A while back when I started this blog I felt there were some things to say that didn’t seem to be getting much attention. Additionally, I found that writing helped me organize and clarify some of the jumbled thoughts and feelings that I’ve been having about the direction of education, as well as the ways I had been responding to that direction. An additional benefit was that, in doing research for the pieces that I’ve published here, I’ve found a number of exceptional voices trying to shine a light on what has become an increasingly politicized, monetized, and privatized national agenda.
If you have found some resonance with the thinking I’ve shared here in this blog, I urge you to subscribe to the blogs of Jan Resseger and Will Richardson. I continue to be inspired by the thoroughness of their work and the quality of their thinking. Today’s piece is inspired by recent posts by both of these insightful and articulate voices.
I’m sure that many of you recall a line from the introduction to your history textbooks and exhortations from teachers that went something like…“We study history so that we may learn from the mistakes of the past and avoid repeating them in the future”.
I hated that thought as a student and didn’t like it much more as a teacher. I reasoned that the mistakes of the past were made by men far more powerful than I and it was unlikely that I was ever going to be in a position important enough to have the chance to avoid repeating them. But life experiences have a way of intruding on our earlier explanations. While facilitating retreats for teenagers and adults. I recall hearing the saying attributed to Native Americans…”Some people are born blind and die drunk.” It was a call to develop the habit of self reflection for it was only through this introspection that we might grow in awareness and avoid a “drunken” death. Part of my own self-reflections brought me back to that history quote.
And the connection is?
For me the connection is that my assessment of my own power to learn from the mistakes of the past and to avoid them in the future was seriously flawed. It was not only the mistakes of the rich and powerful that shaped history. It was also the silence of others. The silence of others throughout history is understandable. It was/is frequently related to the busyness of survival, the energy required to do one’s job and just stay alive. Not infrequently it was/is also related to fear – fear of reprisals, fear for one’s job, fear of being different.
We are where we are today in our chosen vocation because we have been too silent. Regardless of the attempts of some “reformers” to call into question your commitment, dedication and skill, you have chosen a noble profession. You have worked diligently and tirelessly. I have seen this commitment, dedication, and skill in schools I have visited throughout the country. You have tried your best to do better the things you learned and were taught about helping young people. You have been diligent and, often, courageous. But you have left the direction of the education of our young people to others. Others who have more time, more money, and an inflexible belief system.
In one of my next posts I will write more about Will Richrdson’s recent piece on the distinction between the words “I can’t” vs. “I won’t”. But, for now, just consider this possibility. Too frequently, we have used the words “I can’t” as a response to calls for change or even to our own inner voices calling for such change… I can’t focus on soft skills, I have to prepare my kids for PARCC. I can’t alter the curriculum, the state department has mandated what I teach. I can’t eliminate grades, the local school board, principal, superintendent won’t allow it. I can’t champion a kid’s right to get credit for things learned outside of school, etc. etc., etc.
Richardson asks us to consider the likelihood that what we are really saying in such situations is “I won’t” focus on soft skills. I won’t change the mandated curriculum. I won’t speak at the local meeting of the board of education to support less testing. I won’t help kids get credit for learning that happens outside of school, etc. I’m too comfortable, I’m too stressed. I’m too busy. I’m too fearful…
Until we change “I won’t” to “I can and I will” we, too, will prove the validity of that rationale for the learning of history in the intro of the history textbooks. We will continue to condemn ourselves to repeat what we believe to be wrong.
In her recent post, Jan Resseger provides a concrete step to help us move beyond the mistakes of the recent past. She notes that most states will now be holding hearings on the implementation of the new ESSA legislation. She challenges teachers, school leaders, and parents not to rely on their state organizations to make the case for change.
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) demands that states come up with their own accountability plans which they must submit for approval to the U.S. Department of Education. What this means is that there is a window for change, but it must bubble up spontaneously across the 50 states. If public school supporters are to achieve any kind of policy that is more supportive and less punitive, we are going to have to organize and begin working for long-term change in the culture of punitive, test-and-punish accountability that has been normalized over the past two decades.
It is time for those of us who recognize that the current reform movement is creating the wrong future for education in our country to act. We may not be as eloquent as Resseger or Richardson but this doesn’t make our voices any less important. It is precisely our voices, one by one, and joining collectively in concert, that can stop the repetition of past mistakes and help avoid continuing them into the future.
Make your voice heard. Check your state department of education’s website for information about the dates for scheduled testimony.