An old friend recently asked me a rare but honest question. In discussing a difficult position I once held in public education, he asked me, “Do you feel that you were able to do any good?” After basically saying that I had been able to make some mild improvements but perhaps not the splashing change we might hope to create, he answered, “Well, it’s so important to try.”
Twenty-one years in what is often referred to as “the trenches” has yielded a career as diverse as the many students I’ve taught and adults with whom I’ve partnered. I’ve been a teacher, an administrator, and a “change agent” with the Kentucky Department of Education. Each step of the journey has both widened and sharpened my lens and the driving beliefs which shape my view.
I’ve always questioned the status quo. I believe that the best educators understand the complicit professional negligence of perpetuating things as they are. “Change”, that mantra of political campaigns, can be such a threatening word in the education world. A leader with vision is a gem; a teacher with an open mind and heart is a treasure. Such people do exist, and they work diligently, often against the hidden opposition of tradition, to ensure equal opportunities for all children.
It isn’t that schools purposely do a mediocre job of educating many students. And it isn’t that schools don’t do an excellent job of educating some students. It’s just that our profession is not immune to the same biases which exist in all other entities of our world. I have witnessed many absurdities. There was the time when a principal told me with a very straight face that the best way to ensure a positive school culture and climate is to start the year with a winning football season. There was the time when, after expressing that I might return to graduate school to obtain my principal certification, another principal said to me, “Well, the way things are going, if you’re a minority or a woman, you’ll probably have a chance.”
The underlying ignorance of such comments is slowly dissipating. And we have managed to become more focused in our efforts to teach all students to higher levels of achievement. However, there is still a long way to go toward moving everyone to the same vision of excellence.
In workshops that I lead across my state, I challenge current educators to embrace change. I ask them, “How many of you would trade your ipod for a simple cassette player? How many of you would shun medical advancements for the old ways out of a blind belief in tradition?” My questions are always met with knowing expressions of what comes next: “Why, then, is our profession so stubborn about embracing the need to change our habits and ways?”
Sometimes it works. Sometimes, it doesn’t. Will it matter in the long run? I hope so, because as my friend reminded me the other day, it’s so important to try.
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