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Learning at its Best

Top Ten List for Reluctant Teacher-Transformers

So–how do you transform public education in a world where data and profit trump human needs?

How do you create a climate where education is continuously reinvented–collaboratively and sustainably–in forms that honor our democratic roots and the gifts of children? How do you  foster equity and creativity, when the power elite are demanding standardization and rewarding meaningless credentials?

Gotta start somewhere.

Talking to public school teachers (who still serve some 85% of American kids) feels like an exercise in psychotherapy these days. Teachers are beaten down, their natural desire to help kids repressed, autonomy taken out of their hands, their expertise questioned. Mostly, they’re fearful–and for some very credible reasons, beginning with losing their jobs or public humiliation.

But it’s worth pointing out that this creeping loss of mastery and control has been growing for more than a decade, fed by corporate dollars–but also by a kind of professional complacency. Ceding control over democratic education requires a well-funded technocratic policy elite (and their media buddies)–but also a compliant, passive workforce.

If we’re sitting around, waiting for a progressive, democratic education movement, built on justice and innovation, to spontaneously emerge, we’re going to be waiting for a long time. What if we started today, with drops of democratic water splashing on the market-forces education rock–so to speak. How about ten free, subtle, simple things teachers can do to begin the process of re-claiming–transforming–education?

1. Smile at children. Often. Especially when they say things that are true, profound, and childlike.

2. Stop talking about how much standardized tests “matter.” Stop feeding the test-anxiety machine. Immediately.

3. Invent reasons to do lessons outside. Even in the winter. Even with high school kids. Measure snow, feed birds, write group poetry, play games in the parking lot– or something.

4. Find something good one of your least creative colleagues does and compliment that person. Encourage them to do it more.

5. Take a traditional school basic practice and develop a learning question: What would happen if we didn’t take attendance? If students graded teachers? If seniors taught kindergarten, instead of teachers? If students chose the music instead of the music teacher? This is totally adaptable to all levels/subjects. Why do we have levels and subjects, anyway?

6. Get brave and start a reading club (it only takes two) and read an article about innovative schools. Talk about out-there educational ideas and models (that would never fly in your community) at lunch. Better yet, invite parents to join–both the reading, and the lunch.

7. Volunteer to handle a bulletin board or showcase for a semester–and use it to post provocative questions. Invite everyone at the school to contribute to the conversation.

8. Ask students what they haven’t learned in school that they wish they knew. Post the answers someplace where the superintendent and school board can read them.

9. Be silent for a day. Communicate with students via written word and hand signals. Ask them to take over their own learning. If necessary, pretend to have laryngitis.

10.  Touch your students. Do it carefully–the shoulder pat, the hair ruffle, one finger on an arm, a handshake–but understand the power of human touch.

About nflanagan

Nancy Flanagan is an education writer and consultant focusing on teacher leadership. She spent 30 years in a K-12 music classroom in Hartland, Mich, and was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 1993. She is National Board-certified, and a member of the Teacher Leaders Network. She divides her time between wondering how things got so messed up and dreaming up ways to re-energize America's best idea--a free, high-quality education for every child.


9 thoughts on “Top Ten List for Reluctant Teacher-Transformers

  1. Nancy, Well sister, it’s nice to have you here, smiling at children, taking them outside, and touching and hugging them and holding provocative public conversations in school.

    Someone must have been listening to you. At at Urban Academy in NYC yesterday (, where IDEA was doing an Innovation Tour, outside a classroom someone had posted a picture of a young African American man standing in front of a housing complex surrounded by bars. He’s leaning against a gate. The captions asks:

    “What story does this image tell you?”

    And students had written:

    “They have horrible playgrounds in the projects.”
    “Sports in prison.”
    “The Ghetto.”
    “T-pain: ‘I’m so Hood.'”
    “They are setting up our black youth to be comfortable behind bars.”
    “Jarule lost weight.”

    See Rule #7 of your list.

    Additionally, the principal of Urban, Ann Cook, a longtime educational visionary and street fighter for the intellectual lives of high schoolers, was handing out buttons which said, in huge red letters, MORE TEACHING LESS TESTING. We all wore ’em.

    See your Rule #2.

    I add to your list:

    11. Provide students of all ages with powerful, evocative, emotionally and politically complex material for them to chew on, and see what they make of it. And be surprised by their answers.

    With support and admiration,


    PS Do you want me to send you a button?

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | November 5, 2011, 2:08 pm
  2. I really like this! I think the “take them outdoors” is a great idea! We went out in the snow and videotaped ourselves for our California pen pals!:)

    Posted by Oldschoolteach | November 5, 2011, 8:17 pm
  3. I love the list. Thanks for reminding us that often “small,” practical steps are what lead to true transformation.

    Posted by John T. Spencer | November 5, 2011, 8:45 pm
  4. Thanks, commenters. And yeah, Kirsten, I’d LOVE a button. Just as much as I loved following the NYC Innovation Tour via Twitter, and hearing about great places to go to school that actually exist.

    I wrote the piece because my heart is wrenched, over and over again, by what colleagues tell me–stories about “fidelity monitors” from outside agencies who roam the halls to ensure that they’re following scripted curricula, for example. Stories about children who cry on test day, favorite lesson plans abandoned because there’s “no time” to build circuits or run a model United Nations. If we used to wound children in schools, we’ve moved to outright assault lately.

    Friends frequently remind me that, as a music teacher, I had more freedom to have a democratic classroom and explore interesting curricular goals, because my work wasn’t being “measured” (except by at-will enrollment and parent satisfaction). I think that’s true. But I also want teachers to believe in their own expertise and observations, and take as many small steps as comfort allows to push back against wrong-headed policies, to be citizens as well as employees.

    Posted by Nancy Flanagan | November 6, 2011, 12:59 pm
  5. Am doing many of those at my school now… and have for many years.

    Posted by dave clark | November 6, 2011, 1:01 pm
  6. Thank you for taking time to think and then write about what you think. I am grateful.

    Posted by thefarwest | November 7, 2011, 9:31 pm
  7. I shared this list with 10 teachers and 7 told me their job was not to transform education. Is there someway that you can get this post/list out into the airwaves of teachers, teacher unions, teacher colleges, principal associations, school boards, etc. Maybe we need a big RED BUTTON for each one of these..

    Posted by timmcclung | November 11, 2011, 1:01 pm
  8. Thanks, once more, to commenters–and especially to teachers who are already doing many of these things, if for no other reason than they’re the right thing to do.

    Tim, I’m guessing that in any group of teachers, half of them would agree that transforming education was not their job. For new, young teachers especially, compliance with authority is the least risky path, and those who want to keep their jobs will defer to those who DO think that transforming education is their job. Education is always “transforming”–the question is, how is it changing? Who’s leading that change and what’s their agenda?

    Ironically, Teach for America corps members are told that transforming education IS their job. It’s the fully trained and certified teachers–the ones who see pedagogy as a real thing, and education as a worthy subject of study– who have been left out of the transformation loop.

    What to do about that? Good question. The best advocates for transformational change will have a fire in the belly around such change. And courage. How do we plant seeds for courage, in difficult times? It’s no accident that all the testing, corporate control of curriculum, redefining teacher evaluation, and pitting states against each other for federal tax dollars comes at a time when the economy is weak, and the education community is fearful.

    Posted by Nancy Flanagan | November 12, 2011, 12:23 pm


  1. Pingback: Top Ten List for Reluctant Teacher-Transformers | Leading Learners | - November 5, 2011

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