I received a message recently that speaks to a tension I've felt for some time as a writer. I will call the writer Jonathan, as this is the pseudonym he preferred:
Dave, I love your stuff and I really enjoyed reading [your post “Tough Minds, Tender Hearts.”]
I totally buy what you're saying here, and I'm trying to live it in my daily life at an urban middle school in Massachusetts. I want to be here, to stay here, and be impactful for my kids.
However, don't we also need to push for changes and improvements in how our schools are run so that teachers don't have to do so many mental and spiritual gymnastics just to try and keep themselves in the classroom year after year? Does it really have to be like this? And is it always just up to the teacher to figure out how to balance the boat and resist all the terrible things foisted onto teachers today that don't have to do directly with student flourishing? Perhaps I'm just missing that in your approach, but I would love to hear more about teacher-driven reform and teacher-driven policy change in addition to sharpening our minds and spirits to stay in the trenches against the odds.
Does that make sense?
Thanks for all you do and write,
I found this to be such a thoughtful note, and so in synchrony with some of my own thoughts and doubts about the approach I take here on the blog and in my life as a teacher, that I wanted to give it a blog post.
1. Jonathan's question is a good one for a few reasons
One reason that Jonathan's question is a good one is that it forces me to return to what is most essential about my work. To use language from These 6 Things, What is the Everest of this blog? What is its goal?
Right now, I think the goal of my work is to promote the long-term flourishing of teachers, that there might someday be flourishing, professional educators in every school in the world. It's taken me some time to be comfortable with that because it's a line that doesn't mention students at all. But the thing I can't escape is that flourishing teachers are best at promoting the long-term flourishing of young people. Flourishing teachers — and when we say flourishing around here, it's rooted in Marty Seligman's PERMA framework — are engaged, driven by a sense of meaning and improvement and achievement. They are buttressed by a network of supportive relationships. They tend toward creating inner conditions of optimal pressure, and so they just do better work.
There's a line I always return to, shared with me by my longtime colleague Jennie Jones, who in turn learned it from her mentor Nancy Spencer, that goes like this: “Great teachers have great lives.” What I'm saying is that I do find that this tends to be true. (Just remember that all great lives are far from perfect; don't get down on yourself.)
And this brings us to another reason that Jonathan's question is so good. If my goal is teacher flourishing, wouldn't at least a prong of the strategy be to promote teacher advocacy and reform and policy change?
Consider Jonathan's setting, where he's got an extended school day and all kinds of PD hours built into the year. First, the extended school day likely means that Jonathan teaches even more hours than the average American teacher, and the average American teacher teaches about 1100 per year (nearly double the Finnish number of instructional hours). And second, the mandated PD hours, which probably mean more pressure on Jonathan to come up with PD hours or more demotivating moments for Jonathan as he sits through PD ill-suited to his professional growth needs.
Wouldn't it be smarter for us to advocate against these kinds of conditions? For a version of school that is more humane, more generative of long-term teacher and student flourishing?
It's such a good question. I've often found my own thoughts returning to questions like it.
2. My answer to Jonathan's question is a weak one
The trouble for me is that in a system like the United States' — meaning one that every four or eight years is wrangled through another paradigm shift, and one in which state departments of education seem bent on compliance rather than critical thinking, and one in which administrators, district office personnel, and school board members are not required to be master teachers or wise philosophers or practical tacticians — I simply don't know how to enact this kind of change.
I am sure that with adequate research I could understand how education policies are created and shaped and enforced and modified. I could then determine the means through which we might best organize ourselves to try to enter into that policy-creation system and shape it in a way that makes it so that teachers didn't have to engage in “so many mental and spiritual gymnastics just to try to keep themselves in the classroom every year,” as Jonathan says.
So, why not do that? And here is where my answer is weak.
Basically, I have only so much time. During the school year, I've got about 15 hours per week to do everything not directly related to my classroom — writing, research, emails, management, meetings, and all the things. This constraint, which I think makes my work better much of the time, places very human limits on what I can presume to try to figure out. And so it is that I've not attended to policy much at all — not because it holds no interest to me, or that I find it devoid of promise, but because I don't think it's the best avenue for me to make my contribution to our field. Perhaps a day will come for it, but that day is far away.
So it is a weak answer, strictly in the sense that it's an answer of me saying I'm too weak — my time is too limited — to do much good in that area of research and work. My lack of knowledge means I would need to spend tons of time knowledge-building before I could even start thinking critically. There are some great people who devote 80 hours per week to their work in education. In my own life, I'm not inclined to do this as I feel it would be forsaking my wife and children and the community where I work and live.
And I suppose in that acknowledgment of weakness, there is a certain amount of strength, of the kind that come from clarity of purpose. And so it is that I thank our colleague Jonathan for his message, and I encourage anyone who has an itch to begin writing and researching, for 15 hours per week, in the direction of humane school reform and policy change, and how to enact those things in a system as presently demented as that of the United States.
Note: I'm currently creating an online learning experience about how to flourish regardless of teaching conditions. How do we live prioritized, balanced lives, especially when we find ourselves in the crushing circumstances of too much to do, too many expectations, and too little time? In the course, I'll share what I've learned through years of reading, research, and personal experimentation. The course will be schedule-friendly, all-online, and limited enrollment. Sign up for the waitlist here.