Learning When to Hold Our Ground

I was energized after reading Lori Nazareno’s wonderful story in this past month’s Teaching Ahead Roundtable about a group of teachers in Denver who held the line on creating a teacher evaluation system.  They did not take the easiest road—of doing what they were told and parroting back a system that had already been created for them–but they made the choice that would be best for schools.  Thank you for sharing this experience, Lori!  Her story made me think about how often teachers, and particularly teacher leaders, are faced with situations in an imperfect school system that ask us to compromise and require a difficult decision.

As I ruminated on the concept of “compromise,” I recalled a scene from Swing Kids, a film I’ve shown my 8th grade students, in conjunction with a novel study that revolves around questions of power dynamics and the roles of oppressors, victims, bystanders and resistors.  Peter, a German teenager living under the Third Reich, loves Swing music, which has been banned by the Nazi party.  A member of Hitler’s Gestapo seems to want to help him and tries to get Peter to join the Nazis an cooperate with their demands to stay out of trouble.  Peter argues with him.  At one point, the Gestapo guy, agitated, says something like, “One day, like me, you’ll learn to see life as a series of compromises.”  This line struck me.

We see in this scene how very far astray this man has gone from even his own principles in the compromises he’s made with an oppressive system.  His character is not portrayed as an especially bad man, but neither is he admirable.  Peter’s character ultimately chooses not to compromise at all, and willingly gives up everything to stay true to his principles.

Life as a teacher in the United States is not life in Nazi Germany–and it’s actually a pet peeve of mine when people joke about any leader today with an authoritarian style being “a Nazi.”  So why bring this example up?  It’s the idea of the adult character having made a series of compromises, which lead down the wrong path that calls my attention.  How easy that could be for any of us to do… and yet how wrong, this story seems to warn.  At the same time, compromises are a part of living in a society with other people.  We do have to make a variety of compromises all the time.

Where are teachers asked to compromise?  I know, for example, that I one thing I won’t compromise on is using a scripted curriculum.  I would leave the district, move away, or change careers. I know I have to teach in a way that is responsive to the interests, strengths and needs of my students, and standardized curriculum doesn’t work that way.  I’ve learned to sometimes compromise a little, too. I’ve learned to adopt the latest terms for teaching practices that are often not new at all, so that I can show that I know “what’s going on” in my profession. I know that, although I don’t think standardized tests are very accurate assessments of my students’ reading and writing or a good use of  taxpayer money, they are still here. I don’t want my students to go into them unprepared, so I spend a little bit of time preparing students for specific things they’ll encounter on the test.

Madeleine Ray, my mentor at Bank Street, warned me early on not to compromise too much in my classroom teaching–or it’s easy to “lose your practice,” she said.  Lori’s story of no-compromise is so important, because in teacher leadership, many of us are learning as we go what’s most important, what our limits are, and what the consequences of compromising—or not compromising—might be. The landscape of our profession is shifting.  We need more discussion of those situations that test our commitment to our principles, and more models of how to make wise decisions in the face of such tests.


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  • zep


    Gr8 post, however i wouldn’t be so quick to comromise on testing. Your kids have a right to go elsewhere and actually receive an education while your school tests. Obviously this is a thin line to keep your job, but thousands of kids nationwide are now taking advantage of this opportunity provided by your local truly alternative setting.

  • Nancy Illing M.S., M. Ed.


    I too am happy to see teachers stand up for the profession. Ten years ago I tried to stand up to the changes going on in education. No Child Left Behind compromised the education of my special needs students. Changes at the state level on certification and more and frequent testing (especially testing to norm the tests) were undermining the expertise of teachers. I asked teachers to “just say no” at faculty meetings, university classes, union meetings, district meetings, and state meetings. Everyone seemed able to compromise. I left the public schools out of frustration with both politicians and educators. Now, finally, teachers are taking a stand. I applaud you teachers in Seattle, Denver, and anywhere that teachers are willing to stand up for the profession, and by extension, the children. I hope it is not too late. http://www.creategenius.com

  • Jonna Wallis

    ELA – Secondary

    You have made some good points.  I would encourage classroom teachers to take a look at what and how they are teaching, and evaluate whether their current practices will take their students on to the next level.  It’s not a matter of compromising; it’s a matter of doing what is best for our students.


  • DavidCohen

    Principles are essential

    Ariel – did you see the last installment of the “Year at Mission Hill” video series? The principal of the school told her staff she would refuse to go along with the state mandated testing regimen – not entirely refuse, but at the point where it was getting to be too much – and she told the school that she’d take the consequences that might come from that. I think you’ve identified another line not worth crossing, and I’d stand with you on that one. Easy to say, because I don’t think I’ve heard of a scripted curriculum for high school English. Another one for me would be the use of standardized test scores in evaluation. However, I’m not sure if I’d just resign, or if I would stay in the job and try to initiate some resistance or legal action at the same time. Leaving would be a way to make a clear, dramatic statement, I suppose, but staying would provide the legal standing to fight back. I’m glad for now that neither of us has to resort to such measures, and glad that Lori and teacher leaders like here are providing the examples we need to shift the debates and improve the profession.

    • ReneeMoore

      Taking a stand

      Bravo to Ariel for this thoughtful and honest post! Every day, teachers have to make critical ethical decisions about how we do our work; and we need to know where is the line we will not cross. 

      David, I’m glad you made the reference to that last episode of Year at Mission Hill because that’s what came to my mind as I read this blog. Across the country, educators of integrity are having to make those kinds of hard choices–what’s best for my students OR my livelihood. That fact that great educators are being forced into such false dichotomies should set off alarms among those who really care about quality education. 

      By the way David, yes, there are scripted curriculums for high school English (and high school biology, social studies, and mathematics). I’ve seen them, and they are ugly. More important: They are being foisted on struggling schools and districts as a way to “turnaround” their performance on state tests. Frankly, you probably won’t see much of those mind-numbing curriculum scripts at a place like Palo Alto High–neither your teachers nor your parents would tolerate it, and they have the economic and political clout to resist it. Not so for parents and teachers in many other places. But Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and I think that applies to what we do in public education as well. 

      • DavidCohen

        political clout

        Renee – thanks for informing me, though I take no pleasure in the information, that there are scripted high school curricula too. To whomever believes in scripted curriculum at all, I guess it makes sense to have them in high school as well – though of course I would argue a scripted curriculum makes no sense for anyone, anywhere. 

        And regarding your use of the word “political” – absolutely! A scripted curriculum is a sign of distrust and disempowerment, and those with political clout would indeed fend it off. We must continue to advocate for both educational and political policies that help spread political clout and erradicate “injustice anywhere” precisely because it’s “a threat to justice everywhere.”

    • Bonnie

      Scripted HS Engish Curruculum does exist!!!

      I was just excessed from my 9th and 10th grade position this year and I’m currently interviewing in several districts in my area. Just this morning I interviewed for both an 8th grade position and a possible HS position. The department chair said they are incorporating the MS modules this year and the HS modules will be available by the middle of the year and they are expected to begin using those as they become available. I was pleased to hear that he, along with the principal and both assistant principals have concerns over this and, while they will be incorporating them beginning next year, they plan to have “teacher feedback meetings” every two week to see how it’s working and make adjustments accordingly. They are ALL skeptical about the lack of authentic assessment and “one size fits all” approach. The department chair feels that they may adopt the modules as a framework but hopes to give individual teachers the autonomy to adjust lessons and units and “make them their own”. Fortunately they agree that teachers know their students and what they need better than the government.

      Here is a link to the Grade 8 ELA module for New York…9-12 will be coming soon 🙁


      • Ann

        Scripted curriculum

        FYI – a unit module is not the same as a “scripted curriculum”  

  • AnneJolly

    Oh, Wow!

    Wow!  What a great post, Ariel!  I am totally energized and full of hope after reading it.  My greatest fear for today’s teaching profession is for the new teachers who haven’t ever taught in anything but a standardized-testing-driven-culture. New teachers might easily buy into the “just do it the way you’re told to do it” mentality. They might get suckered by the idea that teaching all kids according to a prescribed procedure is the way to go because the procedure is “research based.”  

    What our new teachers have to learn is that teaching is an activity that requires them to make the best decisions for their kids. They are the ones who see them every day, who work with them, and who care about their learning the most (parents excepted, of course). They can’t be controlled and overwhelmed by mandates to focus on particular test objectives to the detriment of preparing students to be citizens, cutting-edge workforce members, and continual learners.  

    Thanks for encouraging them to stay true to their convictions and principals, Ariel.  They don’t have to take an in-your-face approach. There are a lot of ways to work within the system to do that. But they should know that they are continual learners as teachers, with a focus on learning how to best teach their students.  And while looking at other successful methods (and they should look at researched methods) they should always keep in mind that their job is to adapt, implement, and study what makes their students most successful. 

  • Edschoolsubversive

    The price of standing up

    I totally agree with the value of standing up for principles, but the consequences can be rough. I’ve been bullied and marginalized for the ethical stands i’ve taken.

  • Edschoolsubversive

    The price of standing up

    I totally agree with the value of standing up for principles, but the consequences can be rough. I’ve been bullied and marginalized for the ethical stands i’ve taken.

  • Lyelle Palmer, Ph.D.

    Scripts for lessons

    Consider scripts to be examples upon which the teacher can improve (or totally redesign).  Make the text your own, otherwise it sounds stilted coming from another person’s voice.  For novices, a script can be a good way to teach certain content, but it is up to professional choice based on depth of knowledge in the curriculum.  For a new teacher without depth and experience in the curriculum the script can be a great path for a time.