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The Hard Path, Part 1

Earlier this week, Paula asked a great series of questions about our readiness to engage in democratic learning with our students. These stuck with me:

  • Do students get any practice in their world of school to be socially responsible?
  • To be activists?
  • To act on their beliefs?

I ask these questions about teachers, too. Increasingly, we are asked to believe on thing, but to practice another. Compare our notions of rigor, relevance, and relationships with how we assess students, teachers, and schools. Compare our notions of democracy and equity with how we govern schools and track students. Compare our desire to prepare students for the, uh, now, as well as for the future, with our replication of schools from the past.

Are we educators given the chance to be socially responsible? Our answers depend on our circumstances and beliefs about public education. I believe that educators do have daily opportunities to be socially responsible in many ways. Educators can advocate for students, communities, and change regardless of their placements. However, I don’t know that all teachers feel that they can create learning spaces aligned to their beliefs about learning in our test-driven school system. I don’t know that all teachers have access to the leadership, support or professional development they need to implement the AND of test-prep and authentic instruction. I don’t know that finding the AND is the best thing to do if authentic learning is compromised for test-prep. I do know that standardized tests are not quality work and don’t accurately reflect student learning. Perhaps one way for teachers to be socially responsible is for them to start conversations with their leaders about cashing-out of standardized testing and buying-in to authentic assessment. Perhaps one way for teachers to be socially responsible is for them to ask their leaders for personal accountability plans tied to multiple measures, mostly authentic, of student learning apart from standardized tests. Frankly, I would be very interested in individual, multi-year contracts between school divisions and individual teachers based on negotiated student learning outcomes and products such as years of reading growth evidenced on nationally normed tests coupled with writing samples from across the disciplines and standards-exceeding, personally-meaningful service, entrepreneurship, or creative projects, perhaps sustainable, presented to the public. (Of course, I’d like to manage my per-pupil expenditure, go open-source with 1:1 devices, spend what I save on classroom amenities like building supplies, bikes, and video games for learning, and let students who bring in personal technology tell me how to spend their savings. But that’s just me and my un-union of 1.)

Are we educators given the chance to be activists? Social media has shown me that we are, indeed, given frequent opportunity to give input to our leaders in schools systems and local, state, and federal governments. Here I think of Bud Hunt’s (@budtheteacher) – and other champions’ – work on behalf of the National Writing Project. I think of teachers and parents and lawmakers turning the tide on Florida’s SB6. I think of educational organizations’ legislative efforts, like those of the NBPTS or VEA. However, I think most of the media’s attention, and perhaps our own, is focused on educators’ efforts to support or oppose budget initiatives – including, in my opinion, teacher evaluation.

These days, budgetary RIF orders and teacher evaluation are inextricably linked. Teachers normally retained, developed, and retained during flush times are being fired. Certainly there’s always work to be done improving teaching and learning, but executive decisions, such as RIF orders, are more related to finances than instruction. It’s an executive decision to retain or fire a teacher. It’s a teacher’s decision to improve classroom learning. So, are we educators taking up activism in areas apart from school budgets? Regardless of financial impact on ourselves, are we proactively mustering support for learning reform? Are we working as hard to educate and recruit colleagues to authentic learning or democratic education as we do to ensure our fair assessment? So long as our activism is reactive to executive control of public education, we’re locked into a conversation about money. How do we shift the conversation to one about learning? How much are we willing to sacrifice in leaving one conversation to lead another? How many of us are working on the AND conversations – administrators, how can you protect my job AND give my students the freedom to learn free of coercion? Have we told administrators to hire us because we’ll challenge them?

Will the generally more progressive PLN have any notion of its impact on more traditional colleagues and working spaces? Has the PLN shifted its own conversations from how teachers should be evaluated to how teachers should support one another? Has anyone posited ” all teachers can learn to teach?”, or considered the benefits of debating that statement for solidarity AND reform? Have we put together confrontation AND invitation in addressing ? What would it mean for my practice as a teacher leader and collaborator if I believed all my colleagues could create authentic learning opportunities for children? How would I speak to them and about them differently?

Have we educators given ourselves the chance to be responsible for one another? Are we ready, as Aaron asks, to commit to changing one another? PLC work is a start, but how often is it organized around teachers’ philosophies and innovation rather than student achievement data?

Please trust that my questions are #notrhetorical. I want to learn.

Regarding the last question I cite from Paula’s post: do we have the chance to act on our beliefs? We do. I would say that we all act on our beliefs daily and that our behavior reflects them. I know that when I believed teaching was about being a good teacher, I took on projects and committee work to make me look like a good teacher and took students’ resistance to the work I assigned personally. I know that when I believed students’ lives depended on their passing standardized tests, I taught those standards well. I know that when I believed democracy and learning the responsible use of choice were more important than standardized test scores, I changed my teaching accordingly and built self-diected learning and reflection time in to class. I know that I still wonder if what I do matters, and so sometimes I stray from the hard path and look for shortcuts and compromises under the banner of the AND. I believe I’ve gotten better, though, at walking the hard path, and so I stick with it more often now than I did earlier in my career.

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About Chad Sansing

I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.

Discussion

2 thoughts on “The Hard Path, Part 1

  1. Great post, Chad. I think we have a vicious cycle going on in education where teachers don’t trust students, so students don’t feel like they should be trustworthy, so then they naturally abuse trust when given it, and teachers feel justified in their decision not to trust students, and try to control them even more strictly. In this spiral of insanity, students never even get a chance to be activists. A vital part of activism is acting up, but ANY acting up is immediately punished. Like said in a previous post, “if you’re not causing trouble, you’re not working on the right problems.”

    The only way for students to be activists is to give them more freedom and responsibility, model how to use it, and let them know that we trust them. And if we trust them, the separation between a student’s life and the rest of the world needs to be broken down. Students can learn responsibility by being invited to make a difference in their school, community, and planet. If this doesn’t happen, they’ll learn to be selfish and irresponsible.

    Posted by Chris Fritz | April 29, 2010, 3:07 pm
    • Excellent points, Chris. I am in total agreement.

      Having worked for the past two years in a charter school using Choice Theory with behaviorally at-risk middle schoolers, having made my share of mistakes in implementation, and having seen the benefits of sticking with the approach, I would reiterate that it’s crucial to scaffold activism for students and model responsible use of freedom.

      As we say of self-directed learning time, it’s not do-what-you-want-time, it’s time to direct yourself to learn.

      Best regards,
      C

      Posted by Chad Sansing | April 29, 2010, 6:59 pm

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