Localized Debate: When and How Do You Engage?

I remember a teacher accosting me in the middle school hallway after she read my article questioning the value of traditional grading.  She was shouting, her face was beet-red, and I managed to stay composed, taking a few steps backwards to open the rapidly closing gap between us. She took it personally that I thought grades were often counterproductive. After all, I had directly challenged her tried-and-true methodology; she also had many more years of classroom experience behind her.

I also remember feeling nerves when the local paper, the Sentinel News (Shelbyville, KY), published my op-ed questioning the value of homework for homework’s sake. Who would react and confront me next?

These incidents, to name a few, characterized my early forays into writing and debating about teaching and learning. I didn’t engage with a blogging or Twitter community; instead, I shared my writing directly with my co-workers through mass e-mails, getting a few acknowledgements or disgruntled stares at meetings. I don’t know know productive I was in swaying opinion or opening minds, but I do know that I enjoyed the process of questioning my own beliefs, conducting action-research (admittedly informal) in the classroom, and writing.

To those who are familiar with the great contrarian Alfie Kohn, it will surprise nobody that his thinking had launched me on a path to be a solutions-oriented skeptic regarding the status-quo in public education. Kohn writes in his introduction to Feel-Bad Education, “If we all agree that a given principle is true, then why in the world do our schools still function as if it weren’t?” His question still bugs me to this day, as I go to work and see things happening that aren’t supported by research or are in the best interests of student learning.

Here are some of the principles that Kohn asserts aren’t thoughtfully challenged, discussed, and practiced by enough educators:

1.  If kids have different talents, interests, and ways of learning, it’s probably not idea to teach them all the same things–or in the same way.

2.  Just because doing x raises standardized test scores doesn’t mean x should be done.

3.  We want children to develop in many ways, not just academically.

4.  Just because a lesson (or book, or class, or test) is harder doesn’t mean it’s better.

Number two bugs me the most on a daily basis. Since I’m at a school trying to repair its image due to a “failing” school label several years back, most administrators and teachers believe that the best way to improve public perception is to raise test scores. To my chagrin, they’re probably right.

I’m asked to give test after test because “you have to,” I’m told that minimal ACT scores are the be-all-and-end-all for college and career readiness, and I see–and probably practice myself–too much one-size-fits-all instruction with the hopes of elevating said scores.

Now, I wonder if I’m not doing enough to engage in constructive conversations within my own building. I don’t share my writing with the whole faculty (although my principal sometimes does). I don’t actively seek out debate. Five to six years ago, I would have stood up in a faculty meeting, heart thumping, and decried that the ends (marginally rising test scores) do not justify the means.

The longer I’ve stayed in teaching, the more I’ve learned to pick my battles on a day-to-day basis. We’re all overwhelmed with lesson planning, grading, tutoring, mentoring, de facto parenting, and coaching. For now, I’ve decided to launch my thoughts into the cloud, with hopes that productive conversation will ensue.

The world of Twitter-connected teachers, writers, and CTQ bloggers is a place heavily populated with similarly inquisitive educators willing to tinker, tweak, and refine their practice. The digital learning community is a place where disagreements happen, but they aren’t so visceral. It’s a place where I feel more comfortable putting my ideas out there without exhausting myself in day-to-day committee meetings and hallway conversations. But tt’s also a place where I’m unsure if what I’m doing matters to those with whom I work most closely.

if I believe strongly in certain ideals, am I giving up too easily by not engaging directly with my colleagues?  How about you?  For you teacher-writers and practitioners, when do you decide to stir the pot at a local level?  How do you decide which ideals are worth defending and pursuing in spite of our massively demanding jobs?