I recently read David Bowles’s viral Twitter thread on why “modern education is a failure” (it’s not new, but it’s making the rounds again), and I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s not that I necessarily disagree with him. I don’t have a doctorate in education, but even I know that schools were designed to create worker bees and not free thinkers. That’s a huge problem and it deserves to be brought up. But if, in the same breath, you’re also telling teachers that they are “breaking the souls of children,” then we’re having the wrong conversation. If you really want to effect change, don’t shame teachers. Empower them.
Recognize how hard it is to break the wheel
It’s a real challenge to not to teach how you were taught. Just ask any parent trying not to become their own. It’s especially hard when our teacher preparation programs haven’t prepared us to do this. (And the sheer number of things teachers don’t get trained to deal with is astounding. “How to Comfort a 9 Year-Old Vomiting Licorice” is not a course most colleges offer.) I always thought of myself as a progressive teacher, but I fell into a pattern of giving weekly spelling tests and even participated in a Thanksgiving program that made me cringe because it was “the way we’ve always done it.” So yes, there is a lot perpetuation of ineffective strategies and broken systems, but it’s not a death sentence on education. Here’s why.
Trust that when we know better, we do better
Thank you, Dr. Maya Angelou, for empowering us. We don’t have to know everything to do good work. We are constantly learning, and we absolutely respond to what research tells us. When research told us that the impact of homework on young learners was nil, we dropped it. I recently worked with a school staff who was having a first conversation around intersectionality, and I watched as 70 educators brainstormed ways to provide windows and mirrors and dedicated themselves to implementing an anti-bias approach. Does change take us a hot minute? Yes. Are there still sticklers? Yes. But don’t lump us all together. Most of us are in education because we are lifelong learners and want to inspire our students to be the same. Unfortunately, we’re not the ones making a lot of the decisions.
Give teachers more control
I think Bowles is spot on when he says, “The key strategies we’ve discovered, driven by cognitive science & child psychology, are quite regularly dismissed by pencil-pushing, test-driven administrators.” My solution? Give teachers more autonomy. Listen to what we’re saying about standardized testing. End the madness of scripted curriculum, relentless pacing guides, and posting of learning targets. Let’s rethink what constitutes achievement and bring back the magic of learning at all grade levels. Let us do what we know how to do: assess the knowledge and skills of our learners on an ongoing basis and design a flexible curriculum around their unique needs and interests. Will we need guardrails for accountability? Sure. But treat us like professionals. Believe me, we’re tired of being underestimated.
Give teachers more respect
Why aren’t we doing that to begin with? Because, as a society, we don’t respect teachers. And frankly, posts like this don’t help. We’re already called lazy, blamed for mask mandates (or lack thereof), and subjected to humiliating evaluation processes. And now you want to tell us that kids aren’t learning anything from us? Woof. In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re not in charge (see my last point). We’re doing the best we can. We always have, and we’re your best chance at disrupting this system. But keep it up, and there won’t be any of us left to do the work. And that’s a problem.
Remember that a lot of kids need us
If you want to unschool your children, more power to you. Dismantle capitalism? Go for it. But that’s not going to happen tomorrow. And in the meantime, teachers and schools are providing a safe haven for many students whose families can’t pull them out to deschool them. For many children, school is the one place where they can be themselves and where teachers are the caring adults that make a difference for kids with adverse childhood experiences. We still need schools (unless you’re also going to solve how we are the safety net for all of society’s ills). So let’s fix them. And while we’re at it, let’s let the teachers lead.
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