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Teachers as Cultural Workers: Freire on Literacy, Love, and Authority in the


Conference Paper · April 2017


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Mitchell C Colver
Utah State University


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Teachers as Cultural Workers: Freire on Literacy, Love, and Authority in the Classroom

Freire (1998), as a world-renowned educator, speaks boldly about the world of education,

the role of a teacher, and of political discourse, especially of the pernicious forms of

authoritarianism that creep into our schools. He speaks of knowledge and of growth, both for

students as well as for teachers, and so much of what he says is not only inspirational but

incredibly helpful. Three key themes that Freire (1998) discusses in his book, Teachers as

Cultural Workers, that are particularly insightful include his thoughts on literacy, his exploration

of love in the classroom, as well as his dynamic discussion of the role of shared authority within

teacher/student relationships.

Citizenship in any society is predicated on literacy

Freire's (1998) thoughts on the importance of literacy are transformative, yet simple,

especially in their emphasis on how literacy expands and enhances our creative capacities when

we externalize our thoughts. As Freire (1998) explains, "We must remember that there is a

dynamic movement between thought, language, and reality that, if well understood, results in a

greater creative capacity" (p. 3). This point is critical to the well-being of 21st century educators,

in understanding that as we think about the reality of our world and then externalize those

thoughts through literate articulation, we move from a realm of simply experiencing reality to

actually creating it with our words. With so many new tools of expression being made available

within our schools, Freire’s thoughts are not only relevant, but prophetic. As other authors have

noted, such as Rommetveit (1979), moving from merely expressing ideas to sharing them with

others allows us to go a step further and create a temporary shared reality, which is not only a

powerful concept, but critical to our understanding of the work that teachers do and to the work

that we ask students to do.

While authors like Cannella and Viruru (2004) have pointed out the problematic nature of

extolling literacy to such a high degree, which often results in colonializing-by-literacy, Freire

(1998), in contrast, expands this discussion of the importance of literacy by speaking to the

disastrous consequences of being illiterate. Although Canella and Viruru (2004) argue against the

idea that "literate human beings are always better off that illiterate ones" (p. 39), Freire (1998)

goes as far to say that being illiterate robs one of enjoying full citizenship within a society: "Even

if literacy does not wipe out the socially created relationships between language, thought, and

reality, it is a handicap that becomes an obstacle to achieving full citizenship" (pp. 2-3). The idea

here is that in order to actively participate as a citizen of any group, one must be prepared to fully

engage the multiple discourses that play out in social interactions. This dialogue, which often

requires one to write as often as to read, begins to falter when our skills for reading the world and

sharing the products of that reading with others are not developed to their full potential. As

Freire (1998) explains, "Illiteracy is a handicap to the extent that in literate cultures it interdicts

the illiterates by preventing them from completing the cycle in the relationship between

language, thought, and reality" (p. 3).

While we can appreciate the caution that Canella and Viruru (2004) plead for when

enacting such glossy views of literacy, Freire (1998) accurately asserts that becoming literate is

one of the most important activities that human beings can engage in. In our most impoverished

and at-risk communities, as well as in our schools with the greatest financial need, reading

unlocks worlds of great importance for the young minds of the students served, despite their

often disadvantaged arrangements of poverty, access, and habitus. As Freire (1998) points out,

student lives are enhanced by literacy as a remarkable force for good.

Love as the essence of teaching.

The importance of love in the classroom is not only found throughout the writings of

Freire, but also in the devoted work of bell hooks. hooks (2010) writes that "when we teach with

love we are better able to respond to the unique concerns of individual students, while

simultaneously integrating those concerns in the classroom community" (p. 160). Each one of us

can easily think back to some of our favorite teachers and see their pedagogy reflected in love

and in the words of both hooks and Freire. Freire (1998) underscores this message, speaking not

merely to the importance of love but to love as the very essence of teaching: "In short, it is

impossible to teach without a forged, invented, and well-thought-out capacity to love" (p. 5). He

speaks of this capacity of being "both joyful and rigorous" (p. 5) and also talks about what can

happen when love is not allowed to flow freely in the classroom. There is a great need in the

neoliberal trends of our current global educational climate for these words to be heard, to be

cultivated, and to be cherished.

Speaking of being observed too often and too intrusively, which is just one outcropping

of neoliberal hegemony, Freire (1998) outlines the emotional fallout of placing teachers in a

bureaucratic equivalent of Bentham's panopticon: "When teachers become fearful, they begin to

internalize the dominator's shadow and the authoritarian ideology of the administration. These

teachers are no longer alone with their students because the force of the the punitive and

threatening dominant ideology comes between them" (p. 16). When this type of fear comes over

professionals, it is often because they have found their professionalism constantly under review

by administrators. This not only wears them down, but gets in the way of being able to serve

students who can intuitively sense the affective down-shift in their teacher's demeanor. Such

negative energy in the classroom not only inhibits the teacher's ability to show love and to
express that love in their teaching work, but also impacts their ability to establish community, a

third important theme discussed by Freire (1998).

Common unity: Community

In his FIDUROD structure of western epistemology, Kincheloe (2008) points to the ill

effects of creating a decontextualized learning space, which can "distort" (p. 23) our

understanding of students. As we work to build community in the classroom, such distortions can

get in the way of us creating a community that is actually relevant for our students. As was

similarly explained by Freire (1998), "Educators need to know what happens in the world of the

children with whom they work. They need to know the universe of their dreams, the language

with which they skillfully defend themselves from the aggressiveness of their world, what they

know independently of the school, and how they know it" (p. 130). Such funds of knowledge (see

also González, Moll, & Amanti, 2005) can unlock new worlds for teachers and for the

classrooms they facilitate.

Indeed, being respectful to students' funds of knowledge requires that the teacher "read"

his or her students, which Freire (1998) explains can take practice: "Another fundamental aspect

related to early experiences of novice teachers, one that teacher training programs should pay the

closest attention to if they don't already, is teachers' preparation for 'reading' a class of students

as if it were a text to be decoded, comprehended" (p. 88). A proper reading of one's class can

help the teacher foreground certain topics, issues, lessons, questions, etc. that would be

particularly relevant, interesting, passion-inspiring, or just plain fun for the students, given each

of their unique backgrounds. As teachers model this insight-driven interaction with each of their

students, highlighting strengths and interests within the classroom, students naturally respond

and begin to mimic the teacher's interest in their fellow students' lives. As they learn and share
about each other's unique backgrounds, common threads of diversity emerge, can be articulated,

and this sharing facilitates love.

Common threads

In his ever-service oriented, ever-caretaking manner, Freire (1998) highlights the

importance of understanding how interrelated these themes of literacy, love, and community are

with one another. When Freire talks about literacy, he is speaking of it as a vehicle for both

greater love in the classroom, as well as a vehicle for greater community. When he speaks about

love being the essence of a teacher's work, he is describing how that love is manifest in the

teacher facilitating the ever-increasing literacy of his or her students, as well as facilitating

community through expression and through the appreciation of diversity. When Freire speaks of

community in the classroom, he does so from the standpoint that community is predicated on

literacy and cultivated by love.

As we read Freire's work and reflect on our own classroom experiences, his thoughts

allow us to reread our former experiences with new eyes. This synthesis of experience, thought,

literacy, and reflection creates not only a truly Freirean experience, but one that is crucial to the

well-being of our classrooms, our students, and our schools.


Cannella, G. S., & Viruru, R. (2004). Childhood and postcolonization: Power, education, and

contemporary practice. Psychology Press.

Freire, P. (1998). Teachers as Cultural Workers. Letters to Those Who Dare Teach. Cambridge,

MA: Westview Press.

González, N., Moll, L., & Amanti, C. (2005). Funds of knowledge. Mahwah, NJ.

bell hooks. (2010). Teaching critical thinking: Practical wisdom. Routledge.

Kincheloe, J. L. (2008). Knowledge and critical pedagogy. Dordrecht: Springer.

Rommetveit, R. (1979). On the architecture of intersubjectivity. In R. Rommetveit and R. M.

Blakar (Eds.), Studies of language, thought and verbal communication. London:

Academic Press, 93-108.

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