A Few Thoughts About Teachers Expressing Their Thoughts

I have a lot of posters and a few bumper stickers hanging in my classroom. One of the bumper stickers simply says, “Speak up, even if your voice shakes.” I do speak up, and while you can’t tell because I draw and type my ideas, my figurative voice often shakes – a lot.

And yet, educational institutions, like democratic institutions, should encourage speaking: the free exchange of ideas. Education should be about truth

Would we want an educational system based upon untruth? I don’t think an of us would argue in favor of such a system. Of course, this raises questions.

Whose truth? What is truth? How do we determine what truth is? I just read a story about a flat-earther confronting a teacher at open house. He was speaking his truth. Was he speaking truth? I don’t think so.

I am re-reading Parker J. Palmer’s book The Courage to Teach right now, and he proposes that “to teach is to create a space where the community of truth is practiced. (italics his)” Truth is difficult, thorny, and problematic – but education should be about dealing with the difficulties, the thorniness, the problems that accompany a search for truth. If education is not about practicing the community of truth, it will be, if not the community of untruth, then at very least, the community of authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is always based on fear.

Educational institutions should not be powered by fear. The Courage to Teach includes an entire chapter titled “A Culture of Fear: Education and the Disconnected Life.” When our educational institutions are based on top-down control, fear of bad grades and fear of punishments, fear of low evaluation scores, fear of withheld payments (I’m looking at you, Florida), fear of teaching the wrong way or the wrong thing (Florida, again), our educational system is no longer part of the community of truth. It is no longer a community at all. It is an authoritarian institution.

One of the many problematic phenomenon to come out of the School Choice movement is the fact that schools must now compete for customers – public schools included. Proponents of choice claim that competition makes schools, including public schools, better. I claim that competition makes schools focus on surface features and branding, on trying to sell themselves as a product. Is there anyone who really wants to claim that public relations experts and advertisers are really, deeply in the Truth business? When we have to sell ourselves, we hide what might be considered unattractive and we focus exclusively on what looks good to outsiders. A focus on surface at the expense of the deeper realities of what is happening is our schools is the very antithesis of the community of truth.

And again I say, if we are not about truth and freedom to seek and speak the truth, then why are we even doing what we do in schools?

We currently have a culture where teachers no longer have tenure in many places (Florida, again). Yes, it’s easier to get rid of ineffective teachers at any time. It is also easier to get rid of teachers who speak up or question what is happening.

And so teachers many teachers don’t speak up about conditions in their schools, about policies that hurt kids, about policies that undermine real education, about over-assessment, over-standardization, over-crowding, unfunded mandates, and dozens of other problems. When teachers do speak up, things sometimes improve.

An Alachua County Kindergarten teacher refused to give her students the state FAIR test in 2014 and wound up causing the test to be canceled state-wide. The state, the district, and the school often want things to look good on the surface, so they are likely to silence the teachers who care the most. But education should not be about looking good on the surface. It should be open dialogue, with open questioning, open debate, and freedom to think.

Teachers and students should not feel afraid to respectfully speak up, question, or criticize state, school board, district, or school policy. They should feel comfortable speaking up, because education means being part of the community of truth.

Educational institutions should always treat their teachers exactly the way they want their teachers to treat their students. This includes the encouraging of student voice. We should also be encouraging teacher voice.

Educational institutions should be constantly questioning themselves: What do we say we are about? Do our actions match our values?

Educational institutions should always err on the side of thinking, not on the side of compliance, surface features, quick fixes, public-relations, conformity and one-size-fits all. Erring on the side of thinking means entertaining questions, opening dialogue, encouraging freedom, following arguments wherever they go.

Erring on the side of thinking means listening instead of getting defensive. It means listening, instead of ignoring.

Erring on the side of thinking doesn’t mean “anything goes.” Erring on the side of thinking means not leaning on the authority fallacy. It means questioning, but then accepting reasonable answers. It means truly entertaining difficult ideas and being willing to change your mind based on evidence. It means trying to be aware of your own biases and blind spots. It means being aware of our own confirmation bias. It means acknowledging what you don’t know, acknowledging ambiguity. But to teach these traits of intellectual character and intellectual health, our systems need to model them.

Any power that can’t stand to have truth spoken to it is not worthy to hold power. When teachers and students are afraid to ask questions, to start dialogue, to think for themselves, we no longer have educational institutions. We have compliance institutions.

Education nearly always involves some level of cooperation and collaboration, even at times compliance, but compliance should not be the end goal of a true education. Education in a democracy should lead to more freedom, not less. We are the land of the free and the home of the brave, not the land of the compliant and the home of the too timid to speak up.

At least, I’d like to think so.