The Connection Between Identity and Policy in Education

The last few weeks have been, to say the least, eventful.  I was given the honor of being chosen as the new 8th grade ELA Master Teacher at Stuart Middle School.  What a change it has been.  On top of trying to meet tons of new colleagues, wrapping my head around my new job, and moving into a coaching and mentoring role, I found myself lacking what I had just so recently found…my teaching identity.  My teaching soul.  I, even as I write this, struggle to know who I am in this new setting.  And on top of all of that, I felt that this space would be unsustainable.  It needed some extra connective tissue.  It needed to be about bigger things than just the observations at work.

So, as I said, there has been quite a monumental shift in my life; there has been much to think about. Hence my short, likely unnoticed (knowingly self-deprecating…go ahead and laugh), hiatus.  Thankfully, I think I have begun to crawl back out of that hole.  I will explain in two parts and then, hopefully, tie it back together.


Honoring the Students

As I have settled into my new role, I have had the good fortune of running into some wonderful pieces of insight.  The first comes from an article posted on Edutopia entitled, “What Makes for a Master Teacher?”  And while I read this article, I was blown away by a single concept.  Ben Johnson writes:

“In many cases, there are students who have to take care of their siblings in the morning, get them ready for school, feed them, then hop on a city bus or subway, and then after school doing everything in reverse, and then they have a part-time job and go to work all evening to help the family income. Many students make significant sacrifices to even get to school every day.”

Then the moment Johnson took my breath away.  “We need to honor their sacrifices by honoring their time with real learning.”

I get it.  Fluff days happen.  And for the teachers who truly care, they happen rarely.  But even rarely is too often.  If the professional goal of a teacher is to teach, then that is what we must do day in and day out.  Look around.  Teachers aren’t always considered the epitome of what it means to be a professional.  Why?  Too many stories about movie days and fluff lessons could be a start.  To paraphrase Janine Paul of The Verbal Judo Institute, it only takes one to ruin the reputation of an entire entity.  So how is this connected to identity and policy?  Stay tuned…


Being the Middle Wo(man)

Ask a teacher why they may feel hamstrung as a professional in our society, they very well may say it is that the people who make the laws and curriculum aren’t actually in the classroom.  Ask a parent why they feel any emotion about the school system, they will likely respond in a manner that is dependent upon their understanding of what their child is learning, why they are learning it, and the manner by which it is taught.  They don’t care about policy.  They care about their kid, and justifiably so.    There is a disconnect.  Look below.

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Image from The Verbal Judo Institute

When a school or society makes a policy, they rely on the teacher to bring that vision to the students and parents.  When a parent is operating under the influence of rage, joy, or any other emotion, they don’t associate that emotion with the policies of the state or nation, but rather with the teacher who their child sees every day.  The teacher is the middle man.  It is the teacher’s responsibility to see the policies of their superiors done with fidelity, while helping the clientele understand the whys, whats, and hows.  And, on top of it, teachers are often asked to be the ones who break through the negative emotions of students and parents to help them see the greater picture.

So again you ask…policy and identity and being the middle man…what’s the connection?  Here it comes.


Wrapping Up

Here is what it comes down to.  Teachers teach because they are called to do it.  It is in their DNA.  Once they learn that about themselves, and truly honor students with quality, engaging education, powerful change will come.  Teachers need to know thyself.  Teachers need to embody the fact that teaching is an art, a science, a passion, and a profession unlike any other.  It is unique in that has facets of almost every other profession within it.  Furthermore, teachers must understand that they have to bring that central, passionate identity to every interaction.  Policy won’t change until our voice is valued. And that won’t happen until we are no longer middle men, but rather change agents from within the system (cue double-agent spy music).

pablo (7)Whether in sports, the workplace, or regular life, our strength as a society comes not from the individual, but from the collective.  When each individual works to be the best part of the greater society, everyone is better.  In education, a teacher’s identity is theirs.  It is not mandated by state policy, building procedures, or the newest fad.  It belongs solely to them.  And the process of understanding that identity can be, if fostered correctly, almost sacred to a teacher.

A teacher is there to teach, and it should by dogmatic to honor a student with a high class education.  Only in doing so, and with an understanding of a teacher’s personal style and abilities, will policy finally change.  Carol Ann Tomlinson writes, “A great coach never achieves greatness for himself or his team by working to make all his players alike.”  I am a teacher.  Though our skills differ, we together embody the profession of education.  Together, we can change perception, policy, and the conversation around our noble calling.  Know who you are, know what we can be, and let’s get some change done.

And for me, that change begins this year as I continue to get my new school a new reputation by embodying the change I want to see in the education world.  Hopefully, I can bring a few along with me for the ride.

Citations:

  1. Johnson, B. (2011, March 31). What Makes for a Master Teacher? Retrieved July 27, 2016, from http://www.edutopia.org/blog/master-teacher-definition-ben-johnson
  2. Paul, J. (26, July 07). The Contact Professional. Speech presented in Kentucky, Louisville.

 

Identity in the Wake of Heartache

pablo (5)When I opened this blog, I stated my intent to share my stories and the stories of others in an attempt to further the practice of instilling teacher identity into education.  I posited that in doing so, our students would become more successful because of a more honest attempt at learning as opposed to just schooling.  However, after the events of the last few days in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Texas, I am at a loss of how to do that.  I believe that I made an honest mistake in my opening.  I expressed the idea that I could help provide answers without leaving room to ask questions.  And now, as I continue my soul searching to understand my identity and its effects on my classroom, I need help.  I have questions I must ask.  I am conflicted.

To start, I need to say that I can empathize with the peoples of color community.  As a Jewish man with family who survived Russian persecution, I get it.  As a member of a “free America,” I have faced antisemitism around me.  I get it.  Because of this, I feel the need to defend the defenseless.  My sense of justice is overactive, but worthwhile.  This is extremely visible in my classroom as I create my community.  I don’t yell at students unless they step across my one line in the sand; they cannot be derogatory towards anyone for anything.  Then I yell, and I yell hard.  I won’t apologize for that.  My understanding of life through my Jewish lens shows up in my class and this makes sense to me.  I have no questions here.  Here is the problem, however.  I am, at the end of the day, white.  When I need to blend in to be safe, I know how because of experience, because of know-how, and most importantly/unfortunately, because I am white.

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My family

Look at my family. If ever they came for us, we could “disappear.”  We are as white as white can be.

 

And here is where my role as a global citizen meets with some dissonance in the classroom.  Who am I to talk when it comes to the #blacklivesmatters movement?  Sure, I consider myself an ally, though I certainly could and should be doing more.  Sure, I say I would step up and defend someone of color if I saw wrongdoing, but I cannot say with certainty as I have never been in that situation.  What credibility do I have?  I am just another white guy hashtagging, or at least one of my students could say that.  I am open to honest discourse, but how do I engage the issues while seeming genuine.  After Michael Brown and Treyvon Martin, my students told me quite forcefully that I had no right to talk about the issue.  While I disagreed with them, their pain was theirs and I gave them the space they clearly needed.  I am a white guy who wants my students safe from cops, from each other, and from the terrible aspects of society.  How do I express this care to them while not being discredited as being just another white guy shouting the latest victim’s name on Facebook from my couch ?

And how do I show them that cops lives’ DO matter as well as black lives?  How do I show them my belief that to separate the issues into mutually exclusive concepts is actually counterproductive?

pablo (4).pngWhich brings me to my last question.  Where does my responsibility end in regards to my classroom environment?  My wife brought a great point to me today.  We walk into the classroom every day and are expected to give them social-emotional educations.  Our schools are expected to feed the kids.  We are social workers, advocates, and at times, more parental than the students’ parents.  Yet, there are moments like this one where there is evidence of a teacher’s personal agenda goes too far.  I am happy to share my beliefs.  I am happy to guide students as they discover their own beliefs.  Yet, how do I bring in my personal beliefs that are present through my own Judaism?  How do I engage students in the hurtful, difficult discussions that they need to process the world around them?  How do I do all of this while not “crossing the line?”

How do we as teachers and citizens engage in this conversation in a balanced, thoughtful, and open way while maintaining our own identities?

 

 

 

So It Begins: Let Us Grow Together

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Let me lay a truth on you.  No one cares about your resume.  Boom.  Mic drop.  That is a hard reality in the teaching profession.  After all, when we study the giants of our profession, their resumes are immense.  The heroes of education are venerated for a reason, but so often they speak in theories and ideas that the public finds hard to understand.  And, as public servants, do we not have a responsibility to make our work approachable?

In the United States, teachers are faced with a status quo that is totally and absolutely backwards.  We are told, whether implicitly or explicitly, that our greatness comes in the form of data, notes, interventions, and and and and and….You get the point.  Proving you are respectable in the teaching profession requires quantitative data.  Let me be clear, those things are important, but what they are not are student centered.  They masquerade as student centered, but they are not student centered.  Here is what is important–  by virtue of being a teacher, you ARE a teacher-leader, a respectable professional.  What many of us are not are teacher-leaders who understand who we are.  We often think we know our identity, but when we have critical, metacognitive moments, we find a cognitive dissonance between what we think we are and what society sees us as.

I would like to tell you a story.  After all, context is important.  Imagine if you will, a young teacher, straight out of school, comes in guns ablazing to his first job.  Theories are memorized, philosophies are studied, and he is going to change the world.  He enters a world where the mark of being good at his job means he gets a title.  Every day he strives for a title.  He works for recognition.  He wants to be known as the best.  Things.  Are.  Good.

Six years into his career, he gets a call from his principal.  This is it!  This young teacher is going to get that title!  And in only six years.  He is told a very different story.  He is being stripped of his Instructional Leadership Team position.  He is told to stop trying to be important.  He is told, in truth, to get back in line.  He is not that good.  He does not get a title.

That young teacher was me.

I was crushed.  Thankfully, my coworker Tracey picked me back up.  To this day, she is a model of whom I want to be.  She told me to find myself.  This, she said, was an opportunity to move forward.  You are good, she said.  It is time to become great.  But how was I going to do that?

For two years, I refocused.  I looked for how I could always do right by my kids.  I always strived for training, not titles.  Then I found the missing piece.  Identity.  I didn’t have one.  As writer Parker J. Palmer says, “Good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher…But by ‘identity’ and ‘integrity’ I do not mean only our noble features, or the good deeds we do, or the brave faces we wear to conceal our confusions and complexities. Identity and integrity have as much to do with our shadows and limits, our wounds and fears, as with our strengths and potentials.”

At the beginning, my identity revolved around being someone I wasn’t.  Gregarious.  Extroverted.  Ambitious to a fault.  However, I am naturally quite introverted, a hard worker, and intuitive if I let myself be.  Once I found myself, I decided I needed to stop saying I needed a title.  I needed to own that guiding my students to excel would be enough.  That, I decided, would be my identity and legacy as a teacher.

Through this discovery, my students were the benefactors.  Every day, I spent spare moments jotting ideas, talking to master teachers, and researching ways that I could do better by students.  And in doing so, I discovered something profound.  Kids cared!  Students were engaged!  Achievement improved!  I have the data to support it, and in some future draft of this, I may include it.  The community of room 229 was inspiring.  I was inspired.  And here is the twist– while I was finding “identity” and “integrity,” so too were my students.  Students stopped asking, “Why are we doing this,” and instead stated, “Tell me more.”  My students started applying what we were doing to their lives.

When I focused on myself, attempting to be someone I wasn’t, I was failing my kids.  When I decided to play to my strengths and to embrace my basic skills, my days ceased to be about gaining notoriety.  They became about embracing my new identity so that my kids could truly thrive.  And just like that, I became a teacher-leader.  And while that is not an official title, it is the only title I need. We, the teachers and the students, have to understand that our personal voice can be the loudest voice in shifting the professional voice of teaching and true learning in America.

This is a start.  Teachers have powerful stories of utilizing who they are to help students, as paraphrased by William Anderson, become things that they cannot even imagine.  I want to share my stories of self-actualization that parallel the stories of my students.  But more importantly, in the spirit of not being extroverted, gregarious, and self-celebratory, I want to find the people who embody what Tracey Bennett was for me.  Inspiration.  Direction.  A butt-kicking.  I want to share their stories so they can, in turn, become the next teacher-leaders.  If I can share my nuggets, and shine a supernova-strength light on those who are truly amazing, we can collectively come out of the dark and show the world what true professionals we really are.  No one cares about your resumes.  They care about your stories.  It is not about who you say you are, but rather what you show yourself to be.

You are an agent for change, and that begins within your four walls.  Your identity is real, your story is valid, and the two can move mountains.