My school district brought in educational speaker Will Richardson to address our staff, our administrators, our school board, and our community in four separate events last week. Mr. Richardson is an engaging speaker. He shared that after he spoke to the community (mostly made up of parents) one parent came up to him and said that he “scared the crap out of her.” I think he sort of liked that response (although he said that wasn’t his intent). Mr. Richardson made clear that his goal was to make all of us uncomfortable. His premise (and I apologize to Mr. Richardson if I get this wrong) is that schools are set up for the reality of learning styles and outcomes that were common over 100 years ago. He points out that students today basically have access to the sum of human knowledge in their pocket. He said that we are in the most exciting and scary time to be an educator in history. It feels as though he is right. He referenced the amount of online schooling that is taking place and he even suggested that the days when the path to a comfortable middle class existence was through a college diploma may soon be gone. He more or less told us that we had to change in order to meet the needs of our learners or we would become dinosaurs. It was an interesting presentation and it certainly made us think.
Mr. Richardson’s presentation was followed up by our superintendent following up the conversation with a panel of teachers (myself included) in front of the faculty discussing what we had just heard. It was a panel of some of our district’s finest teachers (short of me, who was the token representative of the related arts). The panel largely agreed that we are in a time of change, but I sensed that the panel was telling Mr. Richardson (and just maybe our superintendent) that teachers aren’t adverse to change, we are just frustrated that change can’t/doesn’t happen faster. Mr. Richardson’s point that we are at a crossroads in education between the amount of knowledge that is available and how students best access that knowledge is an important one. The trepidation that teachers have is that our jobs still require us to get through our curriculum in a specific sequence. The Common Core (Iowa Core in my state) is a reality and we are expected to adhere to it. We continue to lose planning time and planning periods to take on more classes and have more meetings. I believe at least one of the messages that came to our superintendent from that panel was, “we’re ready to change dramatically if we know that we have the support of our administrators, board, and community”. The reality is that I don’t know if everyone is quite ready for radical change yet. The parents in our district understand our traditional system and sometimes balk at new ways of doing things. It goes back to the idea that parents want what is good for their kids, not what is best for their kids. In their minds, what is good for their kids looks a lot like what they believe was good for them. What might be BEST for their kids may look radically different and make everyone involved very uncomfortable because it might not work; it might even fail. In our panel I heard a lot about wanting to be assured that it would be OK to fail. You see, part of our problem is that me and my colleagues teach in an fairly affluent suburban district with pretty good test scores. We have something to lose. If we undergo radical change and we get it wrong, that’s a problem. Under the traditional system and playing by the rules as they currently stand, we do pretty well. It was a really interesting panel and it was interesting (as it always is) to hear teachers talk about teaching.
So, if we agree that schools have to look different and that learning needs to look different (and I don’t presume to believe that everyone agrees with that sentiment), how does it happen ? I have thought about that question a lot over the last two days. I can only come up with one answer; it is going to take a community of educators to enact real change. We will certainly need administrators who support real change in how and what we teach. We will need a school board who will stand with us as we overhaul our schools into something better. We will need a community that will be patient as we attempt to be bold and even make some mistakes. But, let me be clear, there will only be change if those of us in the classroom embrace the change. It won’t happen immediately, but it certainly will only happen if teachers spend time talking about how we create the best possible conditions for learning in our building. We need to be willing to make each other uncomfortable sometimes. Real change certainly involves how we use technology. Real change will involve moving from a paradigm where we tell students what they need to know to finding ways to make them curious to learn more about the things they are passionate about. Real change will involve flexibility in schedules and flexibility in how we assess our learners. Real change will require a lot of trust between teachers, administrators, school board members, parents, and students. That may be the hardest part, and yet it will be so necessary. If the community doesn’t trust teachers to change our schools then change is dead on arrival.
Throughout the last week or so I have had a variety of interesting interactions with people about school funding. In general the response has been very kind and very generous, but there has been an element of response that has been pretty negative. There are a lot of people in our communities who are angry about public education. I can’t quite figure out why, but they are angry. It seems to come down to the idea they perceive that teachers are overpaid, receive too many benefits, and get to spend our summers lounging in our vacation homes in warm weather climates. There are people who are just flat out angry about public schools in way that when I, as a 25 year veteran teacher with quite a bit of education, offers thoughts on how to improve our schools I am dismissed because I am “too close to the situation.” In what other field are the experts who have dedicated their schooling and their lives to a a profession so easily dismissed? My doctor proudly displays his MD degree in his office. I don’t immediately assume that he is “too close to the situation” to get a diagnosis from him. I assume that through his years of education and experience in the field that he is going to provide me with the best possible path towards better health. I don’t always follow his advice as I should, but I always assume he knows best. This should be true of educators as well. We, teachers, must become the face of education reform.
I truly believe that education will only change if teachers continue to expand their Professional Learning Networks and begin to have the confidence to know that, in large numbers, teachers want to reform education from the inside. There are lots of conditions that need to exist for this change to take hold and stick, but we are eager to be the change. Our legislators can talk or not talk to us. Our legislators can fund us or not fund us. Our legislators can try to break up our unions. Our legislators can try to slowly defund schools so that they can try to blame public school teachers for problems they perceive in order to advocate for more charter schools and more privatization. Our legislators can spend more time talking about education with the tourism industry than with teachers. Education will only change if we, as teachers, become a community of learners who are committed to making Iowa the best once again. We need to hijack the agenda. We need to shift the agenda from testing and funding and school start dates and steer it towards learning. How do kids learn the best? How can we deliver instruction in a way that really matters to the students who walk through our doors. The reality is that these conversations and the implementation of real change will take time and it will take resources. Things we don’t have in large supply. Yet, we begin the conversations now. We continue to build our professional networks and we talk about how to reform education in ways that only teachers can. We have sat on the sidelines of some of these conversations too long. What I have discovered in recent days is that we have to make our agenda clear to those in power. They want people to believe that our agenda is lavish salaries and luxurious summers. We need to make clear that our agenda is making schools better. Our agenda is changing the face of learning in Iowa. We need to make those in power uncomfortable when they realize that community of well educated and passionate educators aren’t going to rest until we stop TALKING about making Iowa’s schools “World Class,” and we begin MAKING Iowa’s school “World Class.” Let the Governor talk about “World Class Schools.” That’s he is able to do. We, as teachers, on the other hand have the power to CREATE “World Class Schools.” It is time to make that happen by building a coalition of teachers, administrators, parents, school boards, students, and community members who are eager to reform education in the right ways. We don’t need more tests and we don’t need more narrowly focused curriculum, we need to really get at the question of teaching our students to think and to be hungry to learn. That is the reform that will actually impact our young people. We can do it, as one large community of educators.
We also have to recognize that we live in the real world. Our community of educators needs to be politically active. We need to make clear to our legislators that we aren’t going to be silenced by lack of action, lack of a two-way dialogue, or by lack of funding. We are the state’s educational leaders and we are going to be heard. We will speak truth to our leaders and even if they enact inadequate funding and legislation that we know will not have a positive impact on education in Iowa, at least they can’t say that no one spoke up. We are speaking up and the educational experts of our state are ready to make learning in Iowa special. We are going to speak up for our schools, for our communities, and for our students. Iowa’s community of educators has to be ready to lead Iowa’s schools into the future. We have to begin to prepare our schools for the students who haven’t even walked in our doors yet. While our legislators stick to their scripts about “what we can afford,” we are going to offer our students what we have to give. I have been in contact with more Iowa teachers in the last two weeks than in I have in my whole career and I can tell you we didn’t become teachers to become rich, I can tell you that we are frustrated, but I can also tell you that we are confident we can make Iowa Schools better, we are passionate about our profession, and that we are ready to reform education in our state. The community of Iowa’s educators is not going to change our priorities just because our legislators won’t engage us in a real conversation and the community of Iowa’s educators is not going submit to the narrative that Iowa’s schools are bloated and filled with superfluous staff and programs. Iowa’s community of educators is going to reform education in Iowa, because we can and because we know it is what is right.