Beyond compliance: Creating the schools our students need

Teacher-Powered Schools Blogging Roundtable

Over the next several weeks bloggers will be sharing their thoughts and experiences with teacher-powered schools. This first post explores how the teacher-powered model can be used as a lever for equity.

I am haunted by an unsettling feeling I experienced on a recent school visit.

Upon entering the building, I was greeted by a series of shoe prints taped neatly to the floor, showing students precisely where to walk. In this school, students are required to walk on the right side of the hallway, eyes forward, in complete and orderly silence.

I name the unsettling feeling: This school looks and sounds like a prison. This school is preparing students to be compliant inmates.

Do I think that the adults are consciously preparing students to be inmates? No.

But a lack of consciousness does not justify the result: a climate and culture that values compliance over creativity. Sameness over uniqueness. Order and control above all.

Currently, the education system in the United States is driven by compliance, embodying test-and-punish practices. This system, based on an outdated industrial model, requires teachers, and thereby students, to do as they are told and “follow the rules.” The system encourages teachers and students to believe that someone above them in the hierarchy knows what is best for them and is responsible for solving their problems.

The consequences of a decades-long adherence to this model are reflected in real time in our current political climate. Millions of people engaged in the recent election with the mindset that a single person alone could make things “great”; that they could rely on someone above them in the hierarchy to solve their problems. Now millions are being asked to be compliant and count on this person to “save” us all. And we are already seeing that the most vulnerable among us are becoming targets of hate and violence, while simultaneously being told to be compliant.

Our students don’t need to learn to look to someone else to solve their problems. Nor do they need to learn to be compliant, especially as their dignity and rights are being violated. Rather, they need to learn to advocate for themselves, problem solve, and take responsibility for how their lives unfold.

How are our kids supposed to learn these skills when they often see their teachers being told what to do by others in positions of power “above” them? When are they supposed to learn to question what is right and wrong when they see their teachers being expected to be compliant? When will students learn to solve their own problems when they see their teachers not being trusted to problem solve for themselves and their students?

Our most vulnerable students need a different kind of teacher than what the current system values. They need teachers who are leaders, not followers. They need teachers who are problem solvers, not those who look to someone above them to solve difficult problems. They need teachers who can advocate for themselves and their students, not those who are compliant.

Teacher-powered innovations allow students to see just that — significant adults modeling the types of skills and dispositions that students need to develop. When teachers experience conditions that allow them to problem solve, question the status quo, and develop solutions to their own challenges, they create these conditions for the students they serve.

Take my colleague Jozette Martinez, a teacher leader who works in a teacher-powered school in Denver. She recently supported her students to create a forum for their voices to be heard. Rather than arranging for her students to attend a rally, she supported her students to plan, design, and organize a rally. It is this type of teacher that our most vulnerable students need — teachers who can model all of the skills and dispositions our students need AND create the climate for students to learn those same skills.

Teacher-power translates to student-power.

Now more than ever it is imperative that schools are redesigned to serve our most vulnerable students. Schools must provide the conditions that help all students develop the knowledge and skills to advocate for themselves and their communities. Our schools must encourage students to question the status quo, develop problem solving skills, and take responsibility for how their lives unfold. They should be noisy, messy, and active places where teachers and students are learning and leading together.

CTQ can support your school or district’s efforts to design and implement teacher-powered structures. Click here to connect with us and find out more.

  • JessicaCuthbertson


    This post gave me chills. I am so inspired and filled with hope — the educators of today can (and will) create the schools our students need (and deserve).

    This quote really struck me: “Our most vulnerable students need a different kind of teacher than the one the system values. They need teachers who are leaders, not followers.” While I couldn’t agree more I’m wondering: how do we go about suppporting and cultivating educators to become the leaders students need them to be? What might this look like if/when taken to SCALE?  

    The implications seem to range from transforming teacher prep (and pre-prep recruitment into the profession) to job-embedded professional learning to career pathways. We know in too many places these systemic pieces are not where they need to be and the result can be passionate educators burning out, working in isolation, leaving the profession, and/or not considering the profession to be a viable, creative endeavor in the first place. 

    How do we lift up teacher-powered practices as a solution in schools that have yet to hear about the movement? What’s a tangible next step to getting closer to the vision Lori so eloquently articulates above? 

  • benowens

    Teaching is messy…as is risk-taking, creativity, etc.

    Thank you, Lori, for such a powerful article! Your story exemplifies why Teacher-Powered schools are so important as we work to retool our education systems to indeed value creativity over compliance. It’s long past the time that we in the education arena move from a top-down, hierarchal model to one that recognizes and values the true power of collective autonomy when aligned to a shared mission and vision. This is what leading organizations around the world have been doing for years – not just startups in Silicon Valley – and there is no reason why it can’t work in public education. How can I be so sure? Because I see it work every day in my own teacher-powered school. A school where everyone, including the principal, has an equal and powerful voice in determining what’s best for our students. Where everyone’s professional input and opinion is valued and appreciated. Where unfiltered excellence is a daily expectation for all.

    When we are willing to step away from the controlling mentality and realize that education is supposed to be messy, then our students begin to develop their own sense of empowerment and freedom to truly own their learning and growth. That helps them gain a stronger confidence in themselves and their ability to create, to solve problems, to think critically, to collaborate, and to renew the joy and wonder of learning that is too often sacrificed in a compliance-based environment.

    By the way, call it serendipity or great minds thinking alike, without having read this article this morning, I Tweeted out the following question and a picture from the “quotation wall” in the trailer where I teach. The question: “Is the tone you set in your classroom/school compliance or risk-based? The quotation: “In this room, you are to keep an open mind, ask questions, and think for yourself. Always remember that your teacher could be wrong.” Messy indeed.

  • akrafel

    Modeling Power

    Thank you Lori, this piece is so timely.  I find myself both afraid and emboldened at the same time. I couldn’t help but think about that in a teacher powered school, where compliance is not the dominant word of the day, where creative freedom to act on your ideas is everywhere in the culture of the school, we do in fact model for  students the exercise of power. Students can see that by using their personal power they can make great things happen. It happened recently in a small way in our school. A group of students asked if the middle school was going to have a Halloween Dance. The assumption in the question was, are the teachers going to arrange a dance for the middle school?  The answer was, well if you want to have a dance, you should organize and have one. There are a few hoops you need to jump through like organizing adult chaperones and making sure teachers know what you are planning, but if you want a dance, make a dance happen.  They did. They raised all the funds, organized parent volunteers and created an amazing dance. Almost everyone came. Same thing with trips and events students want to put on. We need to be more and more sensitive to opportunities for students to exercise power even in schools like ours with very young children. 

    We also need to guard against adult tendency to regiment students because it is easier for us.  Walking in lines is one of my pet peeves about schools. Why should students walk in straight lines? Sometimes it is for safety reasons like when crossing busy streets or moving through narrow, two way corridors. But I hate it when I see teachers make kids walk in lines when there is no reason other than bossy control.  These things seem so small, but compliance and control are so deeply embedded in the school system that these things happen without anyone even thinking about it. Compliance for the sake of compliance is deadly to a free thinking people.  Teacher Powered Schools by their very nature, swim up stream against this numbing current.  Students can learn by watching what we do. 

    I also think that in these current times, all children are vulnerable.  Their minds are pliable and will accept the reality in which they find themselves.  Teachers in Teacher Powered Schools, do not do that. To create a TPS, teacher leaders do not accept the reality in which they find themselves. They take power and use it to change their reality. They do not wait for power to be given to them.   They take power and use it to craft better everything for their students. This is a very potent  model for our students. Children in teacher powered schools, need to be taught about the fact that they are in a teacher powered school and what that means.

  • TriciaEbner

    It’s a shift in thinking

    This is a minor pet peeve of an example, but it relates, so bear with me: One of my biggest frustrations is when a student comes to me with a very basic problem and expects me to solve it. Something like, “But I don’t have a pencil,” irritates me when I have a supply of pencils at the ready for that kind of situation. Sometimes what kinds of things we teachers do that are comparable to that pencil issue, because we haven’t had the opportunity or taken the ownership to solve problems. This really resonates with me:

     When teachers experience conditions that allow them to problem solve, question the status quo, and develop solutions to their own challenges, they create these conditions for the students they serve.

    I think one of the first steps we can take is to problem-solve within our own sphere of influence. What might happen if we collaborate together to solve a problem, take our proposed solution to our administrators, and advocate for giving the solution a chance? Is this a tangible first step? 

    Like Jessica, I wonder, too, about how we support each other in growing into this, and what it looks like on a large scale?

    • jenniferbarnett

      Ownership to solve problems

      Tricia — I love this line: “Sometimes what kinds of things we teachers do that are comparable to that pencil issue, because we haven’t had the opportunity or taken the ownership to solve problems.” Especially the last part. Ownership to solve problems. I like that.

      Do you know the show, Whose Line Is It Anyway? One might assume from the title that the show is like a hot potato, where no one wants the responsibility for the success of each of the comedy sketches. But that’s not true. It’s an improv show and ALL actors in those scenes share ownership for the success of each scene. It’s a rule of improv. Everyone contributes. Everyone supports. Everyone is responsible. 

      My best experiences in education were when it functioned like improv. How about you? What does “taking responsiblity for ownership to solve problems” mean to you? Do you see a connection with improv? I’d love to hear from this community. 🙂

  • Rob Kriete

    Noisy, messy and active classrooms!


    Great insight and I love that last sentence.  By and large, public education has been evolving from the classic “stand and deliver” classrooms to more student-centric, collaborative, thought-provoking communities of learners over the past 20 years.  Although standardized testing slows this evolution, I believe educators nationwide are working harder and more efficiently to create these interactive classrooms…but not everyone is there yet.  Highlighting the benefits and successes of these noisy, messy and active classrooms is key in speeding up these glacial changes in all classrooms.

    • AleshaDaughtrey

      Teachers are…but the system isn’t yet

      Rob, your comments are on target: teachers are breaking the compliance mold, but most systems aren’t there yet. On one hand, that reality is encouraging and makes me feel even more sure that a focus on teacher leadership is the right one for helping schools succeed. But it’s chilling, too. The scene Lori describes of students being asked to toe some literal lines is more common in schools serving mostly lower-income students and students of color. But I’ve seen similar (if subtler) practices in more predominantly affluent, white schools. Compliance is still the order of the day.

      Philosophically, I think we all disagree with that approach and believe it doesn’t work. I’ve been trying to think about how we invite systems leaders to join us in thinking that way. One approach might be the new standards that states and districts have set for themselves. Those do have their flaws for sure, but one thing they emphasize appropriately is evidence. What are the facts, amid all our feelings and opinions, that should guide how we understand what we read, what we see, and how we interpret our world? Students for whom compliance is a habit will struggle to meet those critical thinking standards – and those who meet them may well struggle to cut off critical thinking when asked to comply. 

      It’s also not lost on me that the way that media are created and shared now raise the stakes on getting that right–especially for our young people who, studies tell us, often aren’t able to discern fact and opinion, good from bad information source. And that’s about more than whether they meet related academic standards that help them go on to productive livelihoods in the information age. That’s also about whether we can accomplish the other critical function of our public schools: educating citizens who are prepared to participate in a responsible, informed democracy. 

      For the teachers and other educators contributing here: what kinds of openings are you using to advocate for a shift? What’s working in those conversations and what can we all learn from you?


      • PhillipTaylor

        What’s Next?

        Your question at the end, Alesha, is exactly the right prompt!  We can complain all we want, we’ve been doing it for years, but what are we going to do about it? 

        I’ve taken my training in action research and collaborated with teachers to generate action research projects in response to problems and questions we have at our school-site.  These have led to changes in department practices, and leadership practices.  We have evolved how we convene and how we discuss what we do.  It is now the STANDARD in our English Department that what we do has a process to measure and report results. 

        I have IRB approval to perform a research project on Restorative Practices, and am working on that study for publication. I’m JUST a teacher – not a college professor, not a researcher, not an administrator, not a district official, and I never will be.  We can step up and impact the profession, and I think research is the way we shift paradigms, because the education field is addicted to research results.  Leaders don’t seem to care if the research is good or bad research, they just want “data”.  Good.  So start feeding that addiction with quality “data” – good research, instead of letting less qualified people fill that gap!

        Try it once, if you don’t believe me.  Develop a strong, well-founded research project at your school-site investigating a problem everyone is talking about.  Just do it, tell no one except your teammates on the project.  Produce a document reporting on those results. Be rigorous and clear.  Then set an appointment with the principal to share those results, along with your recommendations for next steps. See what happens.  Sure, some principals will be hard-headed.  But, once you have these documents, it’s easy to push past that person if you need to, and my experience in education shows that even hard-headed people are suprisingly responsive to a well-produced document sharing the results of a good research project.

  • JustinMinkel

    The role of race

    Lori, this line haunts me: “I name the unsettling feeling: This school looks and sounds like a prison. This school is preparing students to be compliant inmates.”

    As in our prison system, I see a disproportionate number of students of color in behavioristic schools like the one you describe. Our current focus on standardized testing has been billed as a solution to inequity, but while the erosion of creativity, critical thinking, and the arts and sciences has affected most kids, the impact has been most dramatic in high-poverty schools desperate to raise their test scores–which tend to serve African-American and Latino students.  

    That reality parallels more harsh discipline meted out to African-American boys in particular, and begins at a young age. The article “Yes, Preschool Teachers Really Do Treat Black and White Children Totally Differently” found that white teachers more closely monitor Black students for misbehavior and punish them more harshly than White students for the same misbehavior–which, as you point out, is often more about failing to comply with behavioristic rules than true disrespect or lack of kindness.

    Racial profiling and inequal treatment under the law doesn’t begin with police targeting African-American teenagers–it starts much earlier, and often in the very place meant to nurture and protect students.

    One positive story: After a shooting in our school neighborhood, our superintendent started a program with officers in the schools half-time to build rapport with kids; the officer assigned to our school (which is about 75% Latino) is Latino. The day before Christmas Break, our secretary came in to nervously inform me that a police officer was here to speak with Robert, my one African-American male student. When Robert came back, I asked what it was about, thinking he’d gotten in trouble. He said, “Oh, he talked to me about going to get Christmas presents and some food for my family.” It was the Shop-with-a-Cop program.

    That behavioristic approach is a problem in most schools, but both the climate and the consequences for breaking the established norms impact students of color most harshly. That cultural component is a hidden element of the inequity along with more obvious signs like inequal funding or distribution of effective teachers.

    Lori (or anyone), do you have data on the demographics of the students Teacher-Powered Schools serve in terms of race/socioeconomic status? They sound like a powerful antidote to a deeply entrenched flaw in the system.

    • LoriNazareno

      Justin – I don’t have those

      Justin – I don’t have those numbers and am not sure that they exist. Will definitely look into it and let you know.

      You call out one of the things that is most troubling to me, which is the HUGE inequities within our current system. The type of school I described would NEVER be tolerated in the neighborhood where my nephews attend school. AND, innovative models are rarely provided the space to exist in neighborhoods where students need them the most. It’s as if folks think, let’s get the kids to comply, which will raise test scores (a HUGELY inaccurate assumption), and THEN we can provide them with innovative models. I have never witnessed (though I hope these places exist) a system that realized that the test-and-punish/compliance-driven model doesn’t work so tried a model that approaches learning in a completely different way.

      So, yes I see teacher-powered structures and schools as a powerful antidote to a flawed system. But can the system tolerate a think-for-yourself, question-the-status-quo model? 

  • RichardDL

    “Our students don’t need to

    “Our students don’t need to learn to look to someone else to solve their problems” – The best part of educational process 🙂

  • KristofferKohl

    Fired up!

    Terrific post that reminds me of the broader social justice dimensions at play in education. While the characterization described in this post is all too common in public schools, I am encouraged by so many examples I have observed where the opposite is true — where students wander the hallways of school freely because they are trusted by teachers and administrators. Hope to profile a few of those examples in this space in 2017. Thank you for such a motivating post to start 2017! 

  • BrianCurtin

    Leading by Example: Healthy Conflict

    Lori, the bleak picture you paint of the “prison-like” school climate is, unfortunately, a familiar one to many of us. What’s most disheartening is that teachers in schools (or classrooms) like this do not see themselves in positions of impact. Consequently, the perpetual response of thrown palms in the air, a shrug, and “Hey, what can I do about it?” causes lasting (and often irreparable) damage for the students whom they subject to that kind of passive learing.  Your remarks on the evidence of this in the recent election is spot on.

    Conversely, as you say, “When teachers experience conditions that allow them to problem solve, question the status quo, and develop solutions to their own challenges, they create these conditions for the students they serve.”  I couldn’t agree more!  And, quite honestly, I’m seeing increasingly more teachers creating this kind of environment for their students, which is awesome!

    Specifically, “challenging the status quo” is a fantastic message to send students; before I encourage my students to challenge each other and challenge me, first I like to start by showing them a video from Kid President on “How to Disagree”.  It’s an accessible way to at least start the conversation around healthy conflict.  From there, students learn that it’s ok to have opinions of their own (especially ones that challenge the status quo), and discussing them with others builds empowerment, empathy, and progress.  I experience this kind of healthy disagreement in meetings among teacher-leaders and administrators, as well.  There’s no surprise that the teachers who engage in this kind of healthy discourse also bring that into the classroom.  By promoting these positive experiences, perhaps students will grow into the kind of adults who aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo.

  • WendiPillars

    Love it

    There’s hope in this conversation, amid the more common realities and challenges, and I love it! 

    You know, the compliance factor is so interesting. I teach at a high school in the same district where I also taught in elementary schools that still have this silence-in-the-hallways-please-line-up mentality. I’m not sure how our middle schools operate, but at one time they were even stricter. At the high school, however, there are no such hallway expectations. The students are talkative, some more energetic than others, and of course, there’s always a handful in a hurry and forgetting that others are around. No such animal as quiet lines!  In all, though, our school of students with high % of poverty, and a definitive majority-minority demography, gets along just fine, respectful and accepting of our diversity. How much of that can be attributed to prior training and mechanization, I have no idea, but I’m willing to wager “not a whole lot.” I believe that if students understand the whys behind particular rules, formations, and other expectations, that information is valuable in fostering their critical thinking. But if they aren’t provided opportunities to use that knowledge, they become complacent thinkers (“accepters”).

    A tremendous factor is the challenge for teachers to “let go” of the norms. It remains difficult for many to see our schools as an interdependent system, even though we hear that phrase quite frequently. Alesha, you nailed it when you stated that a focus on teacher leadership is the right one to help schools succeed.

    What are some ways readers in teacher-powered schools have been successful convincing those in higher hierarchical positions that optimizing the expertise of others doesn’t mean losing one’s own power? That working and thinking together can actually increase power?


  • AngelaRhode

    Helpful Post

    This post is so inspiring and gives hope to the students, I am working for life experience degree programs, and we appreciate your job.