How to Revolt
Embracing revolution is a quick way to be terminated in education. More than most jobs, teaching demands fealty to higher powers, no matter their expertise, fidelity to the standard curriculum, harmful or otherwise, and the willingness to narrow your horizons to fit the prevailing winds of politicians and other suits who can best decide whether you’re doing a good job or not.
But it is time for teachers to revolt. In spiritual literature, there is reference to the ‘dark night of the soul.’ It seems to me that teaching as a profession is now fully entered into that darkness. Over-standardization of teaching practices, a narrow, test based curriculum, packaged solutions to every learning problem, value-added evaluations, and the tightening of industrial work rules hostile to 21st century learning are overt signs of a more profound struggle that will decide our nation’s future. Will we celebrate and advance human capacities, or diminish them? Will we devise education that liberates the best in children, or seek to contain them in little jars labeled testing data, pacing guides, or a hundred other ciphers borne of the desire to regulate and limit human behavior in the name of ‘objective’ measures?
One can oppose the trends by speaking up, political action, or occupying education. This is fine, and I applaud the resistance. But I doubt that trench warfare will succeed until teaching is reinstated to its preeminent position as an ennobling profession that puts all its resources towards the development of well-rounded, capable, and emotionally stable young people. To my mind, defending union rights, sniping at testing, deriding corporate charter schools, protesting public shaming of teachers, or ridiculing the U.S. Department of Education engages teachers in skirmishes. The real battle is to reclaim and articulate a vision that transcends the current debate and carries the American public forward with a new and more inspiring narrative around learning in the 21st century.
This is a task for teachers, not political luminaries and media CEO’s, and it will not be easy. Education is a sedentary, conservative industry, held inert by tired truths and ossified structures. That doesn’t help. But even more, the standards and testing mania has paralyzed teachers themselves. The result is self-inflicted disempowerment. Yes, teachers may have been beaten down by the system. But their willingness to accept the status quo has become part of the problem, too.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There is too much latent power and talent in the teaching ranks. I always return from workshops with teachers feeling inspired and energized by the number of bright, committed, high quality human beings I see in the classroom, who offer world class learning everyday to their students. I can’t resist one recent example: Working alongside a vivacious, energetic 25-year old woman who was designing a very complex, challenging project for her third graders, I wondered aloud whether her students would succeed. No worries. She nearly jumped from her chair, and whooped: “Oh, yeh! My kiddos can do this!” It wasn’t bravado; it was the loving conviction and sheer knowledge that she—and they—could pull this off. There are many more like her.
Her enthusiasm and care for her students stayed with me, but as I thought about it, I realized that she, though clearly at the high end in terms of her craft, no doubt sees herself as a worker in the system, subject to the next testing schedule and comings and goings of the experts and evaluators. And, the fact is, that’s her defined role: She has power over those 30 third graders, but little else. And, another fact: If she objected too much, she would be sanctioned.
So how can she revolt without losing her job? More important, how could 7 million plus teachers in the U.S. come together, foment a revolution, and still draw their paychecks? Instead of conflict, I prefer to think of a powerful, positive, collective vision that would bring about revolutionary change without the extreme polarity that characterizes our daily discourse today. I’m reminded of Gandhi’s reply to the British Viceroy who asked, “Do you believe the British will just walk out of India?” And the reply: “Yes.” If educators hold to a more expansive vision of learning, those who believe teaching is an assembly line job will eventually walk away.
As with Gandhi, it’s more about taking a personal stand rather than tearing down your enemies. Here’s a short manifesto for teachers:
Reclaim your power. Revolution begins with understanding that you have influence. The old adage that ‘Those who can’t do, teach’ needs to be countered at every turn by a new generation of teachers who have left behind timidity, resignation, a ‘punch the time clock’ mentality, or any other trappings of the industrial mind set. You work in the most creative, challenging arena possible: the world of preparing young people for the most fluid, dynamic, unknown future faced by any generation. Stand tall and speak out. Be conscious of your lineage. Be proud of your willingness to engage in work that directly affects the future of the planet. Know that millions of teachers in many countries feel just as you do.
Professionalize your profession. I know I’ll be dinged for this, but pay less attention to union leadership, District curriculum objectives, strict adherence to standards, or similar dictates than the vast rumblings and fresh ideas flowing from a profession seeking to reinvent itself. Keep an open mind and ask yourself: What does 21st century education look like? How do I help reinvent education that serves our present generation of children? What new ideas are out there? Who is a good source for professional expertise? One practical step: Get on Twitter! 50 new ideas come through the phone each day.
Teach what is true. A study recently published by the Brown Center on Education Policy University found that more ‘rigorous’ standards didn’t lead to increased achievement on standardized tests. And if they did, so what? Every teacher I have worked with in the past ten years knows that tests alone are insufficient to measure learning. For that matter, most administrators feel that way, too, as do parents. Recognize that constant testing is driven by forces unrelated to good education, mostly by the desire to measure, quantify, and monetize learning. But the bottom line for the visionary educator? True learning is about thinking, understanding, and solving. So, if you need to teach to the test in April, do so; but don’t make that your year around objective. Also, know you’re in the majority: A recent report indicates that only 28% of teachers regard standardized tests as an essential or very important gauge of student achievement.
Stand in the light. You’re in a gotcha’ situation. If your performance is measured by tests, then test data will determine your future. If your performance is measured by understanding, depth of thinking, and student engagement, then no one knows how exactly to tell if you’re doing a good job. It’s like trying to invent a meter to measure an artist—it can’t be done well, at least now. The only way out is to leave the box—stand tall in the light—and admit that, yes, it’s difficult to measure learning, but that doesn’t mean you will settle for a reductionist approach that limits young humans to data points. Instead, commit to multiple performance measures, peer evaluations, collective reviews of student work, and portfolios—along with a few tests, but not too many—to measure the learning. This is key. The revolution will catch fire when the test and measurement mania subsides, and new measures prove far better at capturing the broad array of skills and habits of mind necessary to succeed in the 21st century.
Know that standing still is moving backwards. I work with several Districts focused on transformation, but I walk into other schools in which nothing has changed in 50 years or in which teachers engage unenthusiastically in half-baked reform efforts. Worse, I encounter too many teachers who have given up. As one English teacher told me with a shrug when I visited a high school and inquired about reform efforts, “This is just a school,” she said in a resigned tone, meaning it was business as usual, nothing more. In 2012, with the headlines screaming at us, the world swaying with change, the problems looming, and the creative opportunities dangling, how can this be? Every school should be in some stage of transformation—and every teacher needs to be participating as a change agent, an insistent voice for reinvention and redesign.
Finally, I believe every teacher needs to take stand. The debate over education is not an argument about short term test results, or global competition, or getting more students into nameplate universities; it’s a referendum on the fundamental character of our nation. It goes to the heart of what we wish to be as a society and contributor to global progress. Deciding your non-negotiables in this situation is not easy (remember the poll numbers from the American Revolution: 40% for Paul Revere, 40% for King George, and 20% with their fingers in the wind.) Where do you stand, what do you believe, and how will you act?