 265–291;
Philip W. Jackson, Robert E. Boostrom, and David T. Hansen, The Moral Life of Schools (San Francisco,
CA: Jossey-Bass, 1993); Nel Noddings, Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984); Virginia Richardson and Gary D. Fenstermacher,
“Manner in Teaching: The Study in Four Parts,” Journal of Curriculum Studies 33, no. 6 (2001): 631–637;
Matthew N. Sanger and Richard D. Osguthorpe, eds., The Moral Work of Teaching and of Teacher
Education: Preparing and Supporting Practitioners (New York: Teachers College Press, 2013); Hugh
Sockett, Knowledge and Virtue in Teaching and Learning: The Primacy of Dispositions (New York:
Routledge, 2012); and Alan Tom, Teaching as a Moral Craft (New York: Longman, 1984).
Hansen Among School Teachers 15
“Called” to Witness
Unlike the witness in court, the witness to teaching and teachers is not called
to testify by an external, institutional source. Rather, to pose the matter metaphorically,
the witness is called by the practice itself, and by the fate of the men and
women who enact it. The witness looks out — literally, out in the world — for
insight, knowledge, understanding, and, above all, wisdom about the practice. Like
a good qualitative researcher, the witness undertakes careful, self-reflective inquiry
that includes appropriate planning, note taking, and systematic communication
with others involved. Moreover, the inquirer-as-witness to teaching must have
intimate knowledge of the work, garnered through experiences such as one’s own
teaching and working with teachers, and through systematic study of teachers’ testimonials,
philosophical and empirical research, and other sources such as film. All
such requisites fall under an umbrella of normative rather than solely descriptive
or analytical considerations. The witness does not search for causal or correlational
explanations of phenomena in teaching. Rather, the witness hopes to gain insight
into the meaning, the import, and the truth of the practice.
Bearing witness to teaching and teachers is at once an ethical and moral rather
than solely epistemic endeavor. Unlike the witness in court, who in many cases
need not prepare at all, the witness to teaching must work on the self, cultivating
aesthetic, moral, and reflective responsiveness to what Zwicky calls resonant
particulars. Unlike the expert witness, whose stance is clinical and detached, the
witness to teaching exposes her or his understanding of the work, and of the human
beings who enact it, to constant questioning through the very experience of being
present in the educational setting.
Wonder and Concern as the Mainspring of Witnessing
The witness in court, having provided the requested testimony, is excused and
may henceforth never look back on the experience. In contrast, the witness to
teaching and teachers — who could also be a teacher — is permanently marked
by the undertaking. The person’s perception will never be the same again. She or
he may feel compelled, in the most disparate of situations, to testify, in the broad
sense at hand here, about what teaching is and what it entails — at faculty meetings
in schools or universities, in the witness’s own work with students, at conferences
and other professional gatherings, and with family, friends, and others. The witness
does not presume to speak for teaching and teachers, as a self-appointed “guardian
of the faith.” Rather, the witness speaks from a platform of wonder and concern
generated through a long-term engagement with the terms of the work.
In my own case, the wonder springs, in part, from the very fact that something
called “teaching” truly does happen or, put differently, happens truly: that persons
who have metabolized the role really can have a good holistic influence on others.
This fact is so obvious that it is almost impossible to feel the question of how it
could possibly have emerged from a world composed of earth, wind, water, and
fire. As I will suggest later in the essay, the sense of wonder is (ideally) will-less,
though not self-less.
16 E D U C A T I O N A L T H E O R Y Volume 67 Number 1 2017
Alongside deep wonder resides deep concern for the continued integrity of
teaching as a moral and intellectual endeavor — indeed, as a calling to many of its
practitioners — under conditions of contemporary educational policymaking. As
has been amply documented in the literature, much of today’s social engineering
policy and research nexus treats teachers as, in effect, interchangeable functionaries
carrying out externally mandated dictates. It operates from a deficit model of
teachers that involves auditing teachers’ behavior rather than addressing them as
persons with experience. It holds them accountable without providing meaningful
grounds for them to give an actual account of their work. Current policy has
seriously harmed teachers’, and teacher educators’, morale.11
Teachers should be poised to give an account of their work. They take up
the role by choice and, in so doing, inherit a profound privilege and obligation.
The majority of the hundreds of teachers whom I have known in my career
already account for what they do, or at least attempt to do so: to their students,
their students’ parents, their administrators, their close colleagues, and their own
consciences. With the right support, they could offer more to the larger community
of educators. That support would include the gift of time and opportunities
for thoughtful, intellectual discussion and reflection. One of the rationales for
initiating the field-based inquiry at issue here was precisely to listen, over a
substantial period of time, to serious-minded teachers talk about what they do,
and why, within an ethos of primordial questions about being and becoming a
person. I was not interested in “studying” their practice with an eye to adding to
our “knowledge base.” Rather, I sought proximity in an ethical sense of that term.
I sought teachers’ company: to be near them and their work over a long course of
time, and to let this “presence” wash over me. I sought to accompany them: to
look at teaching, in part, through an awareness of their eros as teachers, that is, of
their deepest purposes and hopes about education’s promise.12
The interlacing of deep concern with boundless wonder resides at the very
source of bearing witness to teaching and teachers. The integrity and the merit of
the witness, such as it is, depend on wonder and concern remaining in dynamic
11. For discussion of this point, see Christopher Day and Qing Gu, Resilient Teachers, Resilient
Schools: Building and Sustaining Quality in Testing Times (London: Routledge, 2014); Brad Olsen and
Dena Sexton, “Threat Rigidity, School Reform, and How Teachers View Their Work Inside Current
Education Policy Contexts,” American Educational Research Journal 46, no. 1 (2009): 9–44; Doris A.
Santoro, “Teaching’s Conscientious Objectors: Principled Leavers of High-Poverty Schools,” Teachers
College Record 113, no. 12 (2011): 2670–2704; Doris A. Santoro, “Good Teaching in Difficult Times:
Demoralization in the Pursuit of Good Work,” American Journal of Education 118, no. 1 (2011): 1–23;
Doris A. Santoro, “‘I Was Becoming Increasingly Uneasy about the Profession and What Was Being
Asked of Me’: Preserving Integrity in Teaching,” Curriculum Inquiry 43, no. 5 (2013): 563–587; Sockett,
Knowledge and Virtue in Teaching and Learning; and John S. Wills and Judith Haymore Sandholtz,
“Constrained Professionalism: Dilemmas of Teaching in the Face of Test-Based Accountability,”
Teachers College Record 111, no. 4 (2009): 1065–1114.
12. I am preparing a manuscript on the teachers’ experience in the endeavor, which will address
their overall responses to it as well as their testimony regarding the guiding questions about being a
person. This manuscript will consider relations between researchers and teachers, teachers and students,
teachers and their colleagues, teacher educators and teacher candidates, and associated topics.
Hansen Among School Teachers 17
play. Wonder embodies, typically in an unspoken manner, the amazement of love
for life, that it “is” rather than is not. As I sketch below, wonder makes possible
a mode of heeding teaching and teachers that fuses listening, perceiving, and
“receiving” from them the truth of teaching. But wonder alone may dissipate into
the ether, leaving no trace, issue, or sign that others might note and act upon.
Concern is equally crucial in bearing witness to teaching and teachers. The witness
enacts a reflective, critical solidarity with the practice, as mindful as possible of
the forces undermining it while guarding against becoming a one-sided or naïve
apologist. The witness works in a spirit of vivid, energizing remembrance of
long-standing educational values. This posture is not one of conservative nostalgia
for a past in teaching that never was. Rather, it is a forward-looking, questioning
mode of keeping visible values such as the importance and dignity of the person in
the role of teacher and of the persons in the role of student. But concern alone may
become narrow, brittle, and shrill. Conceived symbiotically, concern and wonder
humanize one another.13
Witnessing Teaching and Teachers
Fieldwork and the idea of immersion in a form of life often go hand in hand.
Immersion allows the inquirer to learn how to move in a knowing way in the
previously unfamiliar setting. The inquirer learns to identify singular events and
doings, and to engage in increasingly refined looking, listening, and note taking.
What does immersion mean for the witness to teaching and teachers? Who or
what is a “knowing” witness, in the dual sense of knowing her or his way around
the practice and of being a witness upon whom one can rely? To address these
questions, I will show how bearing witness mirrors aspects of a pilgrimage, of
pastoral work, and, in metaphorical terms, of “paying a visit to being.” Along the
way I will interject several vignettes in which I render resonant particulars drawn
from my field notes.14 As we will see, the experience of witnessing incorporates
rhythmic unpredictability and other, related tensions.
Witnessing and Pilgrimage
A pilgrim walks in faith and hope. The pilgrim has faith that there is something
profoundly worthy to see, and hope that the pilgrimage will deepen the sense of
meaning and purpose in life, perhaps not just for the pilgrim but for others. For
example, the moral pilgrim, to adopt a term of art from Iris Murdoch,15 may not
13. In this writing, I attend primarily to responses to wonder and their consequences, rather than
elucidate in an explicit manner resources to address the concern. To articulate the latter in an adequate
way requires its own distinctive treatment — which depends, importantly, on first laying out the terms
of bearing witness, as I am attempting to do here. A related note is that I believe a written witness can
issue, through itself, a compelling invitation to educators, at whatever level of the system, to reexamine
their sensibilities with regard to teaching and teachers: an endeavor that can lead to many modes of
practical action.
14. For additional vignettes and further elaboration of the core ideas discussed here, see David T. Hansen,
“Bearing Witness to Teaching and Teachers,” Journal of Curriculum Studies 49, no. 1, (2017): 7–23.
15. Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good (London: Ark, 1985), 53.
18 E D U C A T I O N A L T H E O R Y Volume 67 Number 1 2017
know what the moral will actually look like as she or he heads out to find it in
the world. But the individual has faith it is there, and hope that the pilgrimage can
help sustain it, in part by spreading the word about its reality.16
From the very moment I conceived the endeavor at hand here, and from the
very first step I took to visit a teacher’s classroom, I was carried by faith in the
worthwhileness of teaching, and by hope that this inquiry might shed light on that
worthwhileness. Like Murdoch’s moral pilgrim, I did not know in advance what I
would encounter in the school and classroom, or when or how I might encounter
it. I felt moments of serious doubt that I would wend my way toward seeing
anything. Would I be a pilgrim who failed to reach a hoped-for goal? Diogenes
the Cynic reportedly walked the streets of ancient Athens while holding a lamp,
in broad daylight, seeking an honest person — and yet, by his reckoning, failing
to do so. Immanuel Kant, whose account of morality remains highly influential,
confronted directly the question whether humanity can in fact have confidence
that there has ever been a single action undertaken from genuinely moral rather
than instrumental or self-serving motives.17 The pilgrim seems to face a permanent
danger: that wishing and fantasy will replace hope. The inquirer’s yearning may
manufacture, out of itself, what the inquirer aspires to see.
Nonetheless, I was borne along by the fusion of wonder and concern touched
on previously: wonder about the sources of beauty, truth, and goodness in teaching,
and concern about the future of the practice that, in effect, forced me to become
conscious of the necessity of faith and hope.18
The horrific shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, occurred on Friday, December
14, 2012. The following Thursday, I found myself sitting in my usual corner
spot in Karolina’s Grade 5 classroom. Precisely at 10:30 a.m., the school principal,
Gracelyn Jones, came on over the loudspeaker, located above a blackboard on
the east wall of the classroom. She announced, in careful, precise tones, that she
needed everyone’s attention because they were about to practice what she called
“a safety drill.” Gracelyn let the words sink in for a few moments. Karolina’s fifth
graders instantly quieted down, without any urging from her or her classroom
colleague, Jolie, a special education instructor. Gracelyn continued: “We are going
to have a safety drill. First I am going to describe each of the steps you will need to
take. Then, we will have the drill.” Again, she paused, before explaining that when
the drill is announced, the teacher will lock the classroom door, while everyone
will line up along the wall in such a way that none of them can be seen from the
classroom door window. They are to stand there, silently, until an announcement
stating the drill is over.
16. On this point, see Annette Baier, “Secular Faith,” in Revisions: Changing Perspectives in Moral
Philosophy, ed. Stanley Hauerwas and Alasdair MacIntyre (South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame
Press, 1983), 203–221.
17. Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, 2nd ed., trans. Lewis White Beck
(Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990), 23, passim.
18. By prior agreement, in the vignette that follows and elsewhere all names are pseudonyms.
Hansen Among School Teachers 19
Once more, a pregnant pause.
Then: “This is a safety drill.”
I had been present for a number of fire drills during my visits to the teachers’
schools. In every instance, students seized the event as an occasion to joke, laugh,
and tease, even as they wound their way out of the classroom and building.
In this case, however, Karolina’s students bolted out of their seats and, with
no talking whatsoever, squeezed themselves tightly against the wall. Jolie, the
assistant teacher, instructed them to get organized quickly, even as she took up a
spot herself. “No, it’s not safe yet,” she said about her position, and moved closer
to the wall and farther from the door. “You all know what happened last week
in Connecticut,” she added abruptly. “So this is why we practice this, so we’re
prepared for an intruder.”
All this time, Karolina stood calmly, in the middle of the room and somewhat
apart from the wall, observing the children. After a short while, she posed a
question to them: “How many fire drills have we had in our school?” “Many,”
a number of students replied. Karolina proceeded: “How many actual fires have
we had in the school?” “None!” a larger number of children answered. “Right,”
Karolina affirmed. “We’re not expecting this to happen to us either, but it’s good
just to be prepared.” Her voice was neither as somber as the principal’s, nor as
anxious as Jolie’s. It was identical to her everyday voice as a teacher, albeit (in
my hearing) a bit more deliberate.
Suddenly: “The drill is now concluded.”
Witnessing and Pastoral Work
Pastoral work is care-full work. It implies caring for others in concrete ways
within the terms of a particular practice. For example, in his “Divinity School
Address” Ralph Waldo Emerson characterizes the pastor’s work as a deeply personal
vocation. In his view, the work calls on the full aesthetic, ethical, reflective,
and spiritual being of the pastor, rather than just on the person’s command
of scripture and the liturgy. Emerson urges the young ministers in his audience
to put aside Bible and precept, when face to face individually with parishioners,
and to become a receptacle for their fears, their worries, their concerns, and their
yearnings.19
The witness to teaching and teachers is not overtly engaged in care-taking in
Emerson’s sense, though she or he is poised at any time to respond as a critically
sympathetic colleague. The witness aspires to be fully attuned to the teacher’s
world. The witness is mindful at all times of moving into a place — the teacher’s
classroom — that is not of her or his making. The witness is not of that place.
As suggested previously, the witness cannot speak for it, though the witness can
— with sufficient preparation — speak from a platform of knowledge, experience,
wonder, and concern for teaching.
19. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emerson: Essays and Lectures (New York: The Library of America, 1983), 89,
passim.
20 E D U C A T I O N A L T H E O R Y Volume 67 Number 1 2017
The witness remains conscious of the vulnerability of the teacher who opens
the classroom to a visitor: whatever mistakes, errors, or faux pas the teacher makes
will be on display. The witness is conscious of destabilizing or unsettling, to an
unspoken degree, the environment of the classroom, particularly in the initial
visits. The witness is mindful of overtones of authority, power, and control that
may inadvertently come through the classroom door with her or him, like an
invisible overcoat the witness carries in hand. (For many teachers, the only visitors
who come to their classrooms are school administrators or others who are there to
formally assess their work.)
Because I was so immersed in the classroom world over the two-year-long duration
of the endeavor, I was privy to misjudgments, misinterpretations, blindnesses,
and more, on the part of the teachers. This point in itself is not revelatory. Any
teacher who is less than divine falls short, perhaps in more ways than we have language
for. The very moment the teachers permitted me to cross the threshold into
their classrooms, I was instantly handed power. I could approach their work with
a deficit model in mind, looking for what they lacked as teachers. The opposite
posture was equally available: to put on rose-colored lenses and romanticize the
good while letting the bad recede into the background.
To bear witness to teaching and teachers, however, involves neither approval
nor disapproval as such. It incorporates, instead, a strong normative commitment
to the worthwhileness of the work. Ideally, a spirit of care and concern for teaching,
and for those willing to take on its obligations, pervades every word and gesture the
witness expresses. The witness brings an ethos of piety and reverence to the setting.
There is nothing portentous or uncritical about these time-honored words.20 They
attest to the witness’s readiness to heed the teacher’s reality that is so vividly
enacted in the classroom, moment by moment by moment. To “heed” this reality
constitutes at once an aesthetic, moral, and reflective responsiveness that contrasts
with the meanings typically associated with the research term “observe” (I return
to this verb below).
One afternoon in November, Merritt had gone into the room adjacent to his
music classroom to work with five students rehearsing a piece. He had instructed
the twenty eighth-grade students who remained in the classroom to collaborate
in pairs and discuss the music composition he had distributed at the start of class.
He reminded them of their semester-long experience with this mode of work. He
explained they would walk through the piece orally before playing it musically,
an activity that would come later in the period. I stayed behind in the classroom,
in my usual seat off to the side.
Some fifteen minutes later, Merritt returned to the classroom to check on how
things were going. As he walked through the door, he turned to me and, with a
tongue-in-cheek smile, asked if I had seen anything having to do with “becoming a
20. For discussion of this point, see A. G. Rud and Jim Garrison, eds., Teaching with Reverence: Reviving
an Ancient Virtue for Today’s Schools (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
Hansen Among School Teachers 21
person.” Without a moment’s hesitation, I pulled from my witness a spontaneous
description of how one of his Grade 8 students, Maria, had systematically helped
her partner Ramon. Ramon had appeared frustrated, distracted, and unwilling to
get engaged in the activity. Maria kept her finger on the written music, constantly
turning to him, even as he jerked his head around the room, called out to
other students, fidgeted with his violin and bow, looked down at his shoes, and
mumbled about his doings from earlier in the day. Maria persisted, unflustered,
without any comment on his conduct, and without impatience. Ramon slowly
transformed. He began to focus, and to follow her lead. In time he began to talk
about the music himself.
I described all this in the clearest, most concise terms I could, mindful that
Merritt was in the very midst of running his class. As I spoke, his face turned
inward and he looked down at the floor. I could see he was moved, to use
the peculiar English expression, though I could not discern “where” he went in
that moment. He said nothing. He raised his head and looked at me for a split
second, expressionless and yet “fully,” as if he had metabolized the event I had
described. He nodded his head slightly, then turned swiftly toward his students,
who meanwhile had been jabbering away in pairs. “Okay, how are we doing!!!”
Witnessing and Paying a Visit to Being
While sitting in the corner of a classroom during my two-year-long witness,
I sought to conduct myself as silently and invisibly as possible. Though I was an
eyewitness to the teacher’s work, I sought to avoid eye contact with him or her.
At the same time, I made a point of conversing with the teacher, however briefly,
either before or after each visit. I also made sure to thank the teacher for letting
me be there, a gesture typically met by a smile and shake of the head, as if to say,
“Thank me for what?”
The teachers did not know, and I could not have said at the time, that I was
“thanking” them for the grace of being: for the “is-ness” of their work with children
and youth, and for their enactment of the very Idea of teaching (the ideal made
real). I was thanking them for helping to bring into the world what was not there
before: the education of their students, understood as more than acquiring fact and
skill, and their own hard-to-see transformations in that very act, since teaching
— as contrasted with training or merely passing along information — always
seems to modify the teacher, however microscopically in a given instance. The
teachers and their students were changing the world before my very eyes, again
however infinitesimally against the larger scale of things. As a witness my seeing
became “enmattered,”21 saturated with the ways the teachers and students were
transubstantiating what can so easily be taken for granted, or misperceived as mere
behavior, in classroom “observation.” The witness is not an observer, as such, nor
21. Christopher A. Dustin and Joanna E. Ziegler, Practicing Mortality: Art, Philosophy, and Contemplative
Seeing (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 233.
22 E D U C A T I O N A L T H E O R Y Volume 67 Number 1 2017
a recorder. But the witness is not merely following whim. The seeing is neither
objective nor subjective.
Posed in other terms, the mode of perception that marks bearing witness is and
is not a matter of will. On the one hand, the witness works at this will-less-ness,
or willful-less-ness, to use a more accurate if cumbersome term. The witness has
learned, through experience, to be aware of how numbingly familiar classrooms
can seem to even the most sympathetic outsider, so much so that the visitor may
unawares come to resemble the voyeur in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film Rear
Window, who watches his neighbors through binoculars and, in effect, “demands”
that something interesting happen.22 As witness, I must be wary of “demanding”
that something “out of the ordinary” take place; I must work on myself. My will
is called into play. I strive to relax the grasping tendency of my consciousness in
order to let what transpires “speak,” to “let it be,” such that classroom doings may
become resonant particulars that call for my attention, rather than behavior that
depends on my gaze. I concentrate and try to “listen” for quiet testimony. I can feel
what the poet Rainer Maria Rilke calls the “interpreted world” clamoring at the
door of my sensibility, exhorting me to settle for the all-too-well-known behavioral
platform of life in classrooms.23 The shouts outside that door cry out: We’ve seen
all this before. We know what it means. Why are you looking again?
While sitting in the classroom, and while pondering things afterward, the
witness aspires to still the will: to move mentally and emotionally without
impatience, to be poised to receive rather than to seize. The fieldwork becomes
an unplanned, and unplannable, series of occasions or moments, rather than a
linear or consecutive process of “data collection.” The witness learns to wait, but
does not await something whose form or appearance has been predetermined.24
The witness is in no hurry — and here, the two-year-long structure of the
endeavor proved indispensable. The witness is not seeking “new” knowledge about
teaching. Rather, the witness waits for teaching’s truths, its deep values, to disclose
themselves in the quiet testimony expressed through the medium of resonant
particulars. The witness approaches waiting for truth as a vocation.25 The witness
22. The notion of the voyeur (played by the actor James Stewart) making “demands” on reality derives
from the film critic Dave Kehr, who also remarks on how Hitchcock is interrogating his own craft through
the substance of the story. Kehr’s review initially appeared in The Chicago Reader, a free weekly, but I
have not been able to determine which issue.
23. Rainer Maria Rilke, “The First [Duino] Elegy,” in The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, ed. and
trans. Stephen Mitchell (New York: Vintage International, 1989), 151, line 13.
24. This trope derives from Martin Heidegger, Country Path Conversations, trans. Bret W. Davis
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), 75–76, passim. Also see James F. Donnelly, “Schooling
Heidegger: On Being in Teaching,” Teaching and Teacher Education 15, no. 8 (1999): 933–949; and
Justin A. Garcia and Tyson E. Lewis, “Getting a Grip on the Classroom: From Psychological to
Phenomenological Curriculum Development in Teacher Education Programs,” Curriculum Inquiry 44,
no. 2 (2014): 141–168.
25. Rainer Maria Rilke, “Turning-Point,” in The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, ed. Mitchell,
135, line 1.
Hansen Among School Teachers 23
is never passive, just as witnessing is not a passing act, though her or his activity
does not call attention to itself.
To still the will, “to let the world come”: these terms mark a continuous,
largely noncognitive form of making ready that baptizes, with an underlying
current of feeling, the hours leading up to crossing the threshold of the classroom.
In an entirely unplanned, unanticipated, and unpredictable manner, my witness
would begin upon rising in the morning, with a silent but felt consciousness that
perhaps mirrors what the musician or athlete experiences the day of a performance
or a game. It is a making ready of the body and mind for the timeless minutes to
come of sitting still in the corner of a classroom, waiting for truth to disclose itself
while never knowing how or whether it might (often it did not).
There is no marking where my experience as witness begins and ends. It is
an ethos that accompanies me wherever I go. The guiding questions about being a
person, and being a person in the role of teacher, hover in the air like a philosophical
version of the prayer of St. Patrick: they are in front of me, behind me, and at my
side. This ethos, this “company,” positions me for deep seeing, but not “because”
of me. Unlike in many forms of qualitative research, I am not my-self “the best
instrument” in the research. Rather, it is what I am not, or not yet, that opens the
way. I can testify only through what I become, through what I receive, not through
what I am. “I” do not become “deep.” On the contrary, I shudder and thrill in
awareness of how much there is in the teachers’ and students’ doings before my
eyes that I cannot see and never will. The seeing is deep because the formative
realities of life in schools and classrooms are unfathomable and, if the witness can
heed them, often remarkable.
As a witness, I cannot refer to “my” data because I have none, though I do
have a thick folder of tightly organized and carefully crafted descriptive notes
(the witness’s responsibility to be as accurate and precise as possible). I am not
a producer, but a receiver; not a painter, but a canvas; not a scribe, but an imprint;
not a poet, but the as yet untouched page. I do not measure, but am measured. I do
not eat, and yet am fed. An aesthetic, ethical, moral, and reflective photosynthesis
ensues from the light of the teachers’ and their students’ classroom worlds. The
“data” metamorphose in the instant of reception, disclosing the contours of
education as an intellectual and moral experience.
One morning in October, Earl, an eleventh grade English teacher, is about
to initiate a new unit with his class on August Wilson’s play entitled “Fences.”
He reminds his twenty students that the first thing they’ll do is use, as he
puts it, “an opinionator to activate your knowledge.” Since the play triggers
questions of tolerance and forgiveness, Earl poses several questions about the
students’ own attitudes toward forgiveness. After he enunciates a question, students
get out of their seats and gather in one or another corner of the room
where there is a hand-drawn sign reflecting their view: “strongly agree,” “agree,”
“disagree,” “strongly disagree.” Earl’s final question is whether people should forgive
their parents, including for what they may feel were egregious mistakes and
failures.
24 E D U C A T I O N A L T H E O R Y Volume 67 Number 1 2017
This question provokes strong opinions from the class. Most students argue
that forgiveness is ultimately the way to go. Patrizia, a student who does not
agree, offers a range of comments about how harmful bad parenting can be. She
engages her peers energetically, time and again parrying their counterarguments.
The discussion becomes heated, though not ad hominem (the teacher has
worked hard, since their first day of school, to help the class avoid such a
turn). Suddenly Patrizia, in the very midst of saying “parents just have to be
accountable,” shakes her head vigorously and falls silent. She rushes to her chair
by the far wall and, taking her seat, lowers her head on her arms. A tall girl,
Cornelia, with whom she had been debating, goes over and, brushing the girl’s
knee with her hand, asks “You okay, Patrizia?” The teacher, Earl, also goes over
and, kneeling down to eye level, softly asks if she is okay. Patrizia keeps her head
down and offers no response. Meanwhile the class has been returning to their
seats, sensing that the opinionator activity has ended.
Earl turns on an overhead and shows the class the title page from their edition
of August Wilson’s play. He asks students about possible associations with the
single word that forms the title, “Fences.” On the overhead he jots down their
ideas, while encouraging students to do the same in their notebooks. Within a
minute or so of the start of this activity, Patrizia raises her head from her arms
and follows the discussion, taking notes as do the other students. She appears
calm and composed. Suddenly she sneezes. In that very instant, Cornelia and the
teacher both say “Bless you,” in a gentle but firm tone.
Knowledge and Truth in Bearing Witness
The witness to teaching and teachers lives out a paradox. While seated in
the corner of a classroom, the witness does not “know” what she or he is doing.
The witness is not there to intervene, to guide, to instruct, to steer, to shape,
to change, or to reform, all of which are overt purposes that create a sense of
direction. In comparison with such knowingness, the witness appears aimless.
Moreover, the witness does not know precisely what to look for. She or he is
not a botanist entering the forest with a clear understanding of what plants
to seek out. The person has no a priori, nor an a posteriori, checklist of what
“counts” as an index or expression of the person in the role of teacher. In the
vignettes above, to cast matters in literal terms, I was not waiting for a moment
when a teacher and student would respond to an unsettled human being, or
when two students would collaborate as their teacher had taught them to do,
or when I could witness how a teacher responds to the collective anxiety of her
class.
At the same time, I was primed to note such moments through the steady effort
of readying myself to bear witness that I had given myself over to from the start
of the endeavor, and which I have characterized in this writing. I had become a
knowing witness in the sense of grasping the necessity of waiting, of attending, of
positioning myself to apprehend what might be given me to witness. I was more
knowing with regard to being sensitive to the possibilities and limitations in the
will to represent, to explain, to account for, to taxonomize, and to objectify. This
Hansen Among School Teachers 25
knowing is agentive. People say “that carpenter knows her way around wood” and
“that basketball player knows his way around the court.”26 I slowly learned to
know my way around the classroom as a witness.
Bearing witness does not add new knowledge to the field regarding such things
as instructional technique, curriculum content, assessment, or school and classroom
organization. Teachers themselves, and subject- and organization-focused
researchers, are best positioned to yield such knowledge. Bearing witness does
not provide in this sense. It does not produce. Its poetics are not about changing
things in the world, as such, in the manner of typical educational interventions
and researches. A poetics of witnessing is more about changing ourselves as educational
inquirers, teachers, program developers, teacher educators, policymakers,
and consultants.
Change into who or what? Change in what manner? Change according to
who or what? What is the source of this obligation to transform? Why respect
that source? These challenging questions become thornier in considering the
limits of the communicative instrumentalities at the witness’s disposal. In his
comprehensive taxonomy of the concept “witness,” John Peters recalls the fact
that all forms of witnessing remain incomplete until they are acknowledged by
others.27 But what does the witness to teaching and teachers communicate? What
is the “it” at the center of her or his speaking? Iris Murdoch provides suggestive
language in her interpretation of what a painter like Paul Cézanne or a poet like
Rainer Maria Rilke is attempting to do. They are not saying “I like it” or “I approve
of it.” Rather, they are saying: “There it is.”28 In the hands of some artists, Murdoch
avers, the “there it is” renders injustice, cruelty, violence, and hopelessness so
palpable that it may be hard to look out at the world at all. In the hands of others,
the “there it is” evokes the reality of the good, the true, and the beautiful. The
“there it is” inspires and motivates others to be at their best: their most reflective,
loving, and concerned, rather than their most judgmental, hateful, and indifferent.
The witness who writes of teaching and teachers hopes that the “is-ness”
of the “there-ness” calls out to the reader, saying, in effect: “Think about it,
‘give’ it thought, as the English expression has it, give something of your-self to
it, put something of your-self at risk, rather than merely analyze it.” But while
the witness’s “there it is” may function like art, this possibility does not make
the witness an artist. Put another way, the ideal of a clairvoyant seeing into the
heart of teaching, and of a perspicuous rendering of such, does not make such
doings possible. Crucially, this effort can help the witness learn to glimpse and
to hold the resonant gesture long enough to say: There. But this “hold” itself
26. With regard to knowing wood, I think of Martin Heidegger, What Is Called Thinking, trans. J. Glenn
Gray (New York: Perennial, 2004), 14–15, 23, passim. On knowing basketball, consider John McPhee’s
aptly named account of the star player Bill Bradley: A Sense of Where You Are (New York: Farrar, Strauss
& Giroux, 1999).
27. Peters, “Witnessing,” 710.
28. Murdoch, Sovereignty of Good, 59.
26 E D U C A T I O N A L T H E O R Y Volume 67 Number 1 2017
so often remains an ideal rather than an achievement. Emerson was true to life
when he suggested that an “unhandsome condition” of our being-in-the-world is
the evidently permanent inability to freeze time and movement. The glimpse, the
gesture, “slip[s] through our fingers then when we clutch hardest,” and can fail to
inscribe us, our very being, with the moment’s truth about being and becoming a
person.29
The witness to teaching and teachers seeks to render but not to represent.
“Render” denotes forming, or fashioning, and giving over what is due. The
term mirrors its French cousin rendre, which connotes among other meanings
“giving back” and “returning in kind.” The witness is oriented from a platform
of wonder and concern about the practice, and puts forward her or his glimpse
into gesture: that is, her or his gesture about the parabolic significance built
deep into teaching’s gestures. Perhaps the witness’s gesture can be nothing more
than that. Perhaps it can go no “further.” Perhaps it should not aspire to do
so. Once again, paradox emerges. The witness aspires to “be there” and “not to
be there.” As touched on previously, the person bears witness to teaching and
teachers precisely by “getting out of the way” in order to let the truth of the
work disclose itself and shine forth. To echo the epigraph from the poet A. R.
Ammons that heads this essay: The witness’s fundamental eros is to be a conduit,
a vehicle, a handmaiden. But as human beings for millennia have experienced,
if they let their thought run far enough, and if they give themselves over to
truth wholeheartedly enough, they soon run into an aporia of expressivity. The
step to enunciate appears to instantaneously objectify the world, and thus to
distort its reality and our real relation with it. This predicament threatens to
generate stasis, quietude, perhaps even withdrawal in the face of failure. But the
witness moves into the world, in the first place, precisely because she or he rejects
withdrawal.
The difficulty of writing a witness mirrors the difficulty of its enactment in the
world. Consider once more Cézanne’s deep foray into art. In one of his reflective
moments he remarked: “A minute in the world’s life passes! To paint it in its
reality! And forget everything for that. To become that minute, be the sensitive
plate … ”30 Cézanne does not just want to “capture” the passing moment. He
wants his painting to be the passing moment, not to be “about” it. But how can
becoming “be”? How can being “become”? Cézanne takes up his instruments —
paints, brushes, canvases — and works them as best as possible, even while letting
the scene-in-view work on him. As he knew intimately, his instruments can play
tricks on him. They can surprise him in wondrous ways, but they can also lead
him (again, surprisingly) to where he does not want to go. So it is with writing a
witness. The words sometimes appear to come of their own accord, and feel right.
At other times, the words “take over” and lead the writer astray from the truth of
29. Emerson, Essays and Lectures, 473.
30. Quoted in Maurice Merleau-Ponty, “Eye and Mind,” in The Primacy of Perception, ed. James M.
Edie, trans. William Cobb (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964), 169.
Hansen Among School Teachers 27
things. A fencing duel, a competitive pas de deux ensues: the mongoose and the
snake snapping at and jumping back from one another. Language lunges and wants
the witness to write this way, when what is most necessary of all is to write that
way, that is, the way of what is there, what held the witness as she or he in turn
be-held it.
The epigraph from the poet William Bronk at the start of the article suggests
an inhabitable and unfrustrating, if also incomplete, response to these perplexities.
It is the denial reality sets — that it will not be captured — that
releases the witness to have some faith in her or his rendering. The witness’s
purpose is not to capture that reality, to contain it, to bound it, much less to control
it. The aim is to do right by it, not as if one could be a mirror to nature,
but as a being in nature, in the world, attesting through one’s witness to that
very being. The witness to teaching and teachers seeks living truth, truth that
dedicated teachers live by, if not in so many words. Such truth is not propositional,
conjoined as such truth is with the alternative of falsifiability. The contrast
with truth to work by, of teaching’s truth, is not epistemic as such, but
ethical and moral. The person who does not see or grasp teaching’s truth is
not “wrong.” Her or his “false witness,” to recall Thrasymachus’s epithet for
Socrates, is not epistemic in the sense of wissen or savoir. Rather, the person
is inexperienced in the ways of teaching, or perhaps as yet lacks perspicuous
grounds for adequate judgment, or perhaps is at present locked in a dogmatic
orbit.
If she or he understandably responds, “Okay, how do you know what the
truths of teaching are?” I can only reply: “I do not know them in the epistemic
register you are evoking.” To be sure, as emphasized previously, accuracy
about facts is indispensable. The love of teaching as a human endeavor
that the witness embodies can distort as much as support clear-eyed (eyewitness)
seeing. But truth as I have encountered it as a witness is not a question
of evidence and counterevidence as conventionally framed, as if the truths
of teaching can be reduced entirely to those of cause and effect. If positivist
social scientific research indicated that a teacher’s sensitivity to students had
no “effect” on grades or test scores, it would reveal a strange (if not frightening)
form of ethical ignorance, inexperience, or forgetfulness to recommend that
teachers can henceforth dispense with sensitivity — instead of knowing the truth,
learned very early as a child in school, that such sensitivity is indispensable,
rather than a discretionary “technique,” in genuine educational work with the
young.
The knowledge I have of the truth of teaching, such as it is, emerges primordially
from reception rather than from attempts at analysis and explanation.31 Put
31. I am thinking here of how Emerson concludes his essay on the experience of being a human being.
He writes: “All I know is reception; I am and I have: but I do not get, and when I have fancied I had
gotten anything, I found I did not” (Essays and Lectures, 309). The epigraph from William Bronk echoes
Emerson’s testimony.
28 E D U C A T I O N A L T H E O R Y Volume 67 Number 1 2017
another way, the truth of teaching is in the feeling of it, first and last, with that
feeling shaped, disciplined, and educated by a serious, self-critical engagement with
the work. I can ready myself for truth, and put myself under the sway of such truth,
by opening myself to ethical proximity with teachers. I can be among them. “To
be among”: the phrase can be purely behavioral or descriptive in meaning. But it
can also mean to be surrounded by, in the company of, in the midst of, a member
of: to be with, rather than standing off to the side. More strongly, to be among can
mean to be implicated, at stake, and in question: la rue descends dans la philo.
To be among teachers is to be in a position to influence them, through the sheer
affirmation of the work embodied in one’s presence, and to be influenced by them,
not just by their words, but by bearing witness to the discouraging failures and
frustrations they encounter, to their joys and accomplishments, and to everything
in between.32 My witness of the truths of the practice may be confused and poorly
rendered. I may be an inadequate witness. But I can (ken) say, “There it is,” and
hope that others will convey it better.
Concluding Note: Philosophical Fieldwork that Points
In their special issue on philosophers of education undertaking fieldwork, Terri
Wilson and Doris Santoro pose the question, “[W]hat is the distinctively philosophical
work that philosophers of education do when they engage in empirical
research?”33 Wilson and Santoro recognize that no single answer can address their
question. There are, potentially, as many responses to the question as there are
conceptions of “philosophical work.” Moreover, the editors understand that not
all forms of fieldwork are “empirical” in the technical, philosophical sense of that
term. In this writing, I have suggested that one approach to fieldwork in education
is through the enactment of bearing witness as I have sought to enunciate it.
The orientation embodies, in the many-sided senses of that verb, heeding the quiet
testimony expressed through resonant particulars. I have traced how the approach
has philosophical origins in wonder and concern, and how it has philosophical
dimensions with respect to every element that comprises it. I have characterized a
number of them, in the sense of portraying their character-in-experience: modes of
perception, receptivity, waiting, stilling the will, and rendering rather than representing.
I have drawn upon metaphor — the witness as pilgrim, as pastoral guest,
as visitor to being — to illuminate the nature of witnessing. I am aware of how
32. I did not deploy in a systematic manner the concept witness during my time with the teachers,
simply because I was not ready to do so. My capacity to speak of witnessing, such as it is, has developed
slowly. It is worth noting, however, that the participating teachers attested time and again to the values
in having a person versed in teaching come to know their work, not with an eye on “improving” it but
in taking it seriously and talking about it. The structure of the long-term endeavor, featuring extensive
classroom visits, group discussions, and one-on-one interviews, made possible a rich and wide-ranging
dialogue between us. As mentioned in note 12, there is much I hope to say in the future, not only about
the teachers’ responses to the experience (including the writing a number of them have undertaken), but
about the larger import of bearing witness for ways of relating and of building community among people
involved with teaching.
33. Terri S. Wilson and Doris A. Santoro, “Philosophy Pursued through Empirical Research: Introduction
to the Special Issue,” Studies in Philosophy and Education 34, no. 2 (2015): 116.
Hansen Among School Teachers 29
compressed, because of space limitations, this written witness remains, and of
how many unanswered questions it has doubtless provoked. I hope the writing
constitutes a fruitful introduction, wherein each part encapsulates the whole and
vice versa.
An on-the-ground way to rephrase Wilson and Santoro’s summative question
is to ask, What is the point of bearing witness to teaching and teachers? In a
negative sense, as I have implied throughout, the point of communicating it, of
putting the witness into form, is not to increase control over teachers, students,
and the classroom. This negative aim does not imply an uncritical posture toward
teaching and teachers. Quite the contrary. It is common knowledge that some
teachers, like some schools, do a poor job of educating. As I hope to show elsewhere,
bearing witness can illuminate in telling fashion how problematic or miseducative
a teacher’s approach may be — and yet, in such a manner that fresh ground
for communication with that teacher opens up, precisely through the witness’s
receptive rather than controlling mode.
In a positive sense, if we convert the noun into a verb, bearing witness points
to aspects of truth, goodness, and beauty in teaching that are not easily discernible,
but that help constitute its very being. Bearing witness draws out the
quiet testimony dedicated teachers and students express through their daily work
about what it means to be and to become a person. Witnessing shines a light
on the often subtle drama of their potentially transformative day-by-day interaction
in the classroom. “Quiet,” though not quietude, constitutes the watchword.
The horizon of being and becoming in the classroom tends to be below
the radar. Thus the witness to teaching and teachers trucks in gestures and
glimpses. The witness attempts to (be)hold them care-fully, not by setting them
in amber or pinning them to a wall, but rather through buoyant, flexible prose
that nonetheless (ideally) possesses the strength of silk. The witness keeps these
glimpses of being and becoming present so that they do not swiftly recede from
view, like a dream vivid in sleep but vanishing from the instant one’s eyes
open. And yet the witness also reverses, as well, that familiar image. She or
he aspires to open eyes to what may otherwise appear dreamlike and in the
shadows, but which has its vital, generative substantiality. “The most dizzying
encounters with truth,” Shari Goldberg reminds us, “may be delivered by the
most unprepossessing of vehicles.”34 By becoming responsive to everyday educational
reality, the witness shares responsibility for its continued viability and
integrity.
Educational administrators, policymakers, researchers, teacher educators,
teachers, and others in the system often seem to dwell in very “loud” environments
that teem with pressures to “produce” in the here and now. The witness
offers no program or blueprint for changing such conditions. She or he knows that
the witnessing must be completed, by those who hear it, in their own way. But the
witness communicates, rather than remains silent, in order to influence educators’
34. Goldberg, Quiet Testimony, 12.
30 E D U C A T I O N A L T H E O R Y Volume 67 Number 1 2017
consciousness of what is at stake in making decisions that affect the persons teachers
and students are becoming. The witness can touch their conscience, so long as
the witness has felt that touch her- or himself.
THE FIELDWORK REPORTED HEREIN was made possible by a grant from the Spencer Foundation,
Chicago, Illinois, and by a research award from Teachers College, Columbia University. I am grateful
to Amy B. Shuffelton and three anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful and wide-ranging criticism.
My thanks also to John Fantuzzo and the students in his philosophy and education writing seminar at
Teachers College (Spring 2016) for their invaluable criticism of an earlier version of the manuscript.

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