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a humble voice

Education reform debate is often dominated by the megaphone.  It’s Chancellor Rhee posing on Time Magazine with a badass face and a broom as if to say, “No time for debate.  No time for discussion.  No time to pause and think of the human element.  We need change.  Huge change. Loud change.”  It becomes a contest of superlatives and slick marketing.  For all of Arne Duncan’s talk of a “quiet revolution,” the titans at the top know little about silence or solitude or contemplation.  They spend their hours in think tanks and conference rooms where coffee is always available and children are never present.

Meanwhile, a humble revolution is happening.  By “humble,” I don’t refer to deference and ass-kissing.  Instead, it’s the idea that maybe we don’t have all the answers.  It’s the notion that maybe our students need to be brought into the conversation on reform, because a democratic voice will prevent teacher tyranny.  It’s the belief that the answers don’t lie in a distilled list of rigid ideology so much as a paradox of authenticity.  Humility means a teacher ought to serve students humbly, resisting the urge toward bribes and extortion.  It’s a humble voice.

Mainstream media can’t hear it over the constant stream of “accountability” talk on the megaphone, but it’s happening on a very real level.  It’s happening in classrooms.  It’s happening on social media.  Unlike a fast-paced broom or a massive firing of teachers, this revolution is deeper.  It grows and it lasts, because ultimately screamers lose their voice much faster than a choir singing something real.

So here’s the deal: I care about Race to the Top and national standards and all the other ideas ruining education.  However, I have seen the following ways that teachers are already working outside the system in ways that are slowly changing things within.  It’s a collective and individual voice and it’s expressed in the following ways:

  • Abandoning traditional grading in exchange for honest feedback
  • Ignoring the Schoolwide Discipline Program in exchange for authenticity and humility and trust
  • Playing Buzzword Bingo during PD time and forming their own professional development through unconferences, blogs and Twitter
  • Refusing to use textbooks by reminding those at the top that the real curriculum is the standards (fun to trap the people above in their own words)
  • Forming partnerships with the community through service learning, parent universities and other innovative co-curricular programs
  • Writing their own grants to get technology into the classroom
  • Engaging in deeper reform dialog with non-teachers, especially by being creative about media and pop culture critique
  • Using research to back up authentic and constructivist teaching styles and therefore staying firm when they are criticized by curriculum specialists or administrators
  • Moving into places of administration and taking the initiative to lead from within the system.  I can think of a handful of teachers in my district who are bringing about site-based change because they built a coalition of teachers committed to authentic learning
  • Recognizing that even within the constructivist reform circles, the experts are not the gurus like Diane Ravitch or Sir Ken Robinson.  Instead, we are the experts.  Those closest to the students are the ones who recognize what children need.

I know there are more, but those are just a few examples of why the real revolution is happening despite all the noisy rhetoric that goes on in the mainstream. Ultimately, that’s why I am hopeful.  I know that sustainable change begins with a humble voice.


About John Spencer

I teach. I write. I live. I want to do all three authentically.


12 thoughts on “a humble voice

  1. Agreed, education has always been afflicted with this problem, LBITR syndrome–loudest bastard in the room syndrome. The kind of change you are advocating is not in sum humble, but perhaps to get change done we need to call it humble. The notion of incremental change or of quietly laying down a set of parallel tracks for use when the status quo collapses is beyond the likes of Duncan and their ilk.

    I agree with adding students to the mix especially if that means showing them how to contribute as well as welcoming their contributions as is. In other words not just ‘allowing’ them to contribute but expecting them to contribute wherever they are and whatever age they are.

    I also agree that we need to STFU and really listen. But I don’t think that is a humble recommendation 😉 Teachers are doing stuff outside the hard wired school loop like twitter chats, #edchat every Tuesday where I just happened to link to this post as a way of beginning a dialogue about real change.

    If you put these examples of humble voice all together what you get is a shout against a system that may well be beyond humble change, incremental change, or redemption. We push in all these ways but isn’t this just a waste of valuable time and energy? If kaizen were possible in these system or if we had no other options I’d say hang tough, but we do have options that are informal, non-school, unschooled, and anti-school.

    I have one foot in your camp, but I also am more convinced every day that we are entering a learning revolution that has a whole new set of decentralized imperatives and affordances that we are trying to fold into a rigid hierarchy. Not gonna work because the hierarchy can’t flex. It is the oak in the storm, way too brittle to bend enough. The question then becomes when do we recognize it is broken and clear it away.

    I might still be convinced that humble voices can change things, but I am much more likely to believe that humble voices can create something new in the shadow of the ed behemoth that can survive when that beast collapses of its own weight.

    Posted by tellio | August 10, 2010, 11:27 am
    • I agree. The collective humble voice becomes a shout. I also think there are some redeeming qualities from the system that need to stay and some things we lost in the system that are classic ideas. The goal has to be better rather than newer. I really like your idea of something new that is also sustainable and I guess that’s what I’m after.

      Posted by johntspencer | August 13, 2010, 11:11 pm
  2. Dear John,
    Thanks for the posting. It is always uplifting and hopeful, to hear an optimistic take on teachers and educators working within the system, through a huble voice, to enact revolutionary change. It is also nice to see some of your examples, as these are many of the things, which need to take place, in order for an over-haul to take place.

    I believe it is a combination of both worlds, the megaphone and the humble, still small voice. Not the megaphone that Arne and those in Washington are spilling, but instead, a revolutionary megaphone, that speaks to the elements of change, in which you mentioned, and others as well.

    Day in and day out, progressive educators must work from the inside, to enact these changes, but an outside stance, against the hiararchy needs enactment as well. The change can not be a bull in a china shop, or a meek, passive tide that gets swept under the currents. From the inside, we must speak softly but carry a big stick, and from the outside, we must advocate change at all costs and create an opposition regardless of how large the traditional system is in place.

    Seeds of change are good and always an excellent start, but in order for that seed to become a tree, it needs plenty of water, roots and time.

    Posted by Casey Caronna | August 10, 2010, 11:55 pm
  3. i love it. and you’re so right. there are so many cool things happening via amazing people.

    i believe there are many more people that want the same… but have become such a result of our own ed that they need a detox of sort to jumpstart their own revolution. [these could be completely wrong… but i’m thinking they’re close..i heard that 90% of people are rule followers, and 80% of people are unhappy.]

    Seth Godin writes of the power of sync – i’m thinking that’s how our humble voice gets heard. once the masses get that jumpstart and we speak, humbly, in sync. well – to me that’s the most amazing orchestration of civic value of cognitive surplus of a beautiful and long awaited revolution.

    i believe it’s just around the corner. i can hear the instruments tuning up…

    Posted by monika hardy | August 11, 2010, 3:54 am
  4. John, I dig the specificity and attainability of the list; well-done; I think it succeeds in being inspirational without being daunting.

    I struggle with what kind of voice to use in promoting reform. The tension I most often feel is between patient and impatient, rather than between humble and arrogant. At the school level, I believe wholeheartedly in servant leadership in support of teachers, students, parents, and their learning. However, I often engage in debate (and a search for common ground) with pop reformers. Am I wasting my time?

    Kirsten is my conscience here when I ask you and Tellio, non-rhetorically and with hope, should we respond directly to anything happening outside our classrooms, schools, and networks? Do we corrupt any new community we create by asking it to engage with and reform traditional public schools?

    Is it folly to look for a tipping point when we don’t know what form it will take?

    How does our hope take hold in popular imagination before it “plunges into [our] heart and is gone?”


    Posted by Chad Sansing | August 11, 2010, 6:16 pm
    • I think it becomes a corrupting force when we place ourselves (or allow others to place us) on a pedestal as the ultimate guides in change. If we’re listening, then interacting with those outside of our zone is worth it. It’s how networks grow and how we get diversity. Ultimately, though, the best change happens in our direct relationships. I’m watching at my school how our whole staff collectively (with the guide of a principal and some forward-minded teachers) are shifting the focus on assessment and grading from the traditional model to one of authenticity and feedback. It’s exciting to see.

      Posted by johntspencer | August 13, 2010, 11:15 pm
  5. The prophet calls for change, but doesn’t necessarily know how to make it so. I think that we are called to do more than close the classroom door and just do the best with what we have at hand. That is good for our learners, but very short-sighted. If we don’t respond to others it is little better than those who say, “Devil take the hindmost, I got mine.” The response at least acknowledges the humanity of those outside of our echo chamber. I worked for ten years in a rural high school before moving on to teach at university and I felt this tension every day. Every day’s end felt like the shaky muscles one gets after a wrestling match–you know you have been ‘involved’. I didn’t want it be a battle and I know others didn’t either, but there you have it. It was one.

    There are a number of choices we need to make. We can render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, but also render unto those who we owe learning. We can close the doors and save our small tribes. We can begin to create viable parallel tracks down which we can chug toward real learning destinations. Each choice has its blandishments and punishments to be endured. Pick one of these or define your own. I think that is the nature of courage.

    As far as corruption of some pure community, well…that implies purity and possession of Truth. I don’t believe such exists. I have heard it said that in a sick society no one is completely well. I think the Buddha would ask us to kiss corruption in the face and see what happens. Risking the taint of one’s own pure idea–that is courage of a higher order.

    Posted by Terry C Elliott | August 12, 2010, 8:14 am
  6. I also think there is immense change afoot in this most change-resistant sector! Right now as you say though John, it’s humble, it’s tweet fed and video raised. It’s not universal, it’s not enlightened-policy driven at the federal level, and shit yeah there are a lot of resisters. I seem to be doing a lot of gigs with them right now.

    I love your list John, and it really describes what some people are actually doing…Lately I’ve been thinking about a more differentiated model of what the change looks like than I’ve had formerly…We have these remarkable examples of what new kinds of schools really can look like (like High Tech High in San Diego and it occurs to me–we have examples of pathbreaking, coherent practice. We’re in these various stages of development around new models and new ways of doing practice…

    Visionaries/Conceptual explorers (busters out of old ideas)
    Pioneers (folks who give things a try, often with incredible energy and belief)
    Early Settlers (start making coherent models around new stuff)
    Folks Who Kinda Like Things The Way They Are (lots of folks in everyone’s district)

    But I’d say we’re still not talking well to each other.

    We’re humble.

    Posted by Kirsten | August 12, 2010, 10:36 pm
  7. These are issues and ideas that IDEA ( are trying to collect and spread! Keep the positive powerful voices out there and keep sharing actually don’t only share also DO and help others DO!

    The revolution might not be televised but it can be tweeted, tumblred, posted, blogged about, acted out, yelled, screamed, and just done!

    Thanks for this!


    Posted by dloitz | August 13, 2010, 12:35 am

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