Wednesday, October 23, 2013

What Do I Do?

As teachers talk about the current State of Education in This Country, the talk invariably turns to the question-- what can I do? After all, we've got large corporations, both political parties, and the leaders of both major unions lined up against us. That combination of powers practically insures that we will get no major media attention, and in fact we regularly see the media dutifully passing on the standard school reform lines. So what can we do?

Now, I'm not an activist. Never have been. I'm not completely alien to battles; I was a union local president during a contentious contract negotiation and subsequent strike. But I have some ideas about what does and does not work, about what helps us and what doesn't going forward.

Appeals to reason. When I started out in the biz, I thought the best way to negotiate a contract was to figure out the most reasonable contract and explain it to people. Then they would say, "Well, yes. That totally sounds right. We'll do that." By the time I was a union president, I knew better. But I remember the union members who remained certain that the board was only refusing to budge because they just didn't understand that our position made good sense and theirs didn't. Even members who had less faith in the board thought that if we just laid it all out for the public, they would rise up in support of us.

Those things did not happen. A classroom warps our understanding of the world, because in a classroom you win the day by being right. A classroom is the only place that works. Nobody wins in politics just by being right. Even if you ARE right, you still have to use that as some kind of leverage to muster the political power you want to have.

Collective Action. Everybody's favorite, I know, and very effective at certain times, but there are certain pitfalls.

If your collective is putting a lot of energy into making sure that everyone is On The Same Page, you're close to the line. When you are vigorously pursuing and purging people who are not following the exact proper party orthodoxy, you are over the line. When you are investing too much energy into your brand-- cool logos, t-shirts, constantly making sure that the brand is attached to every action you do-- you are close to the line. When you are composing paeans to how awesome your leaders are, you're way over the line.

If, in short, you've started to value your collective group over the actual goals of your group, you are not being particularly effective.

The most effective collective action is action that's not collective at all. When Hans rallies a crowd and talks them into storming the castle, inside the castle they're just saying, "Oh, it's that crazy Hans stirring people up again." No matter how large the crowd is, they think they've got a problem with one guy. But when every single person in the village, out of their own personal anger and irritation, grabs a pitchfork and heads toward the castle, inside the castle they're saying, "Oh, damn, we're in trouble now."

It's natural to want to join with like-minded people, and that kind of group is hugely effective at collecting and sharing information, including which window would be best to throw bricks at. But don't think you must line all those people up in neat rows and make them act exactly the same.

Individual speech. Crowds gather one at a time. Congressmen get sacks of mail one letter at a time.Individual action matters.

We live in the golden age of individual communication. You can tweet officials, e-mail them, post on their facebook page, respond directly to the articles they write. When someone writes a piece of puffy propaganda about CCSS and the comment section fills up with arguments against their point, that sends a message to the writer, the publisher, and every reader who sees the article.

Speak your truth. Call it as you see it. Become part of the conversation. Don't just shut up and go away.

Don't wait for Superman. By all means, cultivate allies in politics and the media, but don't imagine that "as soon as we recruit X for our cause, everything will change." It won't. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and it will be fought by inches, not by miles. Any time you imagine that getting X on our side will make a huge difference, you are kidding yourself. And remember-- politicians are politicians. Don't expect them to be anything else.

Advocate locally. Marriage equality became inevitable the more people personally knew a gay or lesbian human being. The issue had a face for more and more Americans, and it stopped being about some abstract principle and about your friends Chris and Pat.

Most Americans think their own schools are swell. Work with that. Be the face of teaching for your school's constituents.

This next part is hard to hear. I've worked with lots of folks who swore that they would never live in the district where they taught, that once out of school they didn't want to see a student or a student's family ever. WE CANNOT LIVE LIKE THAT ANY MORE. We must be visible in our communities. We must be the face of education.

As the face of education, we have to stop publicly counting down to retirement, bitching about those darn kids, crowing TGIF, and generally acting as if our job's are a chore. If you actually think teaching is a chore, do me a favor-- get the hell out and go do something else.

When we've done this visibly and often, our community members will start to trust us. When they trust us, we can talk to them about school reform and they'll listen without thinking we're just trying to save our cushy jobs.

Call it as you see it. Be professional, but be honest. Stop pointing out major policy flaws in private and smiling and nodding in public.

Let things break. Teachers are good team players, and we worry about our students. We know what needs to be done. And that means we are excellent institutional enablers.

Principal Bonehead institutes a new policy that create major classroom problems for Mrs. Weednozzle, so Mrs. W just puts in some extra hours, develops some new program materials, and "fixes" Principal Bonehead's mistake. Then she gets sad and grumpy that he doesn't see the problem and take steps to fix it, leaving her with all this extra work.

Here's the thing. He doesn't see a problem, because he has no problem. She fixed it. She made it HER problem. The fact that she's sad about it? Not his problem.

Lots of school reform is going to fail. Let it. Don't fix it for them. Let it crash and burn and let a crowd gather to say, "What an ugly mess! Who did this?" And then be honest.

Support your team. If you care about education and public schools, you are now part of an underground fighting a guerilla war. One of the things members of the education underground have to do is support each other. You know who your allies are, both nationally and locally. Support them. Help them.

It can be a demoralizing fight, and we can get weary. Worse yet, we can get negative and reach the point that we don't stand for anything-- just against a bunch of stuff. Supporting people who are doing positive things is a way to remind myself what I stand for, help a fellow struggler stay on his/her feet, and keep myself from becoming a mas of toxic negativity. Because toxic negativity-- ain't nobody got time for that.

Be a champion in your own room. Save who you can. Stand up for your kids. Use your best judgment. Fight for them. Let them go out into the world to tell stories about their own teacher who did such a good job and fought so hard for them.

Cut corners, break rules, do what you can get away with. Don't let some reformer stooge substitute their judgment for yours. Be sand in the gears of the machine.

Be smart. Don't sacrifice your career. Don't make your stand on a hill you can't defend. But don't be afraid to take a stand. They tell us to work like private industry. Well, you know what people do all the time in private industry-- work around their boss and disobey him when in their best professional judgment he is wrong. Do that. You're a teacher-- not a clerk. Be a teacher.

It's hard to be really civilly disobedient when you need a job, so we all have to draw the line where we feel we safely can. Some of us work for sympathetic bosses; some of us do not. Some of us are being asked to do outrageous educational malpractice; some of us are just being asked to do dumb, annoying little things. Some of us have clout and protection; some of us are just hoping to get tenure.

But if we each pick up a pitchfork or a torch just a pointy spork, and start walking toward the castle, we're likely to find ourselves part of a crowd that can't be ignored. The forces of school reform are never going to go away, but if we act and stay vocal, we can at least be one more force in the educational kingdom that has to be reckoned with.


  1. Thank you for writing this! "Don't fix it for them. Let it crash and burn . . . " SO hard to do, because we want the best for our kids; but if they (reformers, whomever) think it's working because we're making it work, why would they change it!

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  3. This is a great piece. Once again, you have been able to articulate so many things many of us are thinking. We all need to speak up, but also focus on teaching our students to the best of our ability.

  4. I'd like to be able to use this piece with the leaders in our local association. Can you send me a file? Thanks,