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.