“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom,it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Charles Dickens… Tale of Two Cities
Times are tough in public education right now. In back channel conversations, I hear many educators –administrators and teachers alike – express a troubling sentiment that the battles have just become so overwhelming it’s hard to keep coming back to work. Some of them long to return to the days when we could just “just close our doors and teach.” There’s a reason why, once upon a time, this phrase became a mantra among public educators. I suspect the phrase emerged when public education slid more deeply into a factory model; schools enlarged in size; and anonymity increased inside learning places as staff members and students grew apart.
Decades ago, in my first six months of teaching I first heard that catch phrase from an experienced teacher with whom I shared lab storage space. She was, fortunately for me, one of those “one in a million” teachers who both enthralled and related to learners. I learned from her the power of metaphor, story, and inquiry, not because I knew much of what was occurring in her classroom but because we co-sponsored an ecology club. I’ll never forget her describing the common mullein plant on one long-distance field trip. She began with a story of young Quaker girls rubbing their cheeks with it to simulate blush, which led to its common eastern name – Quaker’s Rouge. Then, for good measure, to make sure the boys didn’t lose interest, she shared a funny story alluding to its western name “cowboy toilet paper.” Then, she encouraged the kids to “try it out.”
She also taught me about the independent contractor model of teaching. It meant that she could perform just fine on her own. Any interference from peers and administrators inside the school or central office personnel outside the school was viewed as relatively irrelevant by her – more of the irritation of a mosquito buzzing that could be ignored than a bee sting that needed attention.
We educators know that independent contractors have existed in schools for a long time. They create their own worlds inside the classroom and school; instituting their own unique brands of order-disorder, control-freedom, or irresponsibility-responsibility as they, in isolation mostly, interact with those they were hired to serve. As long as they color inside the lines and know the unwritten rules of who not to offend, they can, for a career, exist pretty much on their own.
Reflecting back, I taught in a pretty isolated environment with little opportunity to learn from others. I needed to leverage significant commitment on my own part to study what were atypical expected practices in the day; use of mastery learning and Bloom’s taxonomy to plan units and assessments. I began to reach out and find others who felt similarly and we became, in some cases, lifelong critical friends. I learned alongside them what it takes to keep coming back to work in a career that’s never been easy, financially lucrative, or 9-5. Together, we supported each other to figure out not just what to do, but why we continued to do it over and over again.
I’m convinced that one of the most important actions we need to take means abandoning forever more the phrase “close your doors and teach.” It has no place in today’s contemporary learning spaces. It’s an isolating maxim we can ill afford to use. We’re at a pivotal moment in America’s educational history; a time of high tension that’s as great as any we’ve experienced in this nation. Today, we need each other more than ever to ensure that we don’t give up coming back to work.
This tension we all experience isn’t just about the politics that permeate educational decision-making; a kind of politicizing of education that’s gone far beyond reasonable governance under the United States Constitution, state codes, or local policies. It’s not just about the economics of bad business decisions that’s led to devastating losses of resources needed to educate our young people at a time when this nation needs to close gaps across schools, districts, and states, not widen them. It’s not just about the inequality of personal wealth that’s created a “haves and have-nots” schism unlike anything in this nation’s recent history. And, it’s not just a result of the 24/7 media preoccupation with market share that’s caused reporters to chase negative stories about education that in no way reflect the mainstream of teaching and learning occurring day in and out across America.
These are all symptoms of a much bigger problem. Indeed, we have become exactly what a system of scientific management by fiat set up public education to be – factory schools in which workers band together mostly for their protection rather than to engage in their profession. The unified impact of current-state politics, economics, class divides, media and educational institutionalization has supersized a national paranoia that threatens the Statue of Liberty schooling model that inspired many of us to enter teaching.
It’s no coincidence that first generation college graduates became the educational workforce of the last century, fueling the life cycle of public education. Many of us pursued educational careers because we aspired to become the teacher who helped us achieve our goal of becoming a college graduate.
Today, some among us discourage those we teach from considering the profession. Our own children watch us work and we hear them say “I’d never want to teach.” In the middle of the night, I ask, “How close are we as a nation to endangering the life cycle of public education by disrupting the flow of energetic, young people into our profession? What’ll be the impact of a workforce of temporary teachers stopping in for the short-term rather than being dedicated to a lifetime journey towards masterful teaching? Who will teach our children in the future?”
Now, more than ever, we educators need each other. We need each other to make sure we keep coming back to work; that we don’t quit. We need to learn from each other- new technologies, new strategies, and new ways of connecting with the young people we serve. We need each other to challenge the status quo, to question change, and to take responsibility for the critical shifts we must make to advance our work.
We also need each other not just for inspiration and to reach our own career aspirations but, most importantly, to act together on behalf of all the young people who depend on us for inspiration, to reach their own aspirations, and to sustain their hope for the best of times as they journey toward their own futures.
We educators live in a crucible of heated discontent right now. We’ve for sure created some of the heat ourselves. It’s also generated by variables we don’t control. However, of this I am certain, there is nothing more powerful than the work we do. Now more than ever, we must open our doors and learn to talk with each other. We must maximize our professional voice in every forum available to us. We must remind each other and every community in this country that educators still keep alive the “spring of hope and season of Light” for all of America’s children. We’ve “everything before us.” It’s our story. It’s our nation’s cycle of life.
It’s why I #blog4reform.