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Topic: Encouraging Educator Courage
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Jerry P. Becker

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Registered: 12/3/04
Encouraging Educator Courage
Posted: Sep 20, 2013 8:13 PM
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From Education Week [American Education's Newspaper of Record],
Wednesday, September 18, 2013, Volume 33, Issue 4, pages 28,32. See

Encouraging Educator Courage

By Alfie Kohn

Education research doesn't always get the respect it deserves, but
let's be honest: There's already enough of it to help us decide what
to do (or stop doing) on many critical issues. Likewise, there are
plenty of examples of outstanding classrooms and schools in which
that research is being put into practice. What's lacking is
sufficient courage for those examples to be widely followed.

It pains me to say this, but professionals in our field often seem
content to work within the constraints of traditional policies and
accepted assumptions-even when they don't make sense. Conversely, too
many educators seem to have lost their capacity to be outraged by
outrageous things. Handed foolish and destructive mandates, they
respond only by requesting guidance on how to implement them.

The Cowardly Lion was able to admit that he lacked what made the
muskrat guard his musk. Cowardly humans are more likely just to
change the subject. Propose something that makes a meaningful
difference, and you'll hear, "But we've always ...," "But the parents
will never ...," "But we can't be the only school in the area to ..."

What, then, do truly courageous educators do? They dig deeper, they
take responsibility, and they share power.

Digging deeper. It requires gumption to follow one's principles
wherever they lead. One may hope, for example, that children will be
lifelong learners. But what if evidence and experience tell us that
interest in learning declines when students are graded and made to
work on academic assignments at home? Are we willing to question any
traditional practices-including grades and homework-that interfere
with important goals?

Advanced Placement courses often just accelerate the worst kind of
lecture-based, textbook-oriented instruction. They're "rigorous," but
that doesn't mean they're good. When it was reported that Scarsdale
High School in New York joined other schools in deciding to drop all
AP courses, an administrator at a nearby school circulated the
article to his colleagues under the heading "Do we have the guts?"

To dig deeper is to ask the root questions: not how many AP courses
kids should take, but whether to replace the College Board's
curriculum with our own; not how much homework to assign, but why
kids should have to work a second shift every evening; not how to
grade, but whether to do so at all.

Even when practices seem to be producing good results, a courageous
educator questions the criteria: "Wait a minute-we say this policy
'works,' but doesn't that just mean it raises scores on bad tests?"
"My classroom may be quiet and orderly, but am I promoting
intellectual and moral development, or merely compliance?" "Aren't
our graduates getting into prestigious colleges mostly because
they're from affluent families? Are we helping them become deep and
passionate thinkers?"

Taking responsibility. The path of least resistance is to attribute
problems to those who have less power than you. It's much harder to
respond the way a San Diego teacher did (when she wrote several years
ago in these pages): "If a child starts to act up, I ask myself: 'How
have I failed this child? What is it about this lesson that is
leaving her outside the learning? How can I adapt my plan to engage
this child?' I stopped blaming my children."

We have to be willing to fight for what's right even in the face of
concerted opposition. Maureen Downey, a reporter for The Atlanta
Journal-Constitution, wrote several years ago about how tough that
can be in a culture where those "who speak up when they believe their
students' welfare is at stake, and who question the system, earn the
label of troublemaker." Lots of principals, she added, are "too cowed
to practice 'creative insubordination.' "

Parting with power. It takes guts, not just talent, for a teacher to
lead students beyond a predictable search for right answers-and to
let them play an active role in the quest for meaning that replaces
it. That entails not only accepting some unpredictability and
messiness but also giving up some control.

A teacher in Washington state was proud of herself for having posted
this sign at the front of her classroom: "Think for yourself; the
teacher might be wrong!" But gradually she realized that her
classroom wasn't really learner-centered. "I wanted [students] to
think for themselves," she confessed in a journal article, "but only
so long as their thinking didn't slow down my predetermined lesson
plan or get in the way of my teacher-led activity or argue against my
classroom policies." It takes courage to admit one hasn't gone as far
as one thought.

I've met teachers who took a deep breath and let kids choose their
own final grades, who tried out a no-homework policy to see what
would happen, who stopped decorating the classroom by themselves and
instead invited the kids to decide collectively how they wanted their
classroom to look.

I've also met administrators who facilitated democratic
decisionmaking among the staff instead of merely trying to get "buy
in" to decisions they'd already made, who invited teachers to run
faculty meetings on a rotating basis rather than controlling all the
meetings themselves, who suddenly realized that much of their airy
talk about "responsibility," "citizenship," "character," and
"motivation" really just amounted to euphemisms for obedience.
SIDEBAR: "Too many educators seem to have lost their capacity to be
outraged by outrageous things."
These days, the greatest barrier to meaningful learning is the
standards-and-testing juggernaut-top-down, corporate-style mandates
that are squeezing the life out of classrooms. This, therefore, is
where courage may be needed most desperately. I'm heartened by
teachers-most recently in Seattle, but before them in Colorado,
Massachusetts, and Illinois-who have refused on principle to
administer standardized tests. ("How can I teach my kids to stand up
for what they believe in if I'm not doing that myself?" asked one
Chicago test boycotter.) And by the Michigan high school teachers who
rejected the reductive focus on numerical "data" in the standard
version of "professional learning communities" in favor of a
teacher-designed initiative to focus on what students need. And by
hundreds of Florida teachers who returned their bonus checks for
having produced high test scores. And by the New York superintendent
who told me "it's time for civil disobedience"-and then worked to
create an alternative diploma that wouldn't be based on high-stakes

I understand how real fear keeps more of us from doing what we know
should be done. I don't want to blame the victims, or minimize the
culpability of those who pass bad laws. But if every educator who
understood the damage done by those policies decided to speak out, to
organize, to resist, then the policies would soon collapse of their
own weight. Many teachers and administrators debate whether to do so,
or struggle with whether to respond to students' interests rather
than conform to prescriptive state (or national) standards. They know
the risks, but they also realize that Jonathan Kozol was right:
"Abject capitulation to unconscionable dictates from incompetent or
insecure superiors can be contagious."

It takes courage to stand up to absurdity when all around you people
remain comfortably seated. But if we need one more reason to do the
right thing, consider this: The kids are watching us, deciding how to
live their lives in part by how we've chosen to live ours.
Alfie Kohn is the author of 12 books on education and human behavior,
including Feel-Bad Education (Beacon Press, 2011). His next book, to
be published in early 2014, is The Myth of the Spoiled Child:
Challenging the Conventional Wisdom About Children and Parenting (Da
Capo Press). His website is
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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