As a public school educator, I have always been keenly aware of the fine line I ride when using my voice to speak against the system that affects students. Though I taught for four wonderful years at River East in NYC (where teachers had similar educational visions), most of my teaching career has been within mainstream public schools. In most public schools, though some administrative visions are progressive, it is not true of an entire staff, nor the community served. It is generally more risky to speak of (what I see as) archaic rules within the system let alone, statewide standardized testing or general societal injustices (war, environmental issues, embargoes, etc.)
So, how to ‘safely’ stand up to authority or the system or, occasionally, colleagues in the name of what is best for my students without being written up in a document that may affect my evaluation as a teacher has been a dilemma -- however, I mostly seem to just do it without thinking.
The first time I remember using my voice was perhaps 25 years ago. Though this is a somewhat innocuous example, the situation was nevertheless tenuous as I was a brand new teacher. I was hired in October even though I was not yet certified because I was simultaneously studying for my master’s degree in education at Bank Street College of Education in NYC. I was hired to teach and, at the same time received regular, supportive visits from Happy Byers, my Bank Street graduate advisor.
So, here I was -- a first year Kindergarten teacher in a public school on the Upper East Side of NYC. The school was situated up the street from the Rockefeller Institute. In fact, because of the institute, this was perhaps the most diverse class I have ever had. It included a rainbow of NYC children (mostly poor, new immigrants with little English) mixed with middle class internationals. Ethnic groups and nationalities represented in the classroom included Pakistani, Indian, Irish, Salvadoran, Ecuadoran, Jamaican, Dominican, Puerto Rican, Ghanaian, Liberian, African-American and Asian-American as well as a child of Roma gypsies who lived in a room in the back of his mother’s fortune telling storefront and whose father was often away on business trading cars along the east coast. I also had several homeless children in the class who were bussed from the various mid-Manhattan hotels about which Jonathan Cool wrote in Rachel and Her Children.
The school was not in anyway a progressive school. My classroom was on the third floor; the cafeteria (in the basement) was also the gymnasium. The stairwells were fenced in with floor-to-ceiling grates; the playground was a small, rectangular blacktop mound of perhaps 60'x70'.
Few of the children in my Kindergarten classroom could read, some had not had much experience of being read to and several were just learning to speak English. I remember one of the homeless children, looking curiously at the tape recorder when first listening to a book on tape asking if a tiny man was living inside the black box.
There was a construction site just outside our third floor windows. Our room was noisy with the booming of demolition. The exciting action was in our faces so I took advantage and used the site as an educational tool. Along the 'observation deck' (our wall of windows) were chairs and milk crates for the kids to climb so they could watch the cranes, backhoes and other LARGE machines as they first demolished the standing buildings, then dug in the packed earth and later started to move and place huge iron beams. The students were fascinated. They made observation books of all shapes and sizes. In the learning center I set up they built their own neighborhood and construction center with blocks, cardboard boxes and other found objects of all shapes and sizes. Student signs, drawings and paintings with words they had either creatively invented or dictated describing their observations and thoughts hung around the room. Scattered in our classroom library were propped up books that focused on our neighborhood/building theme. Words to songs we sang were on charts in an array of colors. The students were engaged and excited. I couldn’t have asked for a better situation to be able to integrate play with science, social studies, language, reading and math.
I remember being so proud of the student learning and progress and was looking forward to my first observation by the school principal. He walked in on the scheduled day, spent perhaps 10 minutes observing, walked over to me (arms crossed over his chest) and exclaimed, "Your lesson of the day isn't written on the blackboard". I think my astonished gaze must have given away the fact that I did not fully comprehend his statement. I was incredulous. It was one of those moments and I blurted, "Why would I write my lesson plan on the blackboard in a roomful of students who are just learning to discern individual and clusters of letters?" He replied, "So I or another adult can walk in and know what is going on". I remember wondering if I was there to teach kids or the principal. "I would be happy to explain what is happening ... could you not come over and ask me what is gong on?... um, I’m happy to leave my plan book out for you. " The absurdity of his demand was now apparent to us both and I knew I had overstepped my bounds. The principal quickly walked out in a huff. However, he never returned to check out the board and, the incident was never mentioned in my evaluations.
I don't recommend my boldness for all first year teachers, however it is important that teachers ask hard questions of school board members, superintendents and principals. Though some in the educational hierarchy might like to deny it, teachers are professionals. We have studied child development, language acquisition, how to observe children, how to personalize learning and how to foster inquiry-based learning and critical thinking. We know that teaching year after year to standardized tests has dumbed our students down; that teaching to the test ultimately has societal consequences.
There are other stories I could have told. There were several years teachers in my rural Vermont school complained to my local school board because I strayed from the narrow curriculum to teach students multiple sides of issues, not just the mainstream point of view. I was chided for teaching students to recycle (before this became a mainstream practice), about climate change and to be environmental activists even though the rest of the world is in denial about our planet's condition. During the first few years after my return to Vermont, I felt the need to 'keep secret' my journeys to El Salvador (during its civil war), Nicaragua (during the contra war) and Cuba. My activism around issues of nuclear power, Palestine/Israel and climate change have been labeled controversial. Last year (even under a progressive administrator), I was even reprimanded for sending out information from Fair Test regarding No Child Left Behind over our school listserv as a teacher complained it was political.
Teachers in mainstream public schools often have divergent views on curricular and policy issues. Open dialogue about disagreements is not easy but it is one of the qualities that make a public education system rich. Being treated as a professional means being respected and trusted, not only by policy makers but school administrators and colleagues, to make the important decisions about curriculum in our classrooms; stray from the daily pattern because student interest has lead us to a teachable moment; and engage in potentially hard dialogue of divergent opinions. Being professional frees us to practice the art of teaching. Being professional should not negate teachers from being activists if we so choose.
The outcomes for boldness are not always bad. Though some of my colleagues (not all) and administration complained that it was "political", the local school board was appreciative to receive new information about NCLB and RTTT from Fair Test and other resources. In fact, now they use those resources and are better educated to make budgetary decisions and dialogue with the Vermont legislature.
It is not always ‘safe’ to stand up to authority, the system or, occasionally, colleagues in the name of what is best for my students however, I see it as a professional duty. Though I may cross the fine line when speaking about issues that others see as controversial, a community/society that thinks critically about all issues is worth the outcome.
Twinfield Union School
106 Nasmith Brook Rd.
Plainfield, Vermont 05667