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"Why Humanistic Teachers Get Fired: Because They're Stupid"

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That's the title of a lecture I attended as a graduate student, given by Ken Blanchard, the noted author of The One Minute Manager. I wish I'd taken it a little more to heart -- or brain -- at the time. Two years later, in my new position as a first-year faculty member at UC Santa Barbara, I wrote a letter to the editor of the school paper chastising the chancellor for his sexist opposition to the formation of a women's center. I was right. I was also stupid. A first-year, untenured faculty member publicly criticizing the chancellor is stupid. The next day, I was called on the carpet by my dean, who said, "How the hell could you do that?!" I learned -- the hard way.

My goal for teachers is to be able to work effectively toward bringing about positive change in their schools by learning to push boundaries effectively, without getting fired or, if tenured, without getting quietly punished. Change with survival is the goal. I really hate it when some excellent teacher acts in a politically stupid way.

Dead Poets Society Teacher as Bad Example

I'm sure many of you remember Dead Poets Society, the film about an exciting teacher who most viewers considered a hero. I loved that film when I first saw it. John Keating, portrayed by Robin Williams, played out all of my most radical fantasies about iconoclastic teaching. But the more I thought about the film over the years, the more I realized that Keating was in many ways a failure. He was a martyred hero. He had a great impact on one group of students and then got fired. He never built any relationships with fellow teachers, nor did he even try to create any rapport with his principal, although that would have been a real challenge. He also didn't keep his radical acts within his classroom, parading his students in public defiance. He might have influenced kids for years. Instead he changed nothing in the system of that school and was fired.

Pseudo-Innocent Teachers

The psychologist Rollo May, in his book Power and Innocence, talks about the dangers posed by individuals whom he describes as pseudo-innocents. There is the authentic innocence of a child, and then there is the pseudo-innocence of the adult who acts in ways that get punished through disregarding the impact of his or her behavior and then acting as a victim. I have a long mental list of dialogues with teachers who were furious with the way they were punished for actions they should have known in advance would elicit exactly the response that took place.

Teacher Power

I want powerful teachers, and I like Rollo May's definition of power as "the ability to cause or prevent change." But what's the path to that power?

I think one of the first goals for any new teacher is to thoroughly learn the social and political system of the school:

  • The norms
  • The unwritten rules
  • The power of teachers
  • The style, values and attitudes of the principal
  • The role of parents, the school board and the superintendent in making decisions

If you are a new teacher, you should spend time in detached observation. Take mental notes:

  • Who are the most influential teachers?
  • What behavior does the principal reward and punish?
  • What unwritten rules seem most important to teachers and administrators?
  • Who are the parents with the most influence on the school board?

Of course, this is just a sampling, but the main thing is to spend the time watching carefully. All teachers, new and old, should know this and have a clear political picture of the school and school system.

Before a teacher can even begin to push the envelope in terms of his or her teaching, that teacher needs to know what the envelope is. Decisions can then be made based on a clear assessment of the potential risks involved.

And any political and social change requires collective action. Go-it-alone heroes almost always end in defeat. By collective action, I'm not talking about a large group of teachers. As few as a half a dozen teachers working together, especially tenured and highly respected teachers who really know the system and understand how the game is played, can bring about significant change.

A Model from Politically Savvy Students

I actually learned about effective action from a small group of politically savvy students when I was teaching high school in the late '60s. Year after year, students marched in protest, usually in the spring. I don't even remember what they protested about, but whatever it was, the protests changed nothing. Then in 1969, a group of five students decided that they wanted students to have a voice in the decision making in the school. They wanted a student-faculty policy council. They quietly lined up allies who included two influential school board members, a number of the most influential parents, and the editor of the local newspaper. By the time they went to the relatively conservative principal, they had already painted him into a corner politically, and he acceded to their request. It didn't even need to be a demand at that point.

Let that be a lesson for all teachers. Those kids knew the system, knew how to play it, and were able to do it quietly. They sought change rationally, not emotionally.

Effective Change Without Fanfare

I want more teachers to be controlled radicals who work to bring about change, but who do it by using the norms of the system. The irrational rebel, usually highly self-serving and self-righteous, almost always fails.

Here's one more piece of advice. That effective group of student activists understood that parents and the press could be their most important allies. They also knew that the answer was in seeking out some school board members quietly, not making a big statement at a school board meeting.

My teacher heroes are all excellent teachers who helped or are helping to improve their schools, and like that group of students, usually quietly and without fanfare.

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Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Great Post, Mark. I, also have made several stupid career decisions, as you know. But fortunately they all, or at least most, ended up for the better. I was at that Ken Blanchard lecture and later he asked me to help him write a one minute teacher version, which I declined, thinking that teaching should never be thought of in such simple terms. I now teach a graduate course for teachers who will become change agents in their schools. I will use your post as required reading.

To paraphrase Lou Reed, Everyday as a teacher is the beginning of a new adventure. Let's hope that the great teachers last long enough to reach the middle and end of this great adventure. Your suggestions will help.

Ben K.'s picture

A new renaissance is on the horizon. I hope education is different for my kids and grandkids. As for business I feel that education has definatly become more of a buisness than to benefit the students. Not for everyone but the problem is buy-outs that I do not agree with. What is happening is companies are donating grants to colleges under the contract that they get political control over how the technology is used. What you find cannot be published without permission and we tell you what will be taught. This is happening a lot at the college level.

As for the Public school level I find the downfall is are kids are not being taught about life anymore. Let's plant garderns in our school, teach kids how to cook and grow gardens for themselves. Teach them the wonders of Astronomy. The way it's being taught are kids are being asked to repeat what they hear and if they get it wrong they are punished. This simply does not work. We are not robots. We are intellectual human beings which should and shall be taught so. I have hope for the future. As long as their are great teachers there will be great novices/students. A great teacher really makes the difference. I am a junior in high school and I have one of those great teachers. He has gotten me interested in astrophotography and gave me access to equipment I would of never dreamed of using because how much they cost. Telescopes that is. He spends every clear Saturday night with a group of students to look at the stars. School approved of coarse :D But it's really amazing what true education can do. we must wake up and see the future of this country.

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist

Thanks Rick.

It's an especially nice compliment coming from you.
I've been surprised by how many people have responded to me directly to share their own dumb school related political acts.
I'm so glad this will be of use to your and your students.

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist

Thanks for sharing your perceptive thoughts and story Ben.
It's also refreshing to find that some students are also paying attention to Edutopia!
Good luck with your own educational journey.
Have you thought about becoming one of those great, smart teachers? :-)

Beth Holland's picture
Beth Holland
Johns Hopkins University Doctoral Candidate & EdTechTeacher Instructor

Thank you, Mark!

I wish I had read your post in 1999 before my first year as an English teacher. Having no formal education in either English or Education, I felt foolishly qualified to teach based on having both watched and read Dead Poet's Society! Needless to say, I was not asked back for a second year.

It was only after a few years that I learned the technique of "preemptive-foot-in-mouth." When I knew that I was teetering on the edge of having pushed a boundary too far, I would leave a note with a mentor explaining that I needed help and then lock myself in my classroom until someone came and helped me gracefully back out of the situation. That may be another useful strategy.

This was a wonderful post, and you have some great recommendations!

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