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.