In a recent post, I wrote some advice for teachers who try hard but feel hopeless, and part of that advice was to speak truth to power (meaning that, when an issue is important enough, we owe it to our students and our colleagues to tell our administrators what we see).
Many teachers are afraid to [speak truth to power] or intimidated for a variety of [reasons] – being reprimanded, losing their job, not being understood or heard, etc. What advice do you have for overcoming that fear?
While I did try to answer Marianne’s question as best I could in the comments, her question touches upon something I’m pretty passionate about: having a career that ripples.
Key #1: Defining impact in schools
I entered teaching because I wanted to positively impact as many peoples’ lives as I could, and I thought, “How better to do that than to have multiple legally mandated captive audiences every day?” (If you’re new here, that’s humor.)
But as Year 1 turned into Years 2, 3, and 4, I started to wonder: what exactly does it mean to have a positive impact on students?
Is it about being well-liked by the students? Is it making their test scores go up? Is it getting them all to love reading?
These questions drove me to an even broader question: what are schools for? There are lots of answers to that question, but I wanted one that was robust enough to withstand my shortcomings and complex enough to study for the rest of my life.
I settled on a single, driving definition of impact:
I have had an impact on a student if I promote his or her long-term flourishing.
Similarly: Schools exist to promote the long-term flourishing of students.
I say “long-term” because I was too prone in my early career to settle for less. I used to get all happy when a kid said, “I like reading now.” I mean, that’s awesome — loving reading is awesome — but what really matters to me is if the kid loves it in five years, and even more importantly, has that love for reading had a positive impact on her life? Short-term impact feels nice — in many cases it feels better than long-term impact because you often get credit for short-term impact and you often don’t for long-term impact — but it’s not what I’m after. I want to contribute to the long-term of a kid’s life. Some call that quixotic, and frankly, I agree. At the same time, I can’t imagine going to work every day striving for less.
I say “flourishing” because it’s so much bigger than test scores. Tests that measure cognitive ability aren’t illegitimate — too many teachers are quick to decry standardized tests because of all the baloney of accountability and politics attached to them — but they also aren’t all-knowing indicators of whether a kid will develop a good life. Flourishing gives me room to play with things like character strengths, Dweck’s growth mindset, Tough’s non-cognitive skills, Conley’s key learning skills and techniques, Coplin’s “skills employers want,” and even the occasional sports metaphor. It lets me paint a vision of school for kids that doesn’t exclude anyone because flourishing is about figuring out your calling as a human and then doing those things with all you got. Police officers and plumbers and presidents can all flourish.
Finally, I say “promote” because teaching a group of kids is kind of like getting to be a part-time steward of a bunch of gardens for a year. My job is to promote the flourishing of the kid/garden: I pull weeds, I water, I prune, I fertilize, I provide access to sunlight, all that good stuff that I’m not that good at in real life. And at the end of the year, I hope I’ve “furthered the progress” of those gardens; I hope that my non-freaked out approach to literacy has made them better readers, writers, thinkers, speakers, and people.
The problem many teachers have with this vision of teaching is that it’s not glamorous. Many of the teacher movies depict teachers who have that crazy powerful impact in one year — you know, the kids nail the big, mean test or overcome the bullies, things like that — and then they get recognized for it with a party or an award or a letter from Hard to Reach Kid. We laugh, we cry. Ah, Hollywood.
But I think such a vision is the only one that can get us engaged in the kind of deep, sustained thinking that will make us better and stronger and more joyful teachers with each passing year. It makes us resilient when weathering hard years, difficult administrators, and opportunistic politicians.
In short, when we pursue the long-term flourishing of our students, we happen upon our own long-term flourishing as well.
In my next post, I’ll lay out the next key to an impactful teaching career.
In the meantime, what do you think? Is the promotion of long-term student flourishing an adequate goal for teaching? (It’s also my goal as a parent.)