Teacher Independence: The Magic Word

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We’ve gone over a few of the basics in becoming what I refer to as an “Independent Teacher,” one who is in charge of her/his workplace and can pursue goals which were mutually determined by teacher/school/state/national standards, but uses teaching methods and strategies as best determined by that individual teacher.  Since all teachers are unique, as well as the situations in which they find themselves, only specific teachers can know what are the best choices for them in providing students the greatest opportunities to achieve those standards.  But that view has been under siege from outsiders intent on “reforming” schools in their image, motivated at least in part by a large dose of self-interest in profiting from the huge education market.  From technology to standardized testing to for-profit charters, there are immense sums of cash to be made, and some have been quick to seize on that availability, not always with the students’ best interests in mind.

We can certainly hope that the capitalistic frenzy which has resulted in so many trying to interfere with one of the most important relationships in our society—the one between teacher and student, which is right up there after parent and child—will abate soon.  But until it does, teachers have to decide for themselves how much of the control which they should have will be ceded to those who know nothing about their kids or classrooms.

As we navigate through the various routes independent teachers can take on the road to controlling their teaching worlds (see this or this for two previous articles), we can’t get too far without pointing out that many of the paths to independence begin with a teacher’s ability to utter one of the most important words in all employer/employee relationships:  No.

Don’t underestimate the value of this simple word.  Much of the power shift from teachers to others can be traced to teachers being too intimidated, scared, administrator-oriented, confrontation-averse, or whatever different phrase you could use as a euphemism for timid.  I understand that sounds harsh, especially to my ex-colleagues still working very hard to provide their students with every advantage despite all the interference coming from without (I retired in 2012 after thirty-three years of teaching English).  Yet, these competent, organized, committed individuals often wilt at the prospect of displeasing a department chair or assistant principal, to say nothing of the horror of confronting a superintendent or school board.

And I completely understand their reluctance to take on the authority figures of their work world.  You might assume I had little difficulty with challenging my bosses since during my time teaching I took on many union jobs: I was responsible for filing grievances, negotiating contracts, and acting as a leader for over 350 teachers.  The newsletter I edited and wrote would regularly point out the foibles of various administrative initiatives and school board actions.  I often spoke during school board meetings and wrote letters to newspapers (yes, I am that old) condemning those who would attack teachers or policies which were misguided.  Despite all that bravado, I never got used to the feelings of unease these actions would cause me.  I’m far from a sensitive soul, but any time you are telling your bosses they are wrong, can’t do something, and/or need to change their behaviors; that’s a pretty uncomfortable position.  At least it was for me.

Teachers, however, have to don their big boy/girl outfits and deal with their disquiet for the betterment of their work situations and their kids.  One of the key adages I would tell myself as I would launch into another course of action, knowing it would anger administrators and/or school board members was, “It’s better to have their respect than their love.”  (Yeah, I did teach Machiavelli’s The Prince for a few years.  Notice that I did change “fear” to “respect.”)  And I do believe this is true, at least in work situations.  While love and respect are not mutually exclusive, I did often witness how teachers who strained to curry favor would be treated much more callously than those of us who had learned to speak up and refuse unreasonable requests.  Whatever self-talk teachers can give themselves, it’s crucial not to shy away from disagreeing with your bosses.

But every situation doesn’t have to be an explosive confrontation, especially when you’re just starting out or have a long history of meekness.  For one, simply refusing to obey any and all top-down initiatives would only get teachers fired, which is hardly the objective here. And given how hard it is for everybody to disagree with their bosses, insisting that we all become pillars of principle just isn’t particularly helpful.  Some issues do need to be confronted head-on and we’ll deal with those approaches another time, but many can be finessed without needless confrontation or stress.

So we begin with that distinction:  When bosses give teachers a direct order, teachers need to agree first and then figure out if those bosses have the authority to make them obey.  If they do, teachers can be considered insubordinate if they won’t comply, which will subject them to disciplinary proceedings, possibly termination.  That doesn’t mean teachers have to do whatever it is they’ve been told to do—we’ll see how passive-aggressiveness can be a very effective technique—but it’s best not to refuse something a supervisor tells them to do, especially at first command.  Better is to run to someone in the school who holds the kinds of roles I used to have—union president, contract negotiator, and/or grievance chair—to find out if in fact that boss can force compliance with his demands.  When told he can, then teachers should at least go through the motions of obeying.  They can do a crummy job at whatever was forced on them, they can cut corners, and they can even try to pretend that they’ve obeyed in the hopes that no one will ever check to see if in fact they’ve done anything.  You’d be amazed at how often this will work.  Actually, no teacher who’s been employed for more than ten years should be surprised at that:  Educational fads come and go very quickly, and one of the main reasons this happens is because nobody really lays the groundwork of making sure teachers feel enthused about any new program being instituted.  And if the teachers aren’t on board with a top-down directive, it will not work.

The reality of this does not seem to be comprehended by domineering administrators with shiny new programs based on wondrous cutting-edge technology from some brilliant guru—they all tend to act as if their insights will make teachers swoon with delight at adding more work to their already overburdened loads.  So the independent teacher will gauge how much obedience is necessary, often based on the popularity of this new thing with the rest of his colleagues.  If everybody’s ridiculing it during lunch, then you can bet you won’t have to worry about it, much less do anything differently, and that it will fade from everyone’s radar within a couple of months.

You see, nobody watches teachers all that closely.  And the bigger the school, the less knowledge administrators will have about how any one teacher is doing.  So the path to teacher independence requires understanding the politics of any new initiative, the enthusiasm other teachers have for it, how easy it is for any outsider to know if teachers are following through on the new procedures, and what’s the worst that could happen should a teacher get caught ignoring the directives.

I can’t tell you how many department and school-wide meetings I sat through where some school program, policy, or initiative was discussed with nothing but nods of agreement and no resistance at all coming from the teachers present.  Yet, even as they were leaving the auditorium where the meeting was held, some would be mocking the conviction that they would actually do any of the stuff which had just been presented, and even more would have completely dismissed it from their minds, had they even been paying attention to the presentation in the first place, too busy grading papers or checking emails.

But this passive/aggressive model does gives others the belief that compliance will happen and can lead to even more negative feelings about teachers as mediocrities to be ordered about and treated like paid-by-the-hour clerks.  The profession does deserve better than that, so I would encourage teachers not to rely exclusively on the “It’ll probably fade away, so I can just ignore it” mode to avoid negative changes from without.  I would also caution teachers to be careful not to dismiss every new idea automatically just because it came from an administrator with a history of bad ideas.  Lightning can strike unexpectedly, and it’s vital to maintain an open mind about anything that might make achieving learning objectives more likely.  So I would encourage every teacher not to ignore those presentations and to give all suggestions and initiatives a fair hearing.  Maybe the new thing will not be useful for you in its entirety, but one piece or idea or technique could improve your classroom.  Teachers have to accept some responsibility for the difficulties in getting school bureaucracies to change.  When you believe you’ve heard it all before and there’s nothing new to learn, then you have become part of the problem.  We need to be willing to consider others’ concepts as objectively and fairly as we can.

Having done that and come to the conclusion that whatever’s being considered doesn’t fit your classroom style, would waste way too much of your precious time, and/or is a bad idea; that’s when your “No” skills can come to the fore.  The passive/aggressive method described above will work in many situations, but as you gain experience and respect from your peers, you can ratchet it up a notch with the questions approach.

By pointing out the negatives of administrators’ pet projects by asking questions for which they have no good answers, you help everyone to recognize the folly of whatever’s being presented.  Again, it can be uncomfortable to be the one standing up to point out why a program is flawed.  You aren’t, however, technically being negative; you’re just asking for some basic clarification.  And the way you get answers can reveal much about whatever you’re being asked to do.

Defensive, angry responses let you know that this is personally important to the presenter.  That’s when you should quickly back off, knowing that you can see how everything goes without doing very much yourself.  When the presenters show resignation and are willing to admit to having no answers, you’ve learned that they aren’t really that serious about implementing the idea, but were desperate to fill institute time with something, anything!  Again, that kind of response should lead you to stop asking questions since there clearly won’t be much push for teachers to do anything if the salespeople aren’t even trying to sell it.  Saying, “No,” doesn’t always even involve an outright refusal from teachers.

Your biggest concern should be when you can tell that lots of money has already been invested in the concept.  When dollars have been spent, administrators have much more at stake and will be more concerned with making sure teachers are following through.  In that situation, with a program that isn’t for you, your best bet is the silent opposition discussed above, at least until you’ve progressed to the more difficult and assertive, “No,” we’ll go over later.

As your career wears on, however, it will probably become necessary to be more open and aggressive in your independence to those who try to tell you what to do.  We’ll discuss some of the basics in more forceful ways to say, “No,” while maintaining your position (both literally and figuratively) in the future.

For more on all aspects of how teachers should be given greater control in how their schools are run, check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools.  If you’d like to read some sample chapters, you can find them here.

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