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Stop waiting to be told what to do

“How can teachers have a bigger influence on education reformation?”

I will admit that my response below first appeared on my own blog over a month ago, but it is exactly what I wanted to say in response to the question above. Want a bigger influence on education reform? Then stop waiting to be told what to do!

In his recent book Linchpin, Seth Godin makes a number of stinging criticisms towards apathy:

How was it possible to brainwash billions of people to bury their genius, to give up their dreams, and to buy into the idea of being merely an employee in a factory, following instructions?

Part of it was economic, no doubt about it. Factory work offered average people with small dreams a chance to make a significant change in their standard of living. As a bonus this new wealth came with a pension, job security, and even health insurance.

But I don’t believe that this was enough to explain the massive embrace of a different way of life. The key piece of leverage was this promise: follow these instructions and you don’t have to think. Do your job and you don’t have to be responsible for decisions. Most of all, you don’t have to bring your genius to work.

In every corporation in every country in the world, people are waiting to be told what to do. Sure, many of us pretend that we’d love to have control and authority and to bring our humanity to work. But given half a chance, we give it up, in a heartbeat.

Like scared civilians eager to do whatever a despot tells them, we give up our freedoms and responsibilities in exchange for the certainty that comes from being told what to do.

Today’s standardized testing craze has stripped teachers of their professionalism. More and more standardization in education says one thing to teachers: We don’t trust you!

Teachers need to stand up and take back their classrooms, their assessments and their curriculums. Too many teachers go from day to day too scared to speak up against things like content-bloated curriculums and externally prescribed assessments that are poorly constructed and poorly assessed.

Why don’t more teachers speak up and advocate for their profession?

For the most part, they have been bullied into a sickly form of apathy. Too many see the opportunity of ‘having a place at the table’ that they are scared to speak up and advocate for good learning and good teaching in fear of losing that seat at the table. But at what cost will we continue to pay to participate in a pseudo-negotiations with policy makers who are pedagogically even further removed from the classroom than they are geographically.

Is this kind of change possible? Well Alfie Kohn offers this:

If we simply reconcile to the status quo and spend all our time getting out children to accomodate themselves to it and play the game, then nothing will change and they will have to do the same with their children. As someone once said, realism corrupts; absolute realism corrupts absolutely.

It’s probably very true that people don’t necessarily resist change but they do resist being changed. Because of this, I’m not really interested in changing your mind about anything – but I am interested in encouraging you to think about all this.

While writing this article, Ric Murry made me think of a way we can make school a better place when he tweeted a gem:

You have to convince the kids who hate school to become teachers if you want it to change.

What could you do starting tomorrow that would advocate for the kind of progressive educational reform that our children need?

What could you do starting right now to encourage a kid who hates school to become a teacher and make a difference?


About joebower

I believe students should experience success and failure not as reward and punishment but as information.


8 thoughts on “Stop waiting to be told what to do

  1. Joe, you are absolutely right. The first step is taking ownership and responsibility for our own actions and classrooms. Writing our own creed’s as David suggests or signing a pledge can be a potent exercise in developing our voice and vision that will then direct our futures. Rather than being told what test to teach to we develop meaningful practices supporting meaningful learning.

    If we want our students to be critical thinkers and conscious consumers then we have to practice the same, and that applies to our consumption of education mumbo jumbo.

    So how to we express our own thoughts without making life hell for ourselves and when is it appropriate to flat out refuse to commit to certain practices, even if it means violating contracts?

    Posted by Adam Burk | May 7, 2010, 10:23 pm
  2. Adam, I can’t tell you how often I hear teachers talk tough over a beer, but are kittens in the line of fire. We seem to lose our gumption in the face of seniority.

    Posted by Joe Bower | May 7, 2010, 11:08 pm
  3. Joe, I of course agree that there is a culture of passivity in the American teaching sector, of locating authority somewhere else, not inside of oneself, in one’s own mind and heart. It is longstanding and deeply felt. Perhaps even the sector selects for individuals like this, because the culture of being bossed by someone else feels right. (What do you think about that?)

    So my question back to you is, how did you (are you) begin to feel that authority for pushing against the system was located in you? And with your like-minded allies? How would you describe this journey spiritually, morally, intellectually? Were there turning points? Moments of insight? Because that would be a powerful thing for other teachers and readers to hear about. Your journey has something to teach, and we need to hear about it.

    Also, I can’t thank you enough for Ric Murray’s tweet. I spent two days walking around high schools yesterday and the day before, and I kept thinking, if we could get the silent ones, the ones in the margins (students), the ones who think they are dumb or “only good for so much” to talk back to this system, something powerful would happen here. (In fact, that’s part of the work I do, arranging for fishbowls where students do speak about their experiences of being in school, while faculty sit around them and listen.)

    I would love to hear more about your understanding of your own transformation to resister of the system, rather than compliant acceptor.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | May 8, 2010, 2:10 pm
    • Public education and its ancillaries like the unions are definitely selecting executives and teachers for hierarchy and conformity. The charter and teacher training models held up by the fed augment the structures of control already present in public school. Charters and alternative licensure programs should be civil dissenters providing alternatives to “school” and “instruction” – what a presumptuous word.

      Kirsten’s questions are great – I think they ought to serve as a prompt for us all one week.

      More as the conversation continues,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 9, 2010, 7:43 am
    • Kirsten, I am formulating my answers to your questions now. You have me thinking…

      Posted by Joe Bower | May 10, 2010, 12:47 pm

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