One piece of feedback I’ve been getting a lot lately that, in all honestly, I just don’t understand, is the people thanking me for being “brave” in my blog posts and Facebook updates about the school board.
To me, brave is when you’re afraid and you overcome it. Send me up on a ladder past six feet and see how brave I am. If I really, really have to, I can deal with it, but if my husband weren’t the one climbing up to decorate the house, we’d have no outside Christmas decorations. Now, he doesn’t love climbing a ladder leaning against a house from a garden held up by a retailing wall, either, so he’s the brave one.
I am not afraid to speak truth to power, and if I am not afraid, then doing it isn’t brave. In fact, speaking my mind and passing along common concerns is sort of a reflex action for me. I’m not sure I could stop myself. So as one who has pretty much done this forever, let me assure you guys, at least within the context of what’s going on in JeffCo, you can do it, too. There’s nothing to be afraid of.
As you all know, education “reform” has been a big thing since the 1990’s. We’ve been asked to keep track of so much data that none of it has any meaning anymore—no more than any individual drop of water means anything in an ocean. New regulations require so much that the district began an avalanche of new curriculum, new assessments, new interventions, new technologies, new evaluation systems for kids and teachers, and mountains upon mountains of documentation.
Everywhere I went, teachers were talking about how the workload of pointless crap was interfering with their ability to do their jobs. I wrote to our superintendent at the time, Cindy Stevenson, and told her of the negative effects of all this “reform.” Two things surprised me: First, I was shocked that she was shocked. She told me that she had been talking to teachers all over the district, and that by and large, they were happy. This didn’t fit at all what I was hearing, also from teachers all over the district. Second, I couldn’t believe how many teachers were stunned that I’d had the nerve to tell Cindy how everyone was feeling. I was so “brave.”
Nothing happened. I mean nothing. We kept juggling balls instead of being able to really devote ourselves to the work at hand. I didn’t get fired. My principal wasn’t disciplined. The world went on. Because I was one of a very few who would be honest, I looked like one of a very few who had a problem with the loads of useless tasks, so that didn’t change, but even though I looked like I had no backing, I suffered no retaliation.
We got a new curriculum, one that every high school teacher I talked to thought was horrible. I worked with the union, wrote a letter to the district curriculum developers, and asked teachers to sign it. Many did. Many were too afraid.
Nothing happened, at first. Those of us who signed were ignored. No action was taken on the curriculum; no action was taken against us. I will say this: The district quietly got out of our way. They didn’t exactly say we could stop doing the new curriculum. They just stopped trying to enforce it. Some schools stopped using it, and nothing happened (except that our students became better writers than the ones who’d been taught the “new” curriculum). Our principal was reluctant to flat out say, “OK, stop using it.” I made it very clear exactly how this was sabotaging our kids’ success in college and asked him whether he wanted us to serve the kids or the curriculum. “Tell me what to do and I’ll do it, but you know what the consequences to kids will be.” My principal didn’t exactly say yes or no; he just kind of stepped out of the way and trusted us to teach.
This year we had instructional rounds, where district folks observe classrooms to talk about ways the school can improve. It can be a valuable process, if everyone is honest. A big focus was on student-initiated learning. Getting kids to ask the hard questions and dig deep into material with less teacher guidance. In case you think this sounds like teachers aren’t teaching, it’s a shift. We are challenged to teach kids how to learn, not merely to learn what we teach. It’s exciting and important work.
A district leader wanted to know what we thought, and teachers mentioned that it is more time consuming than lecture. The district guy said we should take the time. I saw science and math teachers looking at each other with chagrin, but no one said anything. Since English had been ignoring our stupid curriculum for years, we are quite able to slow down and do this. Not so with science and math, and I knew it because I’d heard them voice their frustrations for years. “You can’t simultaneously expect them to keep up with frenetic pacing guides and slow down for student-initiated inquiry at the same time,” I told the district guy. “You either have to free them from the tight time constraints or keep letting them lecture.”
People couldn’t believe I would say something like that to a district administrator. Why wouldn’t I? It was the truth. If he didn’t like it, he’d better fix it. That’s his job. Was I disciplined? Called to the woodshed? No. (I have no idea what’s being done about the pace of science and math classes.)
I wrote our new superintendent last fall and took him to task for prevarication in his newsletter. I still have my job.
Not every principal is as supportive as the principals I’ve had, I know. And in all honesty, with this board majority and Dan McMinimee, principals may now have a very real concern about speaking truth to power themselves. They are much easier to fire. In DougCo, the principals who really watched out for kids were fired or their lives made so miserable they quit. This is why teachers, parents, and community members need to do it. (And this is why people need to stop bemoaning the idea that teachers are hard to fire. While I am certainly in favor of removing ineffective teachers—which isn’t as hard as you may have heard—kids need teachers to be able to advocate for them without fear.)
I realize that I have a number of advantages that make fearlessness easier: 1) I grew up in a faith that sees speaking truth to power, even to the point of personal sacrifice, as a sacred obligation. Leaders in my faith have died in concentration camps protesting the Nazis and faced dogs and fire hoses standing up for civil rights they already enjoyed by virtue of their skin color, but others did not. 2) I am married—not the sole breadwinner of my family. I am still paying college tuition, and my husband’s salary is comparable to mine, so we’re not rolling in dough, but it helps. 3) Technically, I can retire today. If I were to get fired, really I would retire, and while I wouldn’t get enough to live on, I could supplement that income with just about anything and get by. 4) (And my husband thinks this is the biggest.) It probably isn’t in the district’s best interests to fire me, in terms of PR. I have years of sterling evaluations. I have been deemed “highly effective” ever since the designation came to be. I have a years-long public record in my writings about how much I love my students and how passionate I am about ensuring a quality education for them. I have years of students, parents, and colleagues who would come to my defense. False modesty aside, I’m articulate as hell with years of debate experience, and if I were to be fired for speaking truth to power, I would be very, very public about what had happened. 5) I’m not afraid. No one can make me afraid.
Those of you reading this who are not district employees—parents, business owners, citizens of JeffCo, you are especially immune. No one can do anything to you.
The way I see it, those of us who can and are willing to step up must be the vanguard. But even those with reasons to fear can do more than they may realize. Never hesitate to share my blog or any of my public Facebook posts. I set those things to public for a reason. I write all of this on a blog that uses my name for a reason. Do not fear for me. And if 100 people share them, and 100 more after that, all those people make it harder and harder for anyone to act against anyone else. Really. Does this district want a headline that reads: “200 Jefferson County School employees fired for free speech”? Of course not! There is strength in numbers.
One last thing: If you think that li’l ol’ you can’t make a difference, I have two quotes for you:
“I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.” Edward Everett Hale
“Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” Henry Ford