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Leadership and Activism, Philosophical Meanderings

On hope and action

Inside a classroomI have concentrated less on the blogosphere lately and more on conversations in and around smaller, more immediate issues and opportunities than wholesale educational transformation – for which I feel a certain amount of ennui at present, but not so much in the “boredom” sense of the word. I am kind of stuck in the “feeling the tension between the mutable and immutable” sense of the world.

Appropriately, perhaps, I find myself at #DML2012, prepping to give an Ignite Talk called, “I used to be a middle school teacher just like you, but then I took an arrow in the knee” to a room full of people who will mostly likely not be middle school teachers. In fact, they may be somewhat indifferent or even hostile to the notion of schooling as we practice it in United States public education. They might not like teachers. They might think, “teachers bad, learning good.” They might think they could do a better job of creating learning spaces than public schools do.

And all that being said, I might fit right in.

At some point, when do we in public education take responsibility for the echo chamber we create and sustain? How often – outside of labor issues – do we organize to campaign for pedagogy? To show that the risks we are willing to take in standing up to the system on our kids’ behalf are worth the support we expect? To educate our communities about our visions – not our school division’s visions? Certainly the media – which gets its education news from politicians and profoundly political wonkish wunkderkinds – plays its part in limiting the education “debate.” The news would have us believe there’s some kind of disagreement going on between people who want high test scores (parents, tax payers) and people who are content with failing schools (teachers). What bunk. We all hope for better schools, even if we profoundly disagree about what makes one school better than the next.

But hope doesn’t come on a poster. Hope comes from withstanding the recurring existential crises of working with kids the system attacks – hope comes from championing kids when the system wants you to be an antibody expelling them. Hope comes from the incessant gifting of compassion to kids who the system tells you are beyond caring.

Hope comes from leading by learning, not from following lag indicators into a bramble of scripted, algorithmic programs that are pricking teaching and learning to death in United States public schools. Identify the adults willing to learn with all students despite their test scores and despite the tests – there is your next generation of teachers. There is my hope for our profession.

Hope doesn’t come from test scores; hope comes after you see your fifth or sixth set and decide to keep teaching despite those scores because you know that what you have to offer kids amounts to more than all their scores combined. And those scores amount to very little, really, in the long run. In our celebration of the conversations we’ve had since NCLB, where do we find the time and space to start conversations about what comes next for a world-class system of public education? It’s as if we don’t know when to leave the NCLB party; tossing back the dregs of our drinks, huddled around the last uncleared table in the Nation-At-Risk/Governors’-Conference banquets hall, we are starting to tell anecdotes from earlier in the same party.

And all that being said, I’m not here to defend the status quo or what I consider to be the mythical golden age of United States public education that, frankly, never existed before NCLB. As the product of an affluent, mostly white public education system, I can testify first hand that we took tests, but learned very little about caring for others. And this was before our teachers were burdened with what are, most definitely, excessive testing mandates. I had great teachers, but I’m not sure I would call any school system great – past or present – that graduates students primarily concerned about themselves and their privilege.

I think the mission critical next step for public schools is to let go of their self-perceived monopoly on right thinking and action in education and behavior management. The single best thing we can do for this generation of students and the next is to find ways to dismantle schools.

Schools can’t be anything more than they are until they admit that they could be something more.

Teachers can’t be innovators – or even entrepreneurs – without letting go of the traditional behaviors and tropes of teaching. I don’t think it’s fair of supervisors to ask teachers – and, by extension, students – to work this way without fundamentally changing teacher evaluation. (Of course, I think teachers should do what’s right anyway, with or without the warm glow of a supervisor’s approval for whatever.) Take merit pay – it’s creepy; it asks me to exploit what I know about test prep to increase my own bottom line at the expense of the really creative teaching of which I am capable and which my students deserve

Hope doesn’t come from the grim satisfaction of leveling-up your salary after grinding through another year of test prep and another 2 or 3 passing scores at a time each Spring. Hope is trusting that after failing to reach a kid for years, you will reach him or her tomorrow because you are going to try something different. Schools need to learn to hope and act on that hope.

We’ve had the tests. We’ve seen the results. No one is happy about any of it, except those who benefit from an increasing number of kids taking an increasing number of tests. Tests have not begun to fill the profound rift between the qualities of education offered in cities and suburbs.

The world won’t end in fire or with a bang or whimper when we stop teaching as we have been told; rather, it will begin all over again, and until it, too, needs dismantling, it will be a better, more hopeful world in which to learn. We can’t stop iterating school if it’s going to keep up with learning; we can’t let moribund budgets or silver-tounged inertia convince us against the thousand little changes we can make today to treat our students as equals and to follow their learning as much as we hope they will accept our teaching.

About Chad Sansing

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


5 thoughts on “On hope and action

  1. Could you expound some on your comment that “the single best thing we can do for this generation of students and the next is to find ways to dismantle schools”?

    Posted by Tim McClung | March 1, 2012, 12:27 pm
    • Surely – I think dismantling is key. If we can uncouple teaching and learning from traditions of behavior management, scheduling, and staffing, we’ll find things we want to keep (community, hub, studio space), things we don’t want to keep (tracking, school to prison indicators, discrete disciplines/curricula), and things we need (hybrid learner/teacher & student/expert roles, community partnerships, expert mentors supported in some part by school monies from kids they serve). I want us to take school apart and use only what works for kids & learning – such as processes, safe havens, inquiry coaching – without undue regard for winding up with something that looks like school.


      Posted by | March 1, 2012, 12:43 pm
  2. Chad,
    Thanks for writing this. It makes me want to share this, a favorite quote from Illich’s Deschooling Society about the difference between hope and expectation. I feel expectation is a word that has completely pushed out hope in school discussions. “Hope, in its strong sense, means trusting faith in the goodness of nature, while expectation, as I will use it here, means reliance on results which are planned and controlled by man. Hope centers on a person from whom we await a gift. Expectation looks forward to satisfaction from a predictable process which will produce what we have the right to claim.”

    Posted by Patrick Farenga | March 1, 2012, 4:08 pm
  3. “I think the mission critical next step for public schools is to let go of their self-perceived monopoly on right thinking and action in education and behavior management. The single best thing we can do for this generation of students and the next is to find ways to dismantle schools.”

    I am with you every step of the way on this man. Love how your voice is getting bigger and bolder.

    Say it loud and say it proud.


    Posted by Kirsten | March 2, 2012, 2:19 pm

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