In one of his Random Thoughts posts of several years ago, Professor Louis Schmier repeatedly used the metaphor "Think Mosquito." Although tiny and seemingly insignificant, a few truly determined mosquitoes have the power to alter the behavior of organisms hundreds of times their size. It occurred to me that "thinking mosquito" might be a useful way for individual teachers to conceptualize their power. But first, many teachers must reclaim that power—stop giving it away to others.
How do you know if you are doing that? One effective way is to listen to the excuses, rationales, and explanations you give when describing your frustrations. When teachers utter statements such as, "He made me mad," "She gave me no choice," or "My principal won't let me," or "I have to teach what's in the curriculum guide first," they are saying someone or something else caused (or inhibited) their behavior. As Louis suggests, that's an unconscious way of transferring responsibility for their action (or lack thereof) away from themselves—handing it over to another person or circumstance—to a student, an administrator, the government, or some set of rules of nameless origin.
An insidious result of such statements is that they prevent people from acting on the choices they actually have. They are, in effect, transferring control of their lives to someone or something else. Personally, I would rather retain the choices for myself. I can choose to get angry—or not. I can choose to do what the other person wants—or not. I can choose to teach what others have selected as "essential" knowledge—or not.
Blaming government policies or administrators for one's own lack of action is a common practice among teachers. But when researchers questioned one principal about something teachers said he "wouldn't let them do," he responded he would have been happy to support the action if they had only asked him. Often, the "blaming" is a convenient excuse for one's unwillingness to take action.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that teachers stop doing any task that has been defined by others. What I am suggesting is that they do so mindfully, questioning aspects of their work or mandates that they feel are inappropriate or detrimental to effective teaching/learning. Teachers are unlikely to be perceived as effective leaders until they accept and act on both their expertise and responsibility in choosing the direction of the educational process.
You may find it helpful to "watch your language" to determine if you're turning over control of your choices to others. There's no doubt that blaming others for one's lack of action is 'easier,' but at what price? We are already seeing the long-term effects on teachers who have done what they were told when what they were told conflicted with deeply held values and beliefs. One cannot continue to act in opposition to one's values without a growing sense of guilt, a loss of self-respect, or other emotional, psychological, and sometimes physical fallout. The effect may be unconscious—experienced simply as frustration or burnout—but the results are often the same. Leave the profession or dissociate yourself from your deepest values—a terrible price to pay in either case. Not to mention the even more terrible price paid by students.
Even when teachers do claim their power, they are often at a loss about what to do with that power. Historically, unless teachers move into administration, they have rarely had substantive leadership roles in schools. However, a recent survey makes it clear that the problem is even greater than one might think.
In the June 5, 2002 edition of Education Week, there was a story about a survey commissioned by the Public Education Network and Education Week. The survey polled 800 voters and covered a number of educational issues. EdWeek Article—subscription required
Here are the results on several of those issues. Note that respondents could select more than one category, which accounts for a total greater than 100%.
"Who is most responsible for ensuring quality public schools?"
Seven other categories included various local and state political leaders, local business, and the community.
In a parallel question, participants were asked "Who has the most power to improve education?"
The other seven categories contained the same mix of leaders, businesses, and community.
Then participants were asked, "Who is responsible when students fail." Here, the top two choices were students and teachers! Other choices included parents, tests, the school principal and superintendent.
What I find distressing is that neither teachers nor students were included in the category choices for the first two questions! Teachers were perceived as having no responsibility or power to improve education, yet they are held responsible for student failure. Sounds fair to me!
First, let me say that respondents apparently had to choose from the categories provided in the survey. I also recognize that the responsibility and power to "ensure quality schools" and to "improve education" might be perceived as "administrative" tasks, rather than local ones—thus explaining why "officials" were the categories included.
Despite these factors, I find it extremely disconcerting that teachers were omitted, either unintentionally or by choice, from the list of those with responsibility and power to improve education. Yet, when it came to assigning blame for student failure, the roles were reversed. Students, teachers, and parents shouldered that responsibility, while school boards, politicians, businesses and the community didn't even make the list of categories.
Perhaps the most disturbing factor is that citizens—voters—have apparently become convinced that "big brother" has—or should have—the power and responsibility to decide how young people should be educated. Government dictums on education often have figurehead advisory committees comprised of educational experts. But how can any expert or group of experts decide on policy that will be appropriate for the enormous range of teaching situations faced by teachers?
At the same time that officials are demanding better trained and more highly qualified teachers, those same teachers have little or no input into decisions that affect everything from content to methodology to the goals of education. Their expertise is apparently valued only in the execution of predetermined tasks rather than in judging when and where those tasks are appropriate for a given student—or if they are appropriate at all.
Certainly, there are some teachers with sub-par training and qualifications. But there are many more highly trained, knowledgeable, and experienced people who, because they care deeply about students, have chosen the 'profession' of teaching despite traditionally low pay, difficult working conditions, and lack of respect. Why is their expertise ignored except at the most superficial level?
As long as public schools are tax-supported, the government will feel the responsibility to monitor how those tax dollars are spent. But isn't it time to develop more effective and educationally sound ways to do that than the accumulation of standardized test scores on standardized curricula taught by standardized methods? How can educationally promising programs such as alternative assessment, differentiated instruction, or ungraded schools successfully coexist with demands for more and more uniformity?
There are few educational ideas, including those proposed by various governmental agencies, that don't have merit in some context. Rather than attempting to identify some mythical "best" ideas for all, why not permit teachers to choose from that menu of ideas. They are the ones who are intimately aware of local issues, cultural differences, their own strengths and weaknesses, and the needs of their students.
Experiments have been underway for some time in site-based reform, teacher empowerment, and other approaches that bring teachers more fully into the decision-making process. Each has had its successes and failures, as might be expected when breaking with traditional policy. Because many of these efforts have taken place within the old paradigm, meaningful change is extremely difficult and often limited in scope. Surface change is no longer sufficient. The paradigm itself must be reexamined. However, this is unlikely to happen until teachers exert enough pressure on the system to force a shift. Think mosquito!
How can teachers take their rightful place as leaders in educational improvement? Again, no simple answers exist. One way is for each teacher to address the issues that most threaten his/her vision of effective education. Think globally and act locally. Stop making excuses and placing blame on factors over which you claim to have no control. Accept the responsibility to make a difference—whether in the larger system or for a single student. Accept that you may never know the outcome of your efforts, but know that whether you choose to act or to not act, you are influencing the future. Think mosquito!
We begin to change the world by changing our perception of what is possible. We change that perception by literally changing our minds—by reevaluating habitual thinking patterns, old beliefs. As Louis Schmier says, the source of all possibilities lies within you, not in 'others' or in 'systems.' Only you can choose to explore the depth and breadth of those possibilities and your role in bringing them to reality. Think mosquito!
"I can't believe that," said Alice… "One can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half and hour a day. Why, sometimes, I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast!"
~Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass