I’ve always known the education system is a like a large, slow freighter. Teaching in a public school for two decades reveals to anyone that this ship is slow, hulking and hard to turn.
But it wasn’t until my own kids entered the system that I really felt the anguish. Why? Because most schools in this country are frustratingly, infuriatingly, hopelessly stuck in the past. And when you’re a teacher seeking to improve your students’ experience, that truth is only more depressing when you’re reflecting on your own children’s experience.
This summer I made the big mistake of reading some truly inspirational teacher books: “The Innovator’s Mindset,” by George Couros, “What School Could Be,” by Ted Dintersmith, and a not-yet-published text called, “Open Up, Education! How Open Way Learning Can Transform Schools,” by Adam Haigler and Ben Owens. I also read an article in Hechinger Report by Chris Berdick about an innovative district in North Dakota doing away with grade levels in favor of competency-based learning.
All these texts have given me ideas! Things to try in my own district (which I will note has been very supportive and patient with my many attempts to positively influence how we operate). And new ways of approaching my own classroom, my colleagues, and the grants I manage on the district’s behalf.
But we are still a traditional public school, tied to a traditional curriculum, grades, schedule, credit system, desks, bells, and other trappings of school recognizable in almost any place in our nation. My own kids attend a different traditional public school, with the same traditional curriculum, grades, schedule, credit system, desks, bells, and so on.
When I read Dintersmith’s description of kids designing and constructing a new shop building, or the Hechinger account of students planning out their own coursework, or Couros’ idea of teachers following their own interests for professional development, my mind brimmed with excitement. I experience a physical sensation when tantalizing new possibilities bubble up.
I experience a different physical sensation when the tragedies of my own children’s K-12 lives return to mind. The colossal waste of their time and talents, sitting in rows of desks, searching for nuggets of useful, interesting material amidst the hours of blather. And the worst: repeatedly taking mind-numbing tests that measure nothing purposeful.
It is heartbreaking and appalling. It is borderline professional malpractice. Whose fault is it all?
I do not blame my kids’ school, which has also presented some wonderful opportunities in athletics and the performing arts and which is, given the circumstances, doing a reasonable job. Similarly, I do not blame my own school for its parallel treatment of our district’s students. Education is a monolith which, as Secretary DeVos has discovered, bends neither to money nor to politicians.
Teachers Are the Change
However, as is obvious within the texts I noted above, education does bend with the will of teachers and administrators.
In every example I read, it was teachers and administrators who initiated the changes they knew would benefit kids and prepare them for the real world—a world that demands problem-solving, collaboration, self-starting and resilience. Teachers and administrators identified the obstacles restraining them and their students, and they designed solutions to remove those obstacles. Teachers and administrators worked together to create new paradigms and repurpose their resources to make those ideals a reality. Parents and students quickly got on board when they realized what their schools could be.
I’ve long advocated for teachers to use their voices and to bust out of their cages (see Rick Hess’s book, The Cage-Busting Teacher, for more about this reference) when they know a better way. Moreover, according to a new survey by Educators for Excellence, over 90 percent of teachers would like opportunities to lead without leaving the classroom, naming hybrid roles, mentorship and professional development planning as some of their top choices.
Teachers, take a look at any one of the books and articles noted in this post and you will see why you have to advocate for something better.
Those of us whose students and own offspring are hinged to the traditional model can’t wait for policymakers, legislators, school boards or bloggers to tear down the monolith. We also can’t wait for the tide of 2010s America to privatize or charter-ize education in order to innovate. We have to do it now, in our own schools, ourselves.
Teachers and administrators: We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.