“You have to be pretty strong to say this is what I want to do. It’s felt like we were pushing against a wind pushing at us…and still we felt our own power. We are driven to teach kids well.” Sandy Selzer. Elementary teacher.
I sit with five young teachers on the patio of a restaurant in a trendy section of Denver. Today was to have been the final day of professional development for the year—a celebration of the learning that had occurred in their classrooms and the beginning steps for the future. They had clearly articulated their beliefs about learning and instructional practice after reading research and watching demonstration lessons. They had developed a skill set of best instructional practices. They had used multiple assessments to document student learning and developed their plan for the next year. This group of teachers had shown no limits to their willingness to do whatever was required to address the diverse needs of students in their besieged school.
Now, they are struggling. They have been informed that because the students’ scores on the state test did not show adequate increase, their school will be closed or reorganized, their principal will definitely be transferred and a prescriptive instructional program will most likely be put in place for the following year.
Their faces usually radiated optimism and determination but today sitting on the harshly bright patio, they are clearly terrified for their students and for their jobs. The sharp divide between the excitement and hopefulness of the previous week’s meeting when we had created a concrete plan for continued improvement, with the abyss they saw ahead, was humbling. I look at them with foreboding.
They consider their options, speculate about transfers to other schools or even leaving the profession. I do not want these teachers to be lost to the children who need them nor do I believe they should sacrifice themselves to a lost cause. Instead of instructional strategies and goals for professional learning, in this meeting, they need to talk about power, influence and politics.
In our zeal to improve instruction, to explore best practice in teaching and the possibilities for learning, we had forgotten that our efforts are part of a bigger picture. And now that bigger picture is looming over us. (Pathways: Charting a Course for Professional Learning. Larner. 2004).
When I wrote my first book, an educator I respect and admire commented to me about how I was trying to get along rather than pushing harder on the system. At that time in 2004 and all the years since, I believed the most I could do was help everyone keep doing the best we could in a system I could not see how to impact.
On this 321st day of my experiment to post something positive, hopeful, possible for 365 days, I am questioning that belief. The contrast of the big picture with my brief posts gives me pause. I don’t believe that it is helpful for me to add stories of the troubled system yet I cannot in good conscience deny the context in which I seek these small moments of great teaching, transformative learning, inspiring quotes and stories.
What are the right actions to take in these times?
“I am reminded again of why Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about compromise in July 2011: “important to always remember that compromise, whatever its virtue, isn’t an abstract concept. It’s the compromising of the lives of actual people.” The Atlantic firstname.lastname@example.org 7/29/11.
I am watching actual people suffer. What can I do?