Monday, December 23, 2013

Trust Yourself

In 1841, the great American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson published "Self-Reliance," an essay which includes the line "Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string." Right now seems a good time for teachers to grab the iron in their hearts.

Teachers are, for the most part, good team players. We follow rules. We respect authority. And when people who are in positions of authority make rules, we try to behave.

If the teacher's manual gives an answer that doesn't sound right to us, we'll give it the benefit of the doubt until we double check. If district or building administration tells us to handle lunch money or attendance according to Procedure X, we'll go ahead and try to do that even if it doesn't seem like a very wise choice to us. We trust the people in charge, the responsible people. Sometimes, particularly early in our careers, we trust them more than we trust ourselves.

We're not suckers for just anybody. If some stranger walked in off the street and into the classroom declaiming, "Hey, I know exactly what your problem is. Here's what you should do," we would not imagine for a minute that this is advice we should take.

But of course that's exactly where we are. Except that the strangers have walked in off the street with bags full of money or previous success in some line of work or a note from our boss's boss saying, "I think this guy is swelleroonies!"

And these rich, powerful, well-connected amateurs are everywhere. They are running book companies, writing materials, running school districts. And of course they've engineered the biggest bloodless coup ever, a complete power grab for the entire American public education system.

Now teachers don't know who can be trusted. We want to be good soldiers, but now we don't know whose orders we're following. This is not scary because we are the subject of some evil conspiracy intended to suck our brains dry or make off with the family silverware. It's scary because, more than anything else, we want to do right by our students. In many cases we are the last, best advocate those students have. It's a tough fight, and traditionally we took strength from knowing that we were part of a large, committed army. Nowadays, we don't know who is watching our back and who is getting ready to stab it.

Imagine you're a surgeon, operating on somebody's brain. Your trusted supervisor is there, and her instructions begin, "First, get this chain saw started up..." That's teaching today.

Our unions, the textbook publishers, the state and federal ed departments, even in some cases our own district administrators-- all of them are telling us this chainsaw idea sounds pretty good. What do we do?

Trust yourself.

Emerson's point was simple-- the wise men of ancient times, today's captains of industry, the people who kibbitz from the back seat-- none of them stand where you are, see what you see, know what you know. Trust yourself.

There's been a bunch of kerflufflation over who actually created the Common Core. Shills have assured us that teachers were totally involved, in hopes that would shut people up. But they've missed the point. No critic that I've read or spoken to has said, "I think the CCSS standards are near-perfect, but since they weren't written by teachers, I shall hate them." No, the story was more like this:

1) Teacher looks at CCSS. Teacher says, "Hmm. These look like they were cobbled together by some amateur who knows nothing about teaching."

2) Teacher does some research.

3) Teacher says, "Well, that explains why these look like an amateur hack job. They were done by amateur hacks."

"The CCSS were not written by teachers" is not an excuse for not liking them. It's an explanation for why they are so unlikeable.

Lots of teachers were and are unable to trust themselves. But the further we wade into the Big Muddy, the more teachers are looking at the chainsaw they've been told to pick up and wondering if it's such a good idea. "This program I'm supposed to implement," they're saying quietly. "I'm not sure it's such a good idea." But they're saying it quietly because, you know, surely the book publishers and program designers and USDOE and all these smart, successful, powerful people-- surely they wouldn't be pushing actions that are bad for students.

Trust yourself.

When the directives you're looking at seem to go against all your teaching knowledge and instincts, trust yourself. When it seems like the directives for an English class seem to have been written by someone with far less expertise than you have, trust yourself. And if you are a newbie with limited experience to draw on, you can still trust yourself when it comes to deciding whom to trust. When it seems as if your directions are coming from people who don't know what the hell they're talking about, no matter how rich, powerful, important they may be-- trust yourself.

You are the one in the classroom. You are the one who knows your students. With years of teaching and training behind you, you are the one who knows how this stuff works. I'm not saying go Full Cowboy-- you should also be the one who knows when to get help from the right place when you need it. But you are a professional. You are an expert-- in fact, when it comes to the specific class you are teaching this year, you are THE expert.

Don't let yourself be ground down. Don't believe the message that you are a toady, a mere content delivery system, the source of all education problems. You are a trained, experienced professional. You're a teacher.

Trust yourself.

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