This is about words that can sometimes sound out of tune to the contemporary educational ear, but words that we have heard often lately in important contexts: duty, obedience, service.
When I hear these words, I tend to envision uniformed men, rigid countenances, shiny weapons. At first blush, they sound a bit too much like some kind of servitude, submission even—restrictions on the liberties I value most despite their sometime associations with those who defend these very liberties. In my mind, at least, my work and life stand for freedom of thought and expression, to a critical questioning of creeds and codes.
But the other day I had a small epiphany about schools, and in particular (not surprisingly) about independent schools and their leadership.
School mission statements, as I’ve stated probably too often, serve as both foundational and aspirational documents, and along the way I may even have used the word “credo.” From such statements flow values and legacies and daily practices and even—in culturally well ordered schools—legacies. At least in theory, those who comprise the living communities of a school operate under the guiding principles set forth in the mission and developed within its frame.
Might this not mean, on a level that seems absurdly idealistic but may not be at all, that to some degree school communities are bound by their mission(s and values and similar statements of belief and intent) in the same ways that other enterprises are bound by creeds and codes? If such statements of belief and intent are to be used as touchstones or even litmus tests for the evolution of school policies and practices, as current approaches to accreditation essentially require and as I and others continually urge, then is there an element of “obedience” or “service to an idea” or even “duty” in the idea that a school’s words and deeds should uphold the ideas for which it purports to stand? When we talk about fit—for a student, for a family, for a faculty member, for a trustee—are we not also talking about a certain devotion to those ideals that requires a constant consciousness of thought, word, and action?
I’d not want to be accused of being a strict mission constructionist, a mission originalist, or a mission fascist; the interpretation of mission is as subject to social, cultural, and educational evolutionary forces as the Nicene Creed or the United States Constitution. Recent years have seen way too many individual and group actions, supposedly based on obedience to one idea or another, that have deeply and often violently wounded the human family and stood in the way of what I want to believe is our common purpose to love, to live, and to prosper together. School missions must never (if ever they have been) be written or enacted to do harm.
The idea of school mission statements probably has its origins, like so much in Western education, in the monastic codes and Rules of the European Middle Ages. Where monks and nuns once “submitted” to such rules, under the guidance of abbots and abbesses, teachers, administrators, trustees, students, and families now gather—bound by various contracts—to live out school missions, to interpret and enact and experience their meaning within an evolving cultural milieu and an ever-expanding understanding of the ways in which children learn and in which effective learning occurs.
But I think it is not too far-fetched to suggest that school leadership, at least, might be said to echo monastic practice of a past age. What is a school head, if not someone who agrees to both live by and to further the aims set out in the mission statement that forms the centerpiece of the “hiring statement” hammered out by a Search Committee? Are there not in this role elements, although almost never described as such, of duty, obedience, and service?
Who and what, though, are being served? As one of my bosses has stated as his personal credo, “Schools are for kids,” and this higher purpose must both underlie and transcend even the most idealistic of mission or values statements. Whatever ideas and ideals a school embraces have the ultimate purpose of supporting students in the service of their growth into fully realized and capable human beings—“the best versions of themselves,” as I and others like to say. And however much we find ourselves in “customer service” mode when we deal with families, it is a more estimable purpose toward which we are working: we would all acknowledge that our “duty” is not to satisfy every whim or demand of families and students but rather to achieve what we sometimes describe as our “higher calling”—to bring out the best in children and adolescents.
For what it’s worth, I sometimes wonder whether schools’ tendency to focus on their practice these days—to present themselves in the marketplace in terms of specific “new and improved” methods and tools used in their classrooms—might undervalue this higher calling. Day-to-day practical issues and the loftiest of aspirations are hardly antithetical to each other, but sometimes it’s easy to forget that the one ought to reference the other if we are to maintain integrity, in all senses of the word, in our work.
So I think it’s not so far-fetched for us at least occasionally to consider our work within a framework of duty, obedience, and service. If this sounds atavistic, then so be it. I believe, however, that education, formal or otherwise, is a human duty that the experienced have to the less experienced, a service that the older (and perhaps wiser?) perform for the younger. It’s a human thing, and if we put some values behind it all, why should it not take on a philosophical or even moral cast, something like obedience to principle?
And then of course there’s the yet-higher calling of our schools themselves, to take their place in the battle against not just ignorance but injustice, not just illiteracy but inequity, not just apathy but amorality. No, we’re not a uniformed service, but it might not be such a bad idea if every now and then we considered that we might be not just employees and educators at one independent school or another, but public servants of a public good.
One thing I have noticed about those lists of “My Top Ten Blog Posts of 2014” summaries favored by many bloggers is that many of the most widely read blog posts are comprised of listicles, urgent-sounding enumerated lists of must-dos or must-haves or pet peeves.
Because Not Your Father’s School moved—twice—in 2014, I’m afraid I can’t easily quantify the ten most popular posts here, and so instead I have created my own enumeration of themes that I have encountered in even some of my favorite educational leadership and idea blogs that I regard as pernicious and even harmful to students as well as to teachers and schools.
I try very hard to situate Not Your Father’s School at points of confluence between traditional, or at least current, educational values and practice and the waves of new thinking and ideas that show real promise in making teaching and learning—and the whole experience of school as we know it—more effective and more engaging. But I am not always patient with the tone (and often the content) of some of the evangelists of the new, who occasionally become so carried away by their own rhetoric that they miss what I think are salient and even helpful points in making the case for and then managing the change they seek.
My impatience is greatest with pronouncements that criminalize—by inference and occasionally by overt statement—the work that well intended and effective educators have been doing for the past decades and even centuries. I am equally impatient with pronouncements that imply that there is a magic bullet—be it the iPad, design thinking, or some form of “PBL”—that will by itself change the nature of education as we know it and bring students out from under some putative boot heel of repression and boredom.
If the reader is interested in what I do stand for, we humbly recommend a review of past posts here as well as Not Your Father’s School’s precursors, Admirable Faculties and The New Progressive.
In the meantime, here are my own, perhaps overstated, pet peeves in the world of 21st-century educational evangelism and some very brief thoughts on how these may be harmful.
1. De-valuing the education most children currently receive
A favorite tactic of keynoters and their live-tweeters is to issue blanket condemnations of all current educational practice. While there is plenty wrong with what goes on in many classrooms today, such blanket statements simply denigrate the current nature of schools. I fear that this serves, outside the echo chamber, to further harm the reputation of education, schools, and teachers in the popular mind and thus detracts from the worth that children see in their own work and lives as students.
2. Humiliating and undermining the worth of educators
When gurus speak of the harm they believe done by “traditional” teaching and teachers (whatever these terms even mean), it adds to the general level of disrespect that the world at large seems to feel toward educators. This in turn devalues the experience of learning in the minds of students, as in #1, above. Educators tend to be people committed to doing right by kids; let’s honor this.
3. Exaggerating the failures of traditional educational systems
The educational practices of the past may have created the world today, but I don’t think that we can blame worksheets, lectures, or even boring textbooks for all of the world’s ills. I’m optimist and even romantic enough to believe that effective learning (and creative, thoughtful teaching) was taking place even before the Age of the Internet or even the “discovery” of Bloom’s Taxonomy. We can of course do better, and most of us are trying.
4. Mis-characterizing and undervaluing ethics education
There is ethics education and then there is coercive moral and character education. All attempts to help students understand, clarify (if you will), and form their own values are not examples of pernicious regimentation or egregious moral relativism. I am of a mind that education is indeed a deeply moral enterprise, and I believe that we ignore or scoff at this concept at our peril.
5. Undervaluing the teaching and mastery of fundamental skills like reading and arithmetic
The multiple C’s of 21st-century education are critical to effective educational experiences, but so are the old three R’s: effective reading and written communication and the ability to perform basic calculations and estimations. The deep flaws in the Common Core and its presentation do not make an argument for ignoring the idea that kids need to be able to read and extract information from multiple kinds of texts or that they need to be adept at writing and basic math. I’d go so far as to suggest that there actually some kinds of basic information that kids need to know (some basic place geography is one example, as retro as this idea may be) in order to more deeply understand the larger concepts and issues that could underlie both greater relevance and deeper engagement.
6. Proclaiming that entrepreneurship is the only path to a better future
I’ll go out on a limb and say that the idea that every child must learn to be a junior business tycoon is a little wacky. Sure, it’s great for kids to know how to create, organize, collaborate, and advocate around an idea, but the current penchant for learning more informed by Donald Trump’s The Apprentice than by John Dewey’s Democracy and Education makes me sad for kids.
7. Failing to take on the real issues in American education: equity and justice
As the fallout from Ferguson and the Garner case continues, I’m not hearing the technology and technique gurus working terribly hard to connect “21st-century learning” with issues of social equity and social justice—or straight-up racism and violence. We hear much about “empathy” in the context of collaboration and or PBL (of whichever sort, problem- or project-based), but it feels too much as though education for “innovation” and education for social justice live on opposite sides of the house. They shouldn’t.
8. Ignoring the limitations of technology and the continuing digital divide
Every time there is a power outage even society’s haves should be reminded that access to all the benefits of technology is not equitably distributed in our society. Furthermore, there is a tendency among what some folks I know call “technology triumphalists” to speak of technology as the universal cure to all of education’s ills. Research suggests that some learning actions (e.g., note-taking, even reading) happen more effectively when not mediated by gadgets, and even if this is a transitional state in our evolution toward homo gadgetus, we need to acknowledge that human interaction and certain kinds of manual action (call it “making,” if you like) still have value as part of the learning process.
9. Underplaying the issues that most imperil the world
Maybe they’re just too big and scary to contemplate, but climate change, persistent totalitarianism, and waves of intolerance and extremism are massive and omnipresent blips on the globe’s radar screen. There is danger in making education fear-based (although we weathered education against the backdrop of the Atomic Age air-raid drills and the imperatives of Sputnik Panic), but there is a compelling argument for having authentic and urgent global issues explicitly inform more of our teaching and learning.
10. Pretending that deeply reflective and creative thinking about education are their own invention
Perhaps it is that my immediate forebears were what I believe to have been thoughtful and even innovative educators, and perhaps is that I am fascinated by educational history, but I happen to be rather convinced that the generality the educators in the past were neither numb-skulled servants of the industrial state or child-hating cretins. Let’s give our ancestors in this enterprise credit for being caring, insightful, and creative men and women who were deeply committed to doing their best by the children in their classrooms. Just because some of those classrooms were single rooms with programs built around slates and McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers doesn’t mean that all teaching was horrid or that students were universally bored.
11. Failing to sustain their (our?) own enthusiasms
This might be the worst thing educational enthusiasts do to their (our?) schools, their (our?) colleagues, and their (our?) students. Every teacher can tell you about the serial enthusiasms that have washed over their schools in successive tsunamis of urgency, whether the urgency is based on market worries or sincere concern for students. And as everyone in schools knows, the defense mechanism that some educators develop against these tsunamis is cynicism that takes the form of passive(-aggressive) resistance to new ideas. As leaders we often haven’t done a great job of sustaining, or even making the case for sustaining, novel practices long enough to really see what really works or to build them into the culture of education.
With #11 first and foremost, I’m willing to count myself, at least occasionally, among the offenders in each of these areas. But my own primary goal for 2015 is to minimize the trash I talk or imply about educational practitioners and educational practice that haven’t quite caught up with the newest of the new or with the shiny ideas that attract my attention in the moment.
That, and also to minimize list-based blog posts.
Don't miss our weekly blog posts by joining our newsletter mailing list below:
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)