Sunday, April 13, 2014

From One Reluctant Warrior to Another

Anthony Cody posted A Call to Battle for reluctant Warriors earlier this week, and it got me to really thinking about my own reluctant warrior status, and what I would say to someone else just entering the fray.

I'm not a fighter. On those personality tests that measure such things, I usually emerge as a peacemaker. But from day one, teaching has forced me to confront the need, sometimes, to fight.

My first teaching job started with a strike and ended with layoffs. It took me another five years to land a permanent full time gig, and in the meantime, I wondered if the universe was sending me a message (roughly, "Do something else, dummy!"). But there wasn't anything else I'd rather do, so I soldiered on.

I had always figured that I would sometimes have to wrestle with students who didn't exactly consider the wonders of studying English one of the most important part of life. But I was naively surprised to discover that many of the people who I'd figured would support education-- parents, administrators, board members, government officials-- actually spent more time creating obstacles than helping. And I started to realize that teaching was not a walk in the park or a ride on a parade float, but actually guerilla warfare. Like most teachers, I was inclined to follow the rules, stay inside the lines, respect the system. We all learn at some point that standing up for our students means standing up against the system, and that it's worth it.

Not everybody decided to fight. Some folks let the obstacles have their occasional win on the theory that they were mostly doing good work. Some could simply never bring themselves to break the rules or argue with a boss. Some just hate the idea of conflict. I get that. I'm one of those people.

Has it gotten worse? I believe it has. It used to be that the occasional misguided administrator would recommend some piece of educational malpractice. Then the state suggested it. Then the state mandated it. Nowadays, the federal and state governments have teamed up to make some acts of educational malpractice the law of the land.

I had the same sorts of thoughts when I found myself on the path to becoming the president of a teachers' union on strike. Sometimes you don't choose the fight, but the fight chooses you. Sometimes you are caught in a conflict of someone else's creation, and your only choice is to either stand up or to be one of those good men who does nothing.

So if you're going to become a reluctant warrior, what can you do?

Trust your judgment.

Not blindly. I think my judgment is pretty good, but I'm also painfully aware that I have screwed up big time in my life, that I have failed students, that I have made poor choices. But I hope that I've learned lessons from all of that (including not to blindly trust myself).

But if you are a trained professional educator, that means you're the expert. If the answer key gives an answer that you know is wrong, you don't just say, "Well, the answer key must be right." Trust your professional judgment and


Talk to other people whose judgment you trust. Even if-- especially if-- they don't necessarily come from your identical perspective.

You may have an opportunity to make allies that nobody else can. Do not fall into the trap of declaring enemies so ferociously and finally that you miss the chance to convince someone to join your side. If there's anything we know about the battle over public education, it's that it has made strange bedfellows on both side of the fight.

And there are groups to join. On Facebook the most active voice is the Bad Ass Teachers page, an action group that can provide you with something simple to do to take action in the fight every single day. Organizations like this are popping up all over. If you are a joiner,it's a great way to find likeminded people to focus your warrior activities.


In staff meetings. In professional development. In neighborhood social gatherings. Don't be a jerk about it, but speak up. Share your perspective.

Read about the issues on line, and when you read something you agree with, leave a comment saying so. When you read something you disagree with, leave a comment saying so. When we stay silent, folks are able to imagine whatever they like running through our brains. When we speak, they must deal with the truth.

And in these times, words of support are always a help. Let people know you are on their side. You know how lonely guerilla warfare gets.


This is a challenge. Perhaps you live and work in one of the epicenters of this fight, in which case you have opportunities to take to the streets, swell a crowd, make some noise. Or, like me, you may live someplace quiet and far away from the toughest parts of this fight. But you can still do something.

The Network for Public Education (a group you should join) has prepared a simple kit for nudging your Congressperson and agitating for a Congressional inquiry into the abuses of High Stakes Testing. You can send an e-mail or a regular old paper letter. Everything you need is right here.

There is also a petition nearing its final days, urging the removal of high stakes testing from RttT/NCLB. Like most White House petitions, it may well fall short of the required numbers of citizens willing to register and sign up, but look-- you're already sitting here at your computer. Click on this link.

Tell your state and national union bosses what you want from them. Get involved in your local. Communicate regularly. Call your state and federal elected representatives repeatedly. Write to them. It's not always or only about who has the money. inBloom had way more money that Leonie Haimson, but inBloom is no longer in New York State, and Leonie Haimson surely is. Corporate money is most useful in silencing the critics, but you can choose not to be silenced.

Educate yourself. Read the blogs. Search out the info. And then spread the word, any you can think of. We're teachers, and that makes us one of the most dangerous type of warrior there is, reluctant or not.

Ultimately, for me, it is not about whether I would change the world or not-- it is about whether I will live out my values or not, whether I will live a life that demonstrates what I believe. I know what it's like to be reluctant to fight, but as rough as conflict may feel, it's not as bad as living a life that doesn't match what you care about, what you value, what you hold to be true and important. We all have to stand up for something; why not stand up for what we actually believe?


  1. This comment is pure praise for Peter the Curmudgeon.
    I honestly think you are one of the best and most creative blog writers on the topic of education out there.
    You write stuff that I would like to write but am not able to express clearly.
    Thanks, and keep up the good work.
    Guy Brandenburg

  2. Thank you for this. I have written our local newspaper (the columnist replied he's not "anti-teacher" just "pro-education," but when I sent him my CCSS 4th quarter pacing guide, he stopped replying. Guess he just wants an easy victim...), my school superintendent (who plays along for awhile but then says his hands are tied--but he's superintendent of the 5th largest school district in the US, so I told him he was taking the easy way out), etc. I'm not comfortable doing this, but I just cannot NOT speak out.

  3. 34,000 New York children refused to take the ELA state tests. Many more will choose to refuse the math, especially now that principals and educators are speaking up. Watch and spread the video. Parents have a right to refuse!

  4. This is great. I'm going to email my colleagues (from my personal email - never school) and ask that they read it.

  5. Thank you for this reminder. I have become a warrior myself. North Carolina feels like part of the front line right now, and I am proud (and terrified) to be fighting with the vanguard. If you're interested, here's a spoken word piece I did just last night explaining why:

  6. Thanks, Peter! My favorite line was this, "Sometimes you are caught in a conflict of someone else's creation, and your only choice is to either stand up or to be one of those good men who does nothing." Read this on an evening when the husband and I found ourselves shaking our heads, wondering if it was time to sit down. Instead, we are still standing, not ready to be good people who do nothing. Thanks.

    1. Good for you. It's not easy, and every person knows his or her own limits. But thank you for still standing.

  7. As you encourage us to do, Peter, I acknowledge that I've read something positive and will be including blog link to our 945 members in today's newsletter. Thanks for the words of encouragement and for all you do.

    1. Thank you, Doug. I hope your members found it useful.