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?

  • LaurenHill

    Well

    Paul, I don’t have an answer, but I can commiserate.  I feel like here in Kentucky, we could pick so many different hills to die on; how do we decide which one to charge?  The only thing I do know is that we have to pick something.

    The homework bit that you mentioned gets me all worked up.  I just graded 104 pieces of homework – I’d already given the students feedback on the work, we’d capitalized on the lesson and moved on – but in our culture, both parents and students expect a grade in the gradebook, despite the in-process, practice nature of the assignment (and all homework, as far as that goes).  So, I graded and recorded it.  Stupid.

    Do I feel like mounting a campaign to change that culture?  Heck no.  I have 104 essays to grade and seven million other things to do before tomorrow.  And what about our ridiculous school day where nether student nor staff have a minute to breathe and reflect.    At least in KY, we have a new evaluation system that makes real sense – but how will it be implemented?  Will we get it right?  Oh, and what about our assessement system? The almighty ACT doesn’t measure much but basic reading comprehension and where the comma goes.  Do I chuck the rest?

    Successful leaders seem to pick something, and I feel like my inability to do that has lessened my effectiveness.  I’m just not sure what to do about it.

    Thanks for asking the question.

    • PaulBarnwell

      Well put.

      Sometimes challenging certain issues or structures within our buildings really does amount to launching a campaign.  I hear you!

      Instead of trying to change something, I’m trying to add to what our school offers by teaching digital literacy and media electives, largely designed with PBL in mind.  Of course, adding ideas and opportunities within a given school culture doesn’t necessarily clarify the school’s mission and practice, but at least students have varied experiences in the classroom.

  • BriannaCrowley

    Heard. Felt. Join…

    I join you in this line of questioning. I join you to the point that I am not sure how much longer I can ” still function as if [my principals] weren’t [true]” to pull in Alfie Kohn’s quote. 

    I want to change education…and not just in my classroom. I want to change practice and thinking and learning and seeing students and teachers. Day by day, I feel that I cannot do that while grading my 104 essays (actually, Lauren, I fortunately have much less at any given time…but your number was more impressive:), and lesson planning authentic assessments, and building technology capacity in my students, and leading teacher trainings, and…and…and. 

    I’m not nearly the prolific writer you (Paul) are. I think you are making a huge impact beyond your classroom walls. You have helped me change my thinking and you’ve challenged me to grow, push, reevaluate those very principals you reference. For what it’s worth, you are having an impact far beyond your local community.

    But to address your question, I too have chosen a more cautious and calculated approach to my philosophical questioning. The best method I have found is to focus on relationship first, philosophy second. I’m not saying this is an answer to your question–only putting it out there that this is my current strategy. I faced some colleague push-back when as a 6th year teacher I was “appointed” to a brand new leadership position of instructional technology coach (one period a day). Some saw it as my own power grab, others as unnecessary, and others of course with congratulations and welcome. But I found that if I focused on the relationship with each person before the ideas, I was able to then approach the ideas with less defensiveness. I used quesitons rather than statements…affirmed first, then challenged. 

    This strategy along with looking for those golden opportunities have been my go-tos for reaching out on a local level. 

    • PaulBarnwell

      Is it possible to produce positive change without relationships?

      Brianna,

      You’ve raised a good point here.  Whether it’s a teacher campaigning for an idea with a colleague, or a building leader trying to amass consensus, it’s obvious that one will face rejection, or at least stumbling blocks, without having positive relationships.  How many times have we all experienced a new initiative in our schools and heard grumblings from folks who don’t feel valued by their administrators?  Or don’t even know them?

      Thanks for the encouraging words.  But I have to admit that my recent writing surge is partially due to having mono!  It’s a bummer not being at school, but I’ve got loads of time to write and reflect.  Got to make the best of it, right?

       

       

  • Anthony Cody

    When to stir

    Paul,

    You have asked a really challenging practical question. It is one thing to write an essay or a blog post describing your personal approach to grading. It is another thing entirely to bring that conversation into your school building and attempt to influence the way your colleagues behave. And that is a choice we have to make deliberately. It may be that the battle over grading is not the one you want to initiate at your school — but that should not prevent you from expressing strong opinions on your blog. The problem is that your colleagues may not be seeing the difference. In other words, they may interpret everything you write as a criticism, or an attempt to change their behavior, when it may simply be an essay you posted.

    I think it is perfectly legitimate to stir the pot, and try to convince people to make changes for sound reasons. But it should also be ok to express your views oon issues where you are not necessarily pushing for immediate changes from your colleagues. I wonder how it might work to try o explain that distinction to your colleagues?

    • PaulBarnwell

      As I wrote about my early

      As I wrote about my early efforts to write about changing the status-quo, I realize now that what I proposed really bucked tradition in many cases, and I was teaching at the time in a pretty traditional school by most measures.  Now, I find myself writing more specific critiques of curriculum, or asking questions such as this one–they are less likely to stir the pot by directly challenging my colleagues.

       

  • ReneeMoore

    Getting Our Colleagues to Use Critical Thinking

    Sometimes, getting our colleagues to do what we wish our students would do is even more challenging. I agree with Anthony about the importance of stirring the pot and being able to raise important ideas for consideration in our own schools and districts. But I know from experience it is often hard to get co-workers to look at a new idea (one that is new to them anyway) as an opportunity to re-examine what they already do or to learn something new themselves. Perhaps it is in how we phrase things, or more often as Paul says, it may be in the relationships we have already established with our co-workers that earns us enough respect that they will at least consider our ideas. 

    But sometimes there are other motives and factors. For example, I just came from a meeting of community college English teachers here in Mississippi in which several were openly opposed to suggestions of expanding our use of technology in English writing or letting students do more multi-modal or inquiry-based writing on the grounds that “these students we have can’t even write a sentence; they couldn’t handle all that.”  In case you missed the racism and classism embedded in that remark, which was even clearer in the speakers’ tones, that was a big part of the pushback against these ideas. The perceptions (or misperceptions) about students is a formidable obstacle and the reason we do many of the sad things we do in public education, as Kohn points out.  There was also much fear: After all, these new ideas often mean a teacher having to venture into something s/he has never done before. Some of these underlying obstacles need to be openly challenged, but even with that approach and relationship can make the discourse more productive.

    • PaulBarnwell

      Low expectations and fear equals staying the course?

      Renee,

      I’ve experienced the same type of comments regarding tech. applications in English classes.  Of course, I wonder why some educators who perceive students are being unable to do something rarely see it as a challenge to change or adapt teaching methods.  After all, clearly something isn’t working too well, so why not take a different approach?

      When bringing up challening questions with colleagues, there’s also the factor of personal experience of being a student.  If this was done to me, and I did fine, then why should I be different than those teachers who guided me?

      • ReneeMoore

        An(other) Argument for Not Teaching the Way We Were Taught

        True story:  I returned to college in 1987 to get my teaching credentials as a 30-something mother of four, when my husband and I moved back to his home here in Mississippi. I had been a freelance journalist for 12 years prior to that. One of the first English classes I took there (it was American Lit), I had a young professor, fresh out of grad school. The day he returned the first paper he had assigned us, he held mine up before the class with a huge red F on it, and proceeded to give his stern “Thou shalt not plagiarize” lecture. I stopped him in mid-sentence and demanded to know why he believed my paper was plagiarized. He said, “No black person could write this well unless it was copied.”  

        Turns out that was what his professors had always said to their classes and what they had told him as he became an instructor. First, I proved to him that I could write by showing him my professional portfolio; then writing an impromptu essay in front of him. To his credit, he then opened up to me, and I learned he had only read one Black author in his life, and had never read writing by Black students before that semester. He went on to be a fine teacher, and a few years later, I was his colleague on that faculty. 

        Unfortunately, I’ve run across many other teachers at all levels, who hold equally incorrect beliefs, but are not willing to even consider that they might be wrong. Many students have suffered at their hands.

        As teachers of future teachers, we pass on not only our teaching techniques (good or bad), we also pass on our attitudes, biases, and expectations. 

        • BriannaCrowley

          Stunned

          Renee,

          This story blew me away for multiple reasons–first, the year in which it occurred. I know intellectually that racism (both overt and subtle) has persisted far beyond the Civil Rights movement and marches insidiously into our current day. Yet, my personal experience with it is so abstract given my own race and teaching experience. Your story demonstrated front-and-center the beliefs people hold from the legacy of discrimination in our country. 

          I was also blown away by your response. You took it upon yourself to “prove” the discrimination unfair rather than railing against it or labeling it. Actions speak louder than words. Your humility, strength, and wisdom in this moment serves as a lesson for me…and I suspect many others as well.

          This anecdote only makes me more excited for your future book…perhaps a memoir as Jose suggests? I would buy it in a heart beat 🙂

        • MarciaPowell

          Because we’ve always done it

          Renee,

          I am first in awe of your response and your willingness to engage a bigot in a way that educated him, rather than alienated him. And you schooled him, in the most positive way possible.

          Biases and bigotry in general are a struggle we must always come against as we try to change the status quo.  Thank you for doing that with compassion and a healthy dose of empathy.  Wow.

           

  • bradclark

    teachers leading teacher effectiveness

    I fear that the power of KY’s new Teacher Effectiveness policies could be diminished by a top-down, centralized hierarchy that forces teacher effectiveness on teachers.  Master teachers already exemplify the great magic pill of teacher effectiveness:  self-reflection based on data.  KY’s Professional Growth & Effectiveness System (PGES) has the potential to compeltely reshapes the language that our profession uses to quantify and qualify the way we impact our students.  I anticpate the potential that PGES has to deeply impact student experiences in classrooms, redesign teacher preparatory programs, reexamine teacher certification regulations and rethink the role of the teacher in shaping education policy.

    All of those things being true, what cannot happen in KY is teacher effectiveness leading teachers.  Instead, teachers must lead teacher effectiveness.  If we are simply passive recipients of yet another policy, then we will lose this unprecedented opportunity to truly drive our profession.  We are capable managers of our profession and we are equally capable of building the capacity of our fellow teachers in this regard.

    How could we allow it to be anything other than what it is?  There is no time for passivity;  #ourkidscantwait and neither can we.  We cannot simply anticipate and hope for a solution coming from our chief policy makers.  We must do what we can on the ground to change our profession.  If KY teachers do not take this opportunity, then whatever system that is in place is completely on us.

  • LallaTPierce

    Sometimes you just know

    My answer is not as specific as some of the previous, but I think sometimes you know the time has come and the issue is so right you can’t do anything but “stir the pot.” The mind and body are powerful. When I feel “it” in my gut, know “it” in my heart, see “it” in my classroom, and the noise of “it” in my head keeps me awake at night; I can’t be silent.

    -Lalla

  • MarciaPowell

    the 30 mile rule

    Paul,

    Kudos for going deep and asking the tough questions.  Here’s the problem I see, and it’s two-fold.

    I.  You are never an expert in your own backyard. I mean, how could someone with the same training as Teacher X have a different view point?  This is also known as ‘dangnab youngsters and their high-faluting ideas.’  Travel 30 miles and your wisdom is clearer.

     

    II.  Change theory is fascinating, and accompanied by a healthy helping of fear.  Fear inspires personal attacks, and fixed mindsets.

     

    The third thing i can say is the reason we do this:  it’s about what’s best for our students, and for education as a whole.

    Real relationships, as opposed to those imposter, move-along, nothing-to-see here discussions in the lounge, stand the test of time and are enriched by difficult discussions.  Find one or two colleagues–real friends-in a building, and you are rich.  If not, the time may come to move onward.  You’ll know if you listen to your heart.

     

  • MarciaPowell

    the 30 mile rule

    Paul,

    Kudos for going deep and asking the tough questions.  Here’s the problem I see, and it’s two-fold.

    I.  You are never an expert in your own backyard. I mean, how could someone with the same training as Teacher X have a different view point?  This is also known as ‘dangnab youngsters and their high-faluting ideas.’  Travel 30 miles and your wisdom is clearer.

     

    II.  Change theory is fascinating, and accompanied by a healthy helping of fear.  Fear inspires personal attacks, and fixed mindsets.

     

    The third thing i can say is the reason we do this:  it’s about what’s best for our students, and for education as a whole.

    Real relationships, as opposed to those imposter, move-along, nothing-to-see here discussions in the lounge, stand the test of time and are enriched by difficult discussions.  Find one or two colleagues–real friends-in a building, and you are rich.  If not, the time may come to move onward.  You’ll know if you listen to your heart.

     

  • bradclark

    change theory

    I think that Change Theory is something we could all analyze a bit more in-depth.  We all have different interests and pursuits, but we all desire change as a unifying theory.