Monday, January 24, 2011

What am I willing to be fired for?

Remember though, there are worse things than reprimands and there is no better cause than educational justice for which to collect them. Just because taking a stand can involve high stakes doesn't mean that you shouldn't carefully proceed to the nearest soapbox. There are usually ways to protect yourself from serious consequences.

Juanita Doyan inked those words in her book Not With Our Kids You Don't!

Are you a professional?

If so, have you ever asked yourself "what am I willing to be fired for"?

No one who is a professional can claim to be so without asking themselves that question. And if your answer is "nothing", you are not a professional.

You are a patsy.


  1. I made a statement like this (at the beginning of this school year) to one of my Assistant Principals and she said, "Not everyone can afford to lose their job."

    My response was to loosely quote Martin Luther King, Jr., "Until you know what you're willing to die for, you have yet to begin living."

    Until you know what is worth being fired for, you have yet to discover the true purpose of your job.

  2. If you are doing things in the best interest of the students that you teach, then there is no need to protect yourself...

    Didn't you write: "Fear bullies professionals to look backward to cover their own ass at the cost of looking forward & making progress or doing what is right."

    If you are looking at long-term success for your students, then you would be unwise to do anything that you may have to "cover your ass."

    Working within a system to affect change can be difficult. It sounds like you have the passion and desire to do so. However, until the sytemic changes are made, working against the system in your classroom may inadvertantly hurt the students who you wish to help.

    Surely it is difficult moving in a different direction than current educational policies. However, if you and the system are at opposite end of philosophy, then you have an ethical dilemma. If you teach your philosophy, then students will suffer leaving your classroom and attempting to meet the requirements of the next level, as they are supposed to acheive certain traditional expectations before moving on.

    If you are a "patsy," then you will adhere to some of the traditional methods in order to help your students move within the current system, while you are trying to affect changes in-line with your philosophy.

    Should be an easy choice with your passion for students.

  3. I will remain a patsy. I simply can make a bigger difference in the life of my kids if I am am with them.
    Getting fired would be too easy. Staying in the system and working it from the inside is more difficult.

  4. I tend to agree with Paul.

    It doesn't take much to get fired. Insubordination can get you out the door in a hurry. Maybe not gone from the district but out of the school where you make a difference.

    It's a lot harder to stay, pick your disagreements carefully and argue them tactfully. That way you can be there for the kids you care about.

    With 6 mouths to feed as a teacher, I never felt I had the freedom to be fired, no matter what I thought about a policy or decision.

    Just my two cents.

  5. By the way, I don't think Paul's strategy is being a "patsy"'s full of quiet courage!

  6. "Not everyone can afford to lose their job."

    Can they afford to be miserable in their jobs? I'm not sure they can afford that either...

  7. Anonymous fails to miss the reality that I often experience:

    Going against the system often prepares students for the system. I'm not sure why, but my kids do no test prep and ace the tests. My kids do very little straight-up algorithms, but they know how to do algorithms inside and out.

    Teach holistically and they won't be "missing" anything.

  8. What a great question. Way to put us on the spot, Joe.

    Anonymous, I'm not sure it's in the best interest of my students to comply with social promotion or to accept traditional expectations of their work. My most struggling students could stand a year without being told that they are failures despite their significant growth in literacy, self-expression, and pro-social and pro-academic behaviors. My most academically successful students could probably stand a year learning whatever they want instead of suffering through another curriculum march. My students "in the middle" - as well as their outlier peers - could probably stand a year of active adult support in identifying and pursuing their own interests and identities, which school and society would rather they suppress in service to consumption.

    It's not inherently logical to assume that the purposes of school as we implement them are healthy or useful for learners, their communities, or their societies. Neither is it inherently logical to assume that a student learning apart from the traditional curriculum isn't surpassing traditional expectations.

    Paul, I bet there are things you stand for that help your students and don't get you fired. I think Joe's point is that if we stand for nothing but the status quo, we're complicit with it. I know that I stand for certain ideals in education and aren't fired for them. I struggle with my failures and cooperation with bits and pieces of traditional public education in the United States, but I know I'm not a patsy.

    That being said, I don't think getting fired would be too easy. It would be easier than working within the system for change, but it would not be too easy. I don't think teachers should expect any change in how we teach to the tests until collectively, as individuals, we change how we teach in our classrooms to better match why we teach there - to serve students and their learning, to care for students and share with them work worthy of their creativity, curiosity, and lives. If we can all do that - even just a little bit - we'll have working, worthwhile educational alternatives to show the system.

    I'm sure many of us are engaged in such work at some level. Maybe we don't all need to lose our jobs over that work, but we sure as hell need to speak up about it with conviction.

    Great thread.

  9. I would hate to be fired for a typo. Please consider, "I know that I stand for certain ideals in education and aren't fired for them," to read, "I know that I stand for certain ideals in education and I am not fired for them."

    The other typos are fair game. I stand for descriptive grammar!

  10. If your tone is too strident, you risk alienating even those who support you. Present evidence, be the change. Find like minds, create allies and do what you can. The change you are after is cultural, large, systemic and extends beyond the school system. That will be slow.

    It is hard to be patient when you know what is at stake - believe me, as a trustee, a citizen, a parent of two HS grads and a past student myself, I know. Be very choosy about that hill you die on.

    Besides, your students need you.

  11. I, too, cannot afford to be fired. While there are many core beliefs that I have developed that are not shared by the commen education philosophy, I feel my rightful place is within the system working for change. However, just because I am not willing to lose my job over my beliefs does not mean I will roll over and submit to whatever educational beliefs are thrown my way.

    We must continue to fight from within, not let what others want us to do completely dictate how we teach but yet still be mindful of others. If I disregard the rest of my school culture surrounding me then I am no better than other teachers Ill-preparing my students for the world. I wish I had the luxury of being fired for my beliefs, I don't and beside I don't think I am that radical, yet. I will do much more good changing minds through results rather than protesting as an outsider... Great post Joe.

  12. Trying to change things because you believe it can be better is not a choice; It is a must. A teacher must do the best for what he/she believes is best for students. A teacher must develop a philosophy and be willing to engage students using that philosophy.

    I am reminded of a recent blog of Seth Godin, “That’s not the way we do things around here.”
    Godin States:

    “When you say this to a colleague, a new hire, a student or a freelancer, you've established a powerful norm, one that they will be hesitant to challenge. This might be exactly what you were hoping for, but if your goal is to encourage innovation, you blew it.”

    We have to challenge the status quo to do what is best for students. Indeed, if your answer to the original question to this blog is "nothing", you are not a professional. You are a patsy.

  13. I like to change the system WITHOUT getting fired. Here are some tips to make it happen:

    1. Do things collectively. You might get fired for refusing to administer a test, but not if your whole staff refuses.

    2. Take risks, but not crazy risks. Speak out. Challenge assumptions. Ask questions. Have faith in your professional opinion. Be confident.

    3. Speak through an organization not as an individual. Your union president cannot get fired for the same things you can.

    Getting fired isn't necessary to make change, but fear of getting fired can be a barrier. Nothing works better than the collective to change society.

    Thanks for provocative post.

  14. Tara,

    This comment:

    "1. Do things collectively. You might get fired for refusing to administer a test, but not if your whole staff refuses."

    ...just makes me feel gross

    This would be similar to a parent forming a collective of parents to "oust" you as a teacher. Our union would not put up with that, so I am not sure how they would put up with that same thing happening within a school.

    And when you say that, couldn't the same group of people deny more work that is innovative for kids because it is more work? I think that as professionals we are totally entitled to our opinions and need to do what is right for us, but gathering, what seems to be behind the scenes, is unprofessional.

    If you have a problem with the way your school is run, you need to go directly to the person running it. If things don't change, then shouldn't we leave?

    I was unhappy where I was and I left. When I did, my whole world changed because my environment changed as well.

    I really believe that there are more positive ways to make change in our schools.

  15. As was mentioned above, not everyone has the luxury of the option of being fired. I sympathize greatly with fellow teachers who are forced to teach from a script, and who can't afford to move elsewhere, or have a firing on their employment record. Patsies? No. Trying to do their best in a difficult situation.
    Although I have never been fired for my stance, I have resigned because my efforts to make change were met with hostility.
    So, to play Devil's advocate, Joe, what are you willing to put your family through by being fired for?

  16. I’m a little concerned about the responses to my post. Perhaps I failed to communicate effectively. I’m concerned and interested in the suggestion that a teacher should have to protect themselves in order to keep their job due to their position on educational justice issues.

    I’m concerned that any teacher would follow their personal philosophy so strictly that they would need to protect themselves. There is danger in allowing teachers to follow any philosophy they deem fit, just as there is danger in allowing a doctor to follow any philosophy that they choose. I’m having trouble accepting that teachers should be able to do as they choose in a classroom...(key point to follow) the point of devising methods to protect themselves. I think this fails to meet coherence with society, and likely fails any pragmatic test that could be devised. I suppose you could then say that society needs to change.

    It also fails a simple ethics test designed by Immanual Kant. “What if everyone did this?” Imagine if every teacher were allowed to choose their own philosophy of teaching?
    So I like that some response to this allows for differences in teaching such as: holistic teaching – John T. Spencer, not telling kids they are failures, support instead of suppression, standing for ideals that will not get you fired –, etc...
    Many others have stated excellent suggestions and ideals, but if you have to protect yourself, then I strongly believe that you are moving in tenuous direction.

    I’m also concerned and eager to hear your opinions on what happens when students leave your classroom and move on. I’m sure you are all excellent teachers and they have success. However, I’d like to hear how a student can move from abolished grading, abolished homework, no standardized tests, etc, to a classroom, and system that values these things. Note that I am not passing judgement on either philosophy but rather asking how it is good for kids to go between them in the current system?

    I appreciate the good discussion that has been and may follow...some excellent thoughts.

  17. What an impressive and thoughtful dialogue here. First let me say that I am 'self directed', and in no danger of being fired, so this may come back as an 'easy for her to say'. Being self employed, I eat what I kill though, and this question can arise several times in one season.

    Here's a question: How many firings would it take before the system would come under immediate and severe scrutiny/reform?

    Some of the greatest human beings in recent history have all taken a firm stance on their core beliefs - Nelson Mandela, Abe Lincoln, Rosa Parks,... Easy? Nope. Did they anguish whether they were risking their own or their family's well-being? Likely. Did they do it anyway? Yup.

    If the cause is that great, the question becomes moot. Stand up for what you believe - always and resolutely.

  18. haleysimmons:

    good comments...i wish that a teacher losing their job over this would make a difference..but like you alude to..."how many firings would it take?" I would guess that the government in Alberta is a big enough machine that firings would have to be substantial.

    you raise an interesting point though...enough to make people reflect thoughfully on their core beliefs a little further,

  19. This is a great conversation! What we should be taking away from this post are:

    1)determine what you TRULY believe in
    2)it is OKAY to go against the grain (especially if you live in a Democracy)
    3)our students deserve better than being treated like cattle, being prodded to the trough were they are forced to digest (& regurgitate) "learning"

    If we cannot stand by our convictions than what are we REALLY teaching our students? How to conform? How to suppress who they truly are? Doing what you don't believe in is right? You should never attempt to change the status quo?

    Remember that many have done what is not popular (as a previous commenter pointed out), and eventually their ideas are seen as transformational. Not living by our beliefs is not an option if we truly want change.

  20. I agree with this statement to a point, but now that I am in my 50's I understand the realities of employment when you are this age. If I lost this job, age discrimination would play a huge part in my remaining unemployed. The way teaching hiring practices discourage the hiring of senior teachers only adds to this. Making a stand for something like civil rights in the 1960's and being a voice for school reform in 2011 aren't quite cut from the same cloth....

  21. Anonymous, it's not that I don't see the utility of compromise for incremental change, it's that I don't support doing things the way they've been done just to cover myself. Teaching to the tests is the best way to cover myself, and I'm sure many teachers teach to the test to protect their jobs.

    I would rather be a teacher that does what I think is professionally and civically right - not personally comfortable - than a teacher who says nothing about a deeply flawed educational system and expects students to do the same.

    I think excellent student work should stand in place of test scores. I think feedback about how to improve craft and skills should replace letter grades. I think students' interests should be protected, valued, and taught to over the interests of curricula that are limited and out of date whennthey are written.

    Again, it is not a sound argument to say that the system we have is the best one because it's the system we have.

    And why should kids experience a variety of systems for teaching and learning?

    So that they grow up to be informed citizens who can compare and contrast the goods and services that they're offered in stores and during elections. So they grow up to be producers, not just consumers. So they believe that school is a place to learn, not just a place to be taught. So that they know learning requires personal responsibility rather than herd obedience.

    I am not an excellent teacher, but in letting go of following the curriculum and system without questioning it, I am getting better. I might be a real teacher one day. I'm not here to tear down the system. I'm here to teach kids and the system how to learn, even when the system pressures me just to deliver content and collect my paycheck.

    Until then, I'm not out to get myself fired or to ruin next year for my kids. I'm here to show my students that I value what they want to learn, that I value how they learn, and that I want to help them find personally meaningful ways to learn at school with and apart from the curriculum. If my students ask next year's teachers why next year can't be more like this year, then more power to them.


  22. Wow, so many incredible responses here!

    In short, I think we need to choose the moments we dissent carefuly and plan an intentional response.

    Careless and flagrant disregard for our administration or leadership (however much we disagree with them) will not acomplish true reform.

    As teachers, I don't think any of us are here to use playground warfare to push our agendas. In fact, I think it's those kind of leaders who we are upset with (abusive top-down systems).

    Instead, I think we need to work hard to understand where the rubber meets the road in our district, state, school, and class. You have to know what actions will serve as spurs and which will serve as suicide bombs.

    I taught in the Republic School District last year that is now infamous for causing the national uproar about banning the books of Laurie Halse Anderson.

    I would have gladly been fired to speak out publicly against the actions of my former district in that case, without a doubt.

    However, there were other less clear issues which require more care and attention to. I spent two years working on decreasing the amount of filtering and unnecessary website blocking in my school. It took careful planning, honest discussions, and a continual assertion that I wanted to do the best things for kids at every turn in a way that didn't demonize my district. I made small gains with the help of one principal and many other teachers. There was progress, but mostly it was the attitude I tried to pass on of collaborating to create a new environment to inhabit: one we'd all take part in creating. If I prescribed and mandated, I would be doing the same thing as those I disagreed with.

    I wanted the win-win, not martyrdom.

    Too often teachers feel unable to step up against what they see as a juggernaut administration they don't feel able to change.

    Avoiding action does wear your principles down over time, but I don't think it is an either/or scenario. It's that kind of simplification of complex issues that led to the issues in the first place most likely.

    Teachers need to manage their thoughts, do research, ask honest questions with the intent of working WITH their administration as much as possible. If you can't start with the idea of collaboration and honest inquiry, what are you really building on? Violent revolutions only beget more of the same.

    What would I be fired for? I don't plan on being fired, I plan on working with those I disagree with to charter a course together. That's what we'd want our students to do. That's what the world needs from our future leaders.

  23. The question begs another one - What would you be willing to leave for?

    If you can't afford to lose your job, what sacrifices would you be willing to make to follow your passion - what you believe?

    Teachers tend to have a martyr syndrome - that they are indispensible in their roles and must stay for the sake of the children. The only way they'll leave is if someone/something forces them out. If you're unhappy where you are, and your kids realize this (and they will), what message are they being given?

    Sometimes, a role model is someone who is prepared to walk away from something that doesn't fit and express their displeasure after that. It means that you're prepared to take responsibility for your actions instead of forcing others to do it for you.

    This is a talk that I am walking now. I taught for 12 years, left to work in private industry and now have my own consulting company with very little security. I have two children and two on the way. I did it because I believed my voice needed to be my own, and I had to take responsibility for that voice.

    If I believe in what I do, I must now allow others to determine my path and govern my security - I'll walk my own way and see if my way is worth what I hope it is.

  24. Some excellent discussion here.

    I understand very well how important it is to stay in the system to make a difference. Being on the outside looking in has it's limitations.

    However, when we look back at the civil rights movement and other movements that were "uncomfortable" for society, I honestly don't know how change could have taken place without those who were being treated unfairly eventually refusing their cooperation.

    Sure, at the time many considered them to be villains, but over time they are seen as courageous change agents.

    And then I find it grossly ironic that those who would not stand up for what they believe in romanticize the likes of Rosa Parks, Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr... As a professional, you don't get to tell kids "they must be the change you want to see in the world" and then justify your own inaction.

  25. I am loving this conversation. All have valid points. One that recently grabbed me was from Steve, "I wanted the win-win, not martyrdom."

    There are many instances in my school and my district that I have, and am, working at to bring about lasting change. It is about attitude and how we interact, even with our most fierce opposition. I don't think that any "major" change is going to take place in the next few years. It may get started but we won't see the results for some time. It all takes some perseverant patience. Does that mean we give up? No. I may be called a patsy for not taking a "bigger" stand against the system or the way things are done, but I am making headway in my classroom and with my colleagues. That's change I know I can make now.

    I do believe, though, that there will come a time that will try our patience and will require us to speak loudly and not back down. That time comes for everyone. Will it cost me my job? I hope not. I have a family that takes priority in my life. I have to provide for them. I will do better for my students, my community, and my family by staying in the system. If that means I'm a patsy, put it on a t-shirt and I'll wear it proudly.

    Thanks for the discusion Joe. Always making us think. Keep up the good fight.

  26. Many of the issues mentioned here, I would agree with. The important thing to keep in mind, I think, is that effecting change is difficult, at best. Risk-taking is an essential ingredient for change, but should never involve one's employment status.

    Trailblazing is a lonely sport. However, someone needs to do it. Joe, you are at the front of a growing line of trailblazers. We need you there, to model behaviours for change and to be our champion. Keep that fire blazing!

  27. I know what I'm willing to be fired for, because I was fired for it. Well, more like not re-hired. I worked at a middle school on a one-year contract when we first moved to WA state. And I didn't do what I did expecting to not be re-hired, I thought I nailed the job doing what I thought was right.

    I taught social studies and language arts in the 7th grade. I taught it my way, project-based learning with students creating websites and such using Geocitiies (1996). The principal had me observe another ss/la teacher in the school. Her students sat in rows quietly working and got loads of homework. I was asked, no rather she suggested that I do the same. I didn't, no way was I going to subject my students to that.

    The principal also suggested I wear slacks instead of jeans. Well, I did that. No big deal, even though I've never worn those slacks again (and now they don't fit!). I worked my butt off, as I always do, and I was shocked when a more traditional teacher got the job (oh and she was the HS principal's wife). Yeah, I'm oblivious to somethings. Good news is that I got hired 12 miles down the road in the best school I've ever worked in where I've been inspired to flourish.

    So I know what I am willing to do, I do it every day. Oh yeah, I also don't stress or spend much time preparing my students for standardized tests. Good learning should be good enough.