Teacher Independence: To Start, Believe You Know Best


Last time, I humiliated myself by parodying one of America’s most important documents, the Declaration of Independence, changing it to reflect some of the concerns teachers have in the age of accountability, corporate reform, and billionaire hobbyists.  As the outside forces of federal mandates, state edicts, media stars, and business moguls (who believe the complex issues of educating a diverse population can be reduced to the simplicity of supplying mosquito nets to malaria-ridden areas of Africa) continue their various campaigns to “improve” education by wresting control and decision-making authority away from teachers, I do believe (all deference to Thomas Jefferson aside) that the time has come for teachers to take matters into their own hands.  Although I am no longer in their ranks, having retired in 2012 after teaching English for thirty-three years in a junior high (eight years) and a high school (twenty-five), I feel qualified to comment on this issue having spent my career confronting or working around those who felt they knew better than I did how to run my classroom.

Those qualifications have to remain somewhat veiled out of respect for my bosses still in education with whom I worked (I wouldn’t want to get them in trouble) as well as not wanting to come across as overly arrogant about my “accomplishments.”  Suffice it to say that I regularly publicly disagreed with my department chairs, assistant principals, principals, assistant superintendents (including human resource heads), superintendents, and school boards.  There were also many times that I engaged in more hidden passive aggressiveness, where I would tacitly agree to something I had absolutely no intention of doing by not voicing my disagreement or intent of non-compliance at a meeting or institute.  I am neither proud of my public stands nor ashamed of my unvoiced opposition—I did what I thought was in the best interests (in absolutely this order) of myself and my family, my students, my fellow teachers, my school, and my profession.  I had no desire to be a heroic martyr, and I was always aware of the need to protect myself from disciplinary actions, especially those that might lead to my dismissal.  I tried to walk the line between unflinching advocacy and fearful compliance, sometimes with more success than others.

So I get angry when I read about good teachers who have abandoned teaching because of the current environment, which they find toxic.  Yes, I’m miffed at the silly procedures and ridiculous attacks these teachers say led them to quit, but I’m mostly pissed at them for giving up.  After they leave, their students still need strong advocates who will fight to provide them with the best education possible.  When they’re gone, those idiotic mandates and goofy evaluation procedures will still be in place.  Their being in a different profession won’t change the Common Core, low salaries, administrative harassment, tenure elimination, standardized test mania, or erosion of collective bargaining/union rights.  If anything, their quitting will make all of that worse since their replacements won’t have either the savvy or the experience to do anything but say, “Thank you, may I have another,” as public education’s reformers continue to paddle teachers relentlessly.  I can understand teachers who left so they can provide for their families better or if they just hated teaching, but it especially irks me when they write of what wonderful teachers they were and how much they loved teaching, but the big, bad (fill in the name of whatever educational villain you prefer—standardized tests, outside interference, Koch brothers, or administrative meddling, to name a few) pushed them out.

So what we need is for dedicated, hard-working, skilled teachers to stay in the profession, not run away just because Bill Gates or Arne Duncan or their ambitious principal or their unreasonable school board isn’t being cooperative.  Teachers need to recognize that this is a battle that has been going on since the “good” old days when some of their early ancestors had to board with a different school family every week, were forbidden to marry, and had to get permission to leave the school community on weekends (see these historical documents from a school district in Iowa, circa 1905, for more).  Teachers have had to advocate for better treatment for hundreds of years, so we need to understand that this is a long-term battle and every soldier lost makes our side that much weaker overall.  We need teachers who are willing to stand up for what they believe and push for school systems to do the right things, or at the very least, teachers who will work the system so they can quietly do what they think is best.

But first teachers need to believe that they are the key to public education, and that their unique skills and personalities should be allowed to mix with all the other factors that go into a classroom in ways that allow those skills and personalities to help kids learn.  Of course there need to be standards, responsibility, and transparency; but first and foremost, there has to be recognition by everyone that there are as many ways to run an effective lesson as there are teachers.  Outside experts and politicians have worked hard in the last decade to perpetuate the myth that single approaches or methods will work for all situations.  Teachers must challenge that lie every time it rears its misshapen head to interfere with the truth:  Teachers know better than anyone what is best for their students, and that “best” will be different for every teacher.  Anyone who does more than suggest what teachers might do or insists that one way is the only way is an enemy of public education, pure and simple.

Yes, we need lots of new ideas, techniques, technological advances, theories, and whatever else we creative humans can think of in order to help children learn in our ever-changing world.  That will never stop being necessary, but teachers must be allowed to act as gatekeepers for what is allowed through into their classrooms.  Just because something works for some teachers doesn’t mean it will work for all.  How much more evidence do we need that top-down directives will not work, given the failure of every single school reform movement that didn’t provide the option for teachers to pick and choose, to adapt and modify, to make concepts their own?

Obviously, there is no amount of evidence that will prove this to the zealots who “know” just what needs to be done; thus the need for teachers to do what they know to be best, experts be damned.  The road to quality public schools begins with Teacher Independence, and teachers need to demand that independence for themselves.

Unfortunately, this won’t be easy for many teachers who flourished as students, doing well on standardized tests, obeying their teachers, and in general being what in my generation was called “a goodie goodie” (or kiss-up, brown noser, suck up, or whatever current idiom works for you—and yes, I was Exhibit A of this genus).  When you’ve historically been teacher’s pet and then become a teacher, your first inclination is to stick with what worked when you excelled in the elementary grades, high school, and college—don’t make waves, do as you are told, and be as agreeable as possible no matter what the teacher or professor says.  As a union activist for most of my teaching career, I can’t tell you how many times I struggled to get teachers to stand up for their rights.  And regardless of the strength of the union’s position, there would always be a significant number of teachers who wouldn’t step forward to help out because to do so might make administrators and school board members “mad.”

Most employees seek approval from their bosses, but my sense is that teachers are especially prone to avoiding as much controversy as possible, despite many having significant protections against job discipline in the form of due process.  Be that as it may, the road to improving teacher independence has to begin with teachers confronting their own need for approval and challenging themselves to speak up on their own behalf.  As I’ve already pointed out, I do have some experience with this personally, but there’s no magic formula for transforming approval-seeking mice into assertive lions. (For me, that transition occurred when I was given a termination letter four of my first five years in teaching, despite excellent evaluations, just so the school board wouldn’t have to rush to determine if my position would be necessary the next year, even though they were about 99.9% sure it would be.  The first time they did this, nobody could even be bothered to call to let me know that I would have a job the next year when they finally decided I would.)  I do, however, have many suggestions, ideas, and techniques for helping the assertively challenged which we’ll go over in the months ahead.  To warm up for now, I would ask teachers to consider my basic premise—Nobody knows better than you how to run your class.  Repeat that a few dozen times every day.  If that doesn’t work, then review all those pointless, worthless “tips” some supposed expert has provided for you to reinforce how clueless those clowns are, and we’ll continue with Teacher Independence 101 next time.

For more on helping teachers to assume their rightful place as the leaders in any school improvement movements, check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools.  You can read excerpts at this website.



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