I have a confession, one I’ve made a number of times, but not so publicly as this.
I loathe The Little Mermaid. Not Ariel herself, mind you, but her story is horrifying to me as a feminist and as the parent of, well, I was going to say as the parent of a daughter, but let me correct myself: as the parent of two human beings – my son’s paradigm for women’s agency shouldn’t be a vision of the pa-thet-ic, as Ursula describes her “costumers.”
Before I get into my concerns for education, indulge me in briefly sharing my other issues with The Little Mermaid. Advised to keep her trap shut — because men don’t like “idle prattle” that those silly women carry on about — by the intensely stereotypical villain (both hideous and overweight which carries its own baggage on what constitutes “good” in the world). It would be fine for this to be framed as bad advice, but the story teaches us that it works! Eric is of course fascinated by his silent, smitten companion.
Ariel, whom we’re told has big dreams about exploring the world is ultimately quite satisfied to simply follow Eric around like the mer-woman version of a puppy. But she doesn’t appear to be mer-person, let’s recall. Ariel becomes essentially another species to please the guy for her and abandons her family and all that she knows in order to “catch” him. The best part though? “It won’t cost much…just your voice.” She literally gives up her voice (in more ways than one) in order to chase after a man she just met.
But let’s look toward the resolution – maybe there’s some mettle in Ariel yet? Nope, she’s incapable of helping herself. Her father, whose few ideas we hear are mostly filled with condescension for his bubble-headed baby, has to surface (literally – we’re in the ocean here folks) and wave his trident to fix this absurd mess Ariel has created. Happily ever after in the poufy wedding dress; there you have it.
But it’s not a total waste – a couple of the songs are pretty catchy, so I’ll give it that!
Okay, I feel better getting that off my chest.
So what does The Little Mermaid have to do with teachers?
In WAY too many settings, teachers feel disempowered. I have heard veteran teachers shrug and say, “I don’t have a choice; I have to [insert stupid rule/requirement from their site or district that’s damaging to kids – whether it’s way too frequent benchmark testing in ways that are inauthentic or a counterproductive teaching method]. Scripted packages/programs (in service to The Almighty Test) are becoming increasingly common again, for example. When I started teaching in 2000, I had thought we’d hit the peak of that kind of silliness in the 80s (“and now say…”) but it turns out these hyper-controlled methods from the 80s, along with some seriously bad fashion trends from that same hideous historical moment, have made a comeback in large part due to the elements of NCLB that live on through ESSA. And now we have new “high tech” skill and drill, which conveniently does nothing more for us or our students but it makes somebody a LOT of money, so I guess it’s serving a purpose for someone. Then there’s continued fear around school funding, school control, and testing is the proverbial boogeyman. Almost like the Russian government. Is this all just a Cold War kid’s bad dream? Maybe I shouldn’t have binge watched Stranger Things…but I digress.
So we’ve got external forces robbing teachers of their decision-making and children of the opportunity to learn in developmentally appropriate ways. All that being said, no one has us at gunpoint, and often we’re not putting up much of a fight. I get that these things can be nerve racking to say the least, but VERY few administrators are going to fire a teacher for teaching too well. I can hear that school board meeting now.
“We see that you fired Ms. Sanchez; did she commit an egregious act, or was she just so incompetent you felt her teaching could not be redeemed?”
“Oh, neither. She was highly effective and well-liked by her students and their parents. In fact, the kids loved coming to school. They all cried the day they learned she wasn’t coming back. But I sensed a streak of independence in her. Couldn’t be helped; she had to go. That’s what I told all those sobbing 2nd graders and their angry parents too!”
I would suspect said administrator would be pretty short-lived herself. Further, most administrators not only support autonomy in service of kids’ learning, they expect it. Is there the occasional control freak out there? Sure. But even then, it’s extremely rare an administrator cog in the testing machine would actually fire someone solely for respectfully refusing to stay in lockstep with the status quo. When I push back on such ideas in conversation with colleagues in my field, I often hear “But they can make your (work)life miserable.” I suppose that’s true, but isn’t compliance in things we know don’t serve kids a misery of its own kind? Further, is working in a soul-sucking space worth avoiding what would usually be a very short commute to space that would value a thoughtful, caring educator?
The teacher shortage is nation-wide. Let me say that again, the country does not have enough teachers. Not anywhere close. And the one positive thing for teachers the shortage has to offer us–employability. Schools are a) concerned about losing teachers more than ever in the past, thus are working hard to retain educators, not “get rid of them” and b) just about wherever you are, there are many, many openings, usually pretty close to you in the rare event that one did lose his or her job or feel pressured to leave. But is that the space where you want to work anyway?
Put simply, if the recruitment slogan for your district could accurately be, “It won’t cost much…just your voice,” would you apply there?
It’s no secret that education is a feminized profession, and it’s not a coincidence that teachers are far too often expected to be blindly compliant. Should a teacher simply refuse to consider something new? Of course not. Should s/he make thoughtful, professional, research-based decisions about what will serve his/her students well (or not)? Absolutely. What works for one class (or one child for that matter) may not work for others and vice versa. Teachers are positioned better than anyone else to make that determination. A decent administrator already knows this, and most of them are.
To request autonomy isn’t some bold and “sassy” move; it’s a very simple requirement for being able to do your job. [And I won’t sing this song again but just a brief note that autonomy does NOT mean we don’t collaborate; it means we make the kinds of informed decisions we were taught to make as professionals.] Districts that support this kind of genuinely proactive/responsive teaching shouldn’t be mythical spaces, and the thing is, they’re not…yet. The more we accept this as “just part of reality,” the closer we get to the algae-like former persons in Ursula’s lair instead of real characters in our own stories with agency.
But what can you do if you’re in a district that makes you feel like a “poor unfortunate soul”? To begin, stop accepting that life for yourself and your students. If you’re miserable in your circumstances, just think how children or teens must feel! So beyond dramatically quitting (please don’t do this – it might feel good now but does little good for kids or for you), what other choices do you have?
A) Network & collaborate.
Whether or not you’re comfortable literally leaving your door open as an educator in your district, talk with others whom you sense are like-minded and work together to change the status quo. Respectfully voice your concerns as a group with administrators; have a strong rationale, connected to both your students and the research base. This usually goes far better than the few horror stories would have us believe. Experiences like those I’ve had when someone says, “That makes perfect sense; no need to continue” are far more commonplace but far less seldom told. “A teacher has a great conversation with administration from which they both left feeling heard and respected, and students are the beneficiaries,” is a far less sexy headline, but it’s a true story nonetheless. Worst case scenario, you don’t get what you want yet – or not all of what you want. But you’ll have at least made an effort and planted the seed for future dialogue.
B. Pitch it as a pilot program/trial period.
As this fantastic article on the woes of teaching with a script suggests, if you aren’t allowed to permanently change what you’re doing right off the bat, ask to work with a pilot group of students or to try the new approach for an agreed upon timeframe after which you’ll share data and discuss. Note: If you do any kind of research, please do not forget the qualitative piece. It’s one thing to look at immediate, easy-to-collect results like benchmark scores. It’s entirely another to talk with students about their experiences as learners within a particular pedagogy. If most students hate what they’re doing, it’s a pretty good sign a change could be needed. Conversely, I have seldom seen a whole group of students loving a portion of their school day in which they were not learning, particularly over a duration of time. Sure, that mythic teacher who shows a movie daily sounds great…until about a week has passed, and by then students are desperate to do anything that isn’t so passive. Plus, we can hardly claim to have an innovative space if we’re not willing to get off the beaten path for the needs of our students.
C. If other solutions don’t work, leaving is okay.
Repeat after me: “I do not need to feel guilty for leaving a job that isn’t serving my well-being.”
I’ve watched way too many teachers completely burn out because they felt so bad even considering leaving a stifling space. Of course you love your students, and that’s admirable. But you’re also a professional who deserved to be treated as such. And children anywhere you go need a committed teacher. If you’ve tried in multiple ways over time to change the status quo and have made no headway, there is no shame in seeking a new space that will let you flex your creative professional and intellectual muscles. Like many abilities, if we cease to use them, they can atrophy. And that doesn’t serve anyone well.
If your worklife is contributing to inordinate stress or you find that you’re seldom looking forward to your workday, it may be time to find a new place of employment – not outside of education, but in a space that honors and supports creative, caring, effective teaching. That is the kind of work that energizes, rather than drains.
D). Teach like the rockstar only you can be.
And my personal favorite, just teach like a rockstar every day and see how it goes (with your door open or closed – whatever you can be bold enough to do). I literally do not know a single person who was fired for teaching well. I do know a few people (and I know many, many, many teachers—probably a few hundred at this point) who were made to feel unwelcome by an administrator, so they resigned at a time of their own choosing and went on to do good work (still in education) that they love elsewhere, and they are all the happier for it. And (bonus!) they can sleep at night knowing they tried to make things better in their previous space and that they’re doing good work in their current space. I don’t know a single person who was forced out of education or struggled to find a new job when they wanted it. I simply cannot think of a scenario in which a genuinely committed professional would not be able to find a job unless he were in a very small, very isolated area. My home state of Oklahoma, for example, is a fairly sprawling state. However, there are very few towns in which one would need to drive for more than 20 or 30 minutes one way to find new district leadership with whom to work.
And if you are worried, there are more creative, less overt ways to resist. For example, several years ago a friend in a neighboring state was told it was now mandated that all teachers in elementary schools would use the basal reader every day. Her mantra was, “I use it every day.” When friends who knew her too well to know that to be true raised an eyebrow she’d elaborate. “I do! It makes a wonderful door stop.” [And before I get letters, I have no hatred for basals or the teachers who use them. I just think we could have higher quality collections with broader representation for much less money if we skipped the basal…but that’s probably another post altogether.] She did occasionally use it, but only when it served her students well, as I would hope would be the case with any resource. Important note: She’s still employing this “use” of her basal, and she’s still gainfully employed in her district. Her administrators are happy because her students and their families are also happy; most parents just want to see their kids challenged to learn, and she does every day…with real books.
I’d certainly hope that at some point there would be enough dialogue between teachers and administration there that they could spend their precious resources on items for which the teachers conveyed a need. But until then, her students are going to continue to love reading and growing as independent readers and thinkers. Just like their teacher.
However we decide to respond to challenges in our respective careers as educators, it’s vital that we keep the kids’ needs in focus, be open to change, be flexible, and ultimately be willing to stand up for what kids need as well. Frankly, demanding the opportunity to be creative is even more important for our students than it is for us. If it’s visible to the children with whom we work that a teacher’s life is where creativity goes to die, not only is it the worst possible long-term recruitment plan into the profession we could imagine, it also has to be mind-numbing for the children with us every day, right now — which we know cannot serve their learning well. So really, in a sense it’s inherently student-centered to insist upon flexibility and creativity for ourselves as educators.
So here’s one area in which I can relate to all mer-people. Were they real, I’m 100% sure they’d be classified as vertebrates, and a backbone is a non-negotiable for an educator. And if teachers-as-vertebrates is not a welcome view in a particular space, teachers also have, “What do you call ’em? Oh…feet!”
We cannot fork over our professional integrity – or our voices – to teach.
Feature photo credit: Jeremy Bishop.