“So what do I do?”

A comment posted on my recent blog, Verboden!: Autonomy and Critical Thinking in Education, deserves a careful reply:


So what do I do? I want to teach practical skills and meaningful texts. I am instead faced with 50 year old texts in the book room, a list of goals and targets (fewer than 10% failures, increased graduation rates by more than 10%, 40 standards with subets) and the fear of retribution and firing if I stray too far from the mandated curriculum. I just want to teach students to trust the power of their voices when my own voice is silenced by bureaucracy and mandates, meetings and condescending professional development that adds another target (5 phone calls home per week). I read and believe your words, but what do I do? How do I change the world? One student at a time? Another 12 hour day?

Let me offer first some context.

Although I am a tenured full professor, I taught public high school English for 18 years in a right-to-work (non-union) state, and have witnessed the powerlessness of being a teacher in that state through my role in teacher education for these on-going past 15 years.

Yes, K-12 teachers nationally are de-professionalized more and more each day, and throughout the South, where non-union states dominate, teachers are even more silenced and powerless.

However, I do believe there are many ways teachers can claim and expand their professionalism.

Broadly, teachers must resist at all costs fatalism, a call by Paulo Freire I believe is foundational to claiming educators’ professionalism.

Now, then, let me address “So what do I do?”:

  • Take stock of how much of your professional and personal energy is being spent on being a professional and how much is drained by being a martyr—and then stop being a martyr. Especially for K-12 teachers, I advocate the Henry David Thoreau dictum about ours is to do something of value, but never to do everything. Too often, teachers are compelled to martyrdom, which erases all of our energy and is a cancer on our professionalism. Every teacher must take stock of her/his professional practices, and eliminate those that are time and energy draining with little to no positive instructional outcomes. For example, marking extensively on student work, and then not requiring students to respond in some substantive way to those comments is an act of martyrdom—a waste of professional time that produces an artifact of your spending time, but doesn’t benefit either you or your students.
  • Identify and evaluate a very detailed and specific list of those obligations over which you have no control and those aspects of your teaching over which you do have control. This is a useful exercise for individual teachers, but it is even more powerful if conducted as a department or grade-level team. For example, in a graduate course once, when I rejected teachers giving spelling tests, a teacher challenged my stance because, as she explained, “I have to give a spelling grade on the report card!” I asked if any mandates existed for how she determined that grade, exposing that she did have autonomy over the how, and thus, we discussed pulling spelling grades from original student writing. To often, I fear, due to understandable feelings of fatalism, we teachers think we are powerless when we in fact have options. A detailed inventory is an effective way to make these distinctions real.
  • Forefront in your day and planning those aspects over which you have power, and then determine professional strategies for advocating change in those obligations over which you have no current power. Daily, make as your first priority your empowering work as a teacher; do that over which you have control first and give your professional self that positive daily inoculation. Designate brief blocks of time for your compliance to mandates, and stick to that schedule. And then, waste no time fretting about those things over which you have no control.
  • Brainstorm with colleagues more authentic ways to comply with inauthentic mandates. Teachers, I believe, can attack those things about which we have no control—such as standards and high-stakes testing—through stepping back from the mandates and asking if there are alternatives to how to comply. One excellent example is resisting making test-based writing the entire writing curriculum, and instead, making prompt-writing one of the ways in which we teach writing; in other words, embedding prompted, test-based writing late in a more authentic writing program so that we do prepare students for the tests, but also remain true to authentic writing and student voice/autonomy. Also, when mandates are unpacked by a department or grade level team, re-imagined by the department/grade level, and then implemented in ways endorsed by the practitioners, these mandates become tools of professionals instead of de-professionalizing teachers.
  • Cultivate communities of empowerment and advocacy for expanding your professional autonomy. Teachers have historically and are currently often victims of the divide-and-conquer approach to management. The antidote to that is community—and for teachers, even more important is professional community. Start close and move outward: department/grade level professional communities; local, state, and national professional organizations. Now, let me emphasize here that cultivating communities of empowerment must not become an act of martyrdom (see above); I am not suggesting adding on to your professional commitment, but am arguing for re-evaluating your professional time so that you commit segments of time to more professionalism but less overall time to your work day.
  • Create advocacy roles for yourself that suit your own strengths and comfort with advocacy. Many years ago while I was a co-leader for a local chapter of the National Writing Project, I mentored a beginning teacher who struggled with her administration over implementing best practice in teaching writing to her elementary students. These were tense times since the young teacher feared for her job, but believed the school mandates were ineffective and even harmful to her students’ learning. She regularly shared with her principal and colleagues the wealth of professional literature on the practices she chose over the mandates and gradually built a case for what she was doing with her students—even though parents also challenged her practice. No one model works for every teacher, and certainly some aspects of being political pose real dangers for K-12 teachers. Yet, change necessary for greater teacher professionalism and autonomy can result only from teachers who are advocates and political. From blogging and Twitter to participating in professional organizations to implementing practices in your classroom to use as models for change in your school—advocacy and being political are necessary for teacher professionalism.
  • Expand your role as teacher beyond the classroom to parents, the community, and the public. We are teachers, but our power as teachers is not restricted to the classroom. One of the best avenues for helping change our profession is through building greater understanding and support among the parents of our students, the community we serve, and the wider public. Daily conversations outside school; regular newsletters to parents about best practice; letters to the editor or Op-Eds in local, state, and national forums; blogging and other social media dedicated to our work as professional teachers—these are ways in which we can teach beyond the walls of our classrooms.
  • Check your practice and refuse to scapegoat anyone else for your practices. Ultimately, as educators, we must behave professionally, even as we are not treated as or allowed to be professional. Any practice we do is our decision to do. It is neither healthy nor professional to argue that others make us do anything. If any mandate is harmful to children, we cannot comply. Period. If we do comply, we are implying we, in fact, admit it does no harm. While there is no requirement that teachers are perfect, we must adopt the professionalism we want guaranteed us.

Daily teaching and working toward greater teacher autonomy and professionalism are all very hard work—exhausting and stressful.

The path to greater teacher professionalism is build by teachers dedicated to teaching as a professional endeavor. The suggestions above, I believe, are some powerful ways to make this happen while also not sacrificing any teacher along the way.

And so I return to Henry David Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience” with my small edit: “A [teacher] has not everything to do, but something; and because [she/]he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that [she/]he should do something wrong.”

In my fourth decade as a teacher, I believe the suggestions above help all teachers achieve these wise words.


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