Saturday, December 10, 2016

Bystanding Educators

Over at EdWeek, Peter DeWitt asks the question "Have educators been bystanders too long?" I like the question because it doesn't even waste time asking if educators are bystanders, because, yes, that's what we do.

 This is probably one of the reasons we don't get more respect from business-folks. In the private sector, you sometimes have to play hardball. You "negotiate" by being non-compliant, looking across the table at the people demanding you do something and saying, "Make me." But schools are a culture of compliance. Many (almost certainly too many) teachers expect their students to be compliant, and in turn, we expect to be compliant with our administrators. I cannot begin to guess how many times some local union leader has had this conversation:

Teacher: My principal told me to do this thing, and I think it's wrong.
Union: Well, did you tell her you wouldn't do it?
Teacher: Are you kidding? She'll yell at me. She might put a letter in my file.

Here's a story about the culture of compliance. Years ago, my school board was complaining about an item forced on them by the state. Every member agreed that the state was dead wrong. One member suggested, "Well, what if we just don't do it?" The superintendent, principals, and several of those same board members looked at him as if had just suggested slaughtering puppies on the schoolhouse steps.

From top to bottom, schools run on one simple principle-- you do as you're told.

This is one of my pettest of peeves-- teachers will sit through a meeting or development session, smiling, nodding, quietly agreeing with everything, and then, afterwards, walk out the door and start talking to each other about everything that was wrong with the message. Too many teachers can't conceive of a middle ground somewhere between being raging asshattery and silent compliance.

Now more than ever, this is a problem. I'm still convinced that one of the reason teacher voices weren't included in the past few waves of reformsterism, from No Child Left Behind through Common Core, is that reformsters determined that all they needed to do was dictate from the top and teachers would just fall in line. Teachers have to bear some of the responsibility for creating the impression that we would comply quietly with whatever our Noble Trusted Leaders told us. This dynamic was certainly behind the occasional attempt to distinguish between teachers and teacher unions ("Teachers love this just fine, it's that cantankerous union that causes the problems"). I can distinctly remember hen state-sponsored PD shifted from trying to win our hearts and minds with a barrage of baloney to a more direct, "This is what's happening. Do it, or else."

As DeWitt puts it:

We are under a barrage of negative stories, fake news, and compliance and accountability that will only lead to more compliance and accountability, more fake news and negative stories. What are we getting out of it? Nothing. We still feel like we have no voice and after years of experience and paying to go to expensive schools to get degrees so we can remain in our practice, we feel like we are not good enough at what we do.

Between local, state, federal, and future Trumpian issues, educators face a wide range of Stupid Things being imposed on the profession, almost universally implemented without the input of educator voices. We are complicit in this because of our own silence-- the first step in making your voice heard is to use that voice, to speak.

When, how, and for what cause is a personal decision. Only you know the specifics of your local situation, only you know how much push back you can expect (there is an important difference between "My boss will probably yell at me' and "My boss will get me fired"). But I am not exaggerating when I say that some folks' strategy is "I will be sad about this Bad Thing, and Somebody Important will notice how sad I am and decide to do something to make me less sad." This is not good enough. If your image of teaching is "I just show up to work and do my job and let everyone else decide the policies and procedures that I have to follow," then you have come to the profession fifty years too late.

Maybe join your local union, or maybe not; hell, maybe your local union is part of the problem and you need to go to meetings and be a pain in the ass. Blog. Write letters. Share articles that you think matter. Go to professional gatherings and learn new stuff. Call your elected representatives. Use your inside and your outside voices. When you're sitting in a professional development meeting and someone presents a big fat slab of baloney, make them uncomfortable.

DeWitt's jumping off point was a book by Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves, Bringing the Profession Back In (Learning Forward. 2016). Fullan and Hargreaves suggest that idea of self-efficacy has been stripped from teachers, especially in the US, because there has been a, 'barrage of wrong solutions thrown at the profession.'" But the good news is that we could start talking again at any time. Just, you know, open your mouth and let your voice out.

No, people will not suddenly snap to attention, look raptly at us and declare, "You--you're talking!! Thank God!! Tell us what to do!" To imagine educators as the dominant voice in education-- well, that's just crazy talk. But we need to speak up, get involved, get in the game, get uncomfortable, and just generally stop standing on the sidelines watching the game as if we weren't expert players.

Education, schools, and the students they serve need advocates, and those advocates won't be the power players who know nothing about school, and those advocates won't be the privatizers whose interest in education extends only as far as the sector's ability to generate profits, and those advocates won't be the politicians who want to turn education into an engine of personal power, and those advocates won't be the Betters who believe that a good education is not for the children of Those People, and those advocates won't be the people who believe that education is the unguarded front through which democracy is allowed to interfere with the gathering of power, and those advocates who think education is just a political power base that must be broken up to consolidate political power. None of those people will advocate for public education and the children that it serves. Even parents, who do not always have access to the information and understanding they need to advocate-- even they can't always be counted on to advocate for schools and children. If educators don't speak up and use our voices to advocate for public education and children, how will it be done. If not us, who? If not now, when?


  1. The biggest problem is that even when one teacher stands up, the other teachers all take one step back and let the fury of the authorities descend upon that teacher (and I'm not talking just yelling or a letter in the file), and then use it as an excuse as to why they can't step up.

    1. Exactly! Whereas, if everyone had put up a united front to support their cause...

  2. Well said! We (Teachers) need to rise up and make ourselves heard.

  3. Gee, you make me feel better about the four letters I have in my file for standing up to my former principal!

  4. I hear this all the time - "but it's a state regulation to have an outside observer come into your classroom for 10 (ten!) minutes, then make a judgement about you and your teaching ability". And what if we just didn't do it?

  5. For years, I wrote in op-eds, newspapers, and spoke publicly and folks recognized me, agreed, was all fired up, yet did little to nothing. Even had certain administrators come up to me and encouraged me to never quit speaking out. But it comes down to others wanting someone else to do the heavy lifting when it comes to changes.

  6. Hooray, once again, for speaking the truth so articulately! I swore off reading the news and even blogs for much of the past year to gird myself against falling into complete despair over the election cycle and the increasing insanity in the ed world. This is one blog I really missed...

    Long before the current "ed reform" era, I often shared with friends, family, and anyone who would listen, how teachers were their own worst enemy. We (as a collective profession) ended up in this mess in large part because of the overly compliant nature of too many teachers. You can't keep doing the wrong thing because you were told to do it, and then act surprised and upset when all those wrong turns lead to the bottom of an abyss.
    I highly recommend the book "Intelligent Disobedience - Doing Right When What You're Told to do is Wrong." It builds on theories and practice from seeing eye dog training and the need to know when not to follow orders. There is a time and place in all careers and workplaces, to know when to question directives and speak out when acting as you're told will cause harm. It's not for just teachers. If politicians, and employees of Bill Gates, and those in what's-his-name's inner transition circle exercised some Intelligent Disobedience, we might find our way back on a path towards sanity in our society...

  7. This is so true. I am not a teacher, but a parent who has by force of circumstance become deeply versed in the politics of education. I served on our public elementary school's Building Leadership Team last year, and when I challenged an idiotic command from the school district leadership (a challenge that in simply being made was met with astonishment - apparently parent reps to this group had never actually been heard to speak before), the principal responded with a shrug and a "but what can we do?" I suggested that a mass opt-out from the annual standardized tests might gain the attention of the authorities. This was met with a polite titter from the principal and assembled teachers, and then we moved right along. Many things made sense to me after that . . .

    1. As a parent, I'd argue that your rights are different than they are for a teacher. A teacher is directed by their state (and by ESSA) to administer these tests. The teacher may not think they are a good idea. And they can voice that opinion as any citizen can. But they accept money as a teacher in exchange for performing the requested function - and increasingly this includes administering standardized tests.

      As far as parents, you have broader discretion. But even here, there are limits. In my state, a parent who keeps their child out of school beyond a certain number of days per year without a medical reason can face child abuse charges. Moreover, in several places, you almost never see parents pulling their children out for tests because these tests are required for graduation. For example, MA gets a lot of credit by teachers unions due to its strong schools and few charters. However, MA requires passing a PARCC designed test in order to graduate. In short, you don't really help anyone by preventing your child from being tested.

  8. I believe this is a state of being and mind that exists throughout most of America regardless of profession. For years unions did the heavy lifting and then through careful excision they have been decimated leaving just municipal/state/fed workers as the largest cohort of represented workforce. Slowly that is eroding and the pension backlash and issues surrounding defaults and bankruptcy (see Detroit, possible now Dallas, etc) have opened the door to seeing how to eliminate them as well. So people are afraid and resentful. Those who are in protected jobe want to keep them, those who don't have them want them eliminated as if they don't have it no one should. We rarely get out of the playground mentality regardless of age it seems.

    And we have had moments the $15/hr, the Carwasheros, the Gig Economy people, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter who have attempted to step up draw attention and in turn some actual policy change but then without clear leadership and a conventional organizational structure the few gains are just that few and far between. So when an individual steps and rises up willing to point out the problems, offer ideas, or just ask questions, they are labeled, ostracized and ultimately derided. Take a look at the individuals who have been terminated/blacklisted as whistleblowers.

    Then I have what I call it the Glenn Beck syndrome where for awhile you are given attention then dismissed as a kook and hopefully if they ignore you you will go away.

    Teaching has always been a hideous profession when it comes to politics. It was a profession largely done by women and managed by men. It was believed that it was done as a service of good, like Nursing and men who were Teachers were either gay or losers if they did not want to be bosses. So the men I often meet as Administrators are former Teachers who sort of kind of felt that they had to do this job and they frankly are terrible at it and probably should have remained in a classroom where they might be happier. But I have met few and far Admins of either gender who have any intellect or fortitude for the job. I have been in some horrendous schools of late, with more Doctorates and letters after the names of the staff and few of them are run well, run with students in mind and little or no desire to change. The core of fear runs deep and long in education and hence it is what opened the door to charters who exploit that and in turn have their own agenda again little to do with students. Education seems to have little to do with students and it only took me 20 years in the field to figure that one out.

    1. So true! I enjoyed reading your statements Green! Talk is cheap and action must be taken. This conversation is growth itself. Calling out some/most educators for the fear they display is a start. Let's see if they take time to even make it water cooler talk or just what will be the next meal an administrator throws at teachers to keep them quiet and compliant.

  9. I was a RN, & later went in to teaching in the public schools. When compared with teachers, nurses are less compliant & more forceful negotiators.