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If Educators Want Real Change, We Have to Work Together

Educators have to stand in solidarity so they can once again feel safe enough to dream—and do—big things

Now that the longest, most expensive—and possibly craziest—election season in history has ended, many of us in the education community have paused to reflect on how we can push President Obama to use his influence to steer education policy in a better direction. One of my favorite reflections comes from educator and author Sam Chaltain. A key challenge he issues to those of us who care about public education is to figure out how we can navigate certain tensions—between vision and mission; between the art and science of teaching, etc—to create schools that work for all learners, and can sustain a just, equitable, and democratic society.

In order to actualize this in any systemic way, we need to address an often-overlooked barrier to forward movement and positive change: safety, or rather, the lack thereof. This is the elephant in the room, rarely articulated but viscerally apparent to anyone who understands the lived reality of schools in this social and political climate.

For example, to foster "initiative, courage, imagination and entrepreneurship" in students, educators themselves must embrace and embody these qualities. That’s a tall order when numerous elements of the system they work in undermine, and even punish, these very qualities—and when that punishment may very well cost you your ability to feed your kids and put a roof over your head, balancing art and science often takes a backseat to balancing your checkbook.

Likewise, to successfully navigate tensions of any kind—like those between mission and vision, or between art and science—educators and the education-supporting public more generally must become more comfortable with ambiguity and unknowns. Again, that's a tough sell in a society where people implicitly feel as though they're playing without a net.

This strikes at the heart of why we're so enamored with standardizing, predicting, and controlling things. "Data" seduces us into thinking we can predict and control things that are frequently unpredictable and uncontrollable, and therefore scary. We can't really test our way into guaranteeing that 100 percent of America's students will be destined for Yale instead of jail. But pretending we can is a heckuva lot easier than re-engineering the needlessly cutthroat, winner-take-all society that's really putting our kids "at-risk."

When people feel threatened, they typically won't take the risks change requires. So in order to continue helping all schools progress, we have to re-establish the sense of safety that helps people summon the courage and will they need to successfully navigate the inherently uncomfortable process of change.

So how do we do that? That's a huge question, with lots of little answers. But a crucial first step is to remember that what we're trying to accomplish takes considerable resources. I'm not just talking about material resources like funding or technology—though they're obviously necessary. I also mean the personal and social resources that give us confidence and trust in ourselves and each other.

The rigors of everyday life, combined with our tendency to silo off or even mistrust one another, depletes those crucial resources. We need to restore them. This is why solidarity is so powerful and important: it creates safety, in the promise that if one of our own needs help, we've got their back. Where hyper-individualism says, "you’re on your own—may the odds be ever in your favor," solidarity says, "We are the net, ready to catch our people when they leap or fall."

When we have that security, it's much easier to take a chance on change. We also become harder to silence and mistreat—and that's why the powerful few who benefit from the way things are have gone to such extraordinary and expensive lengths to eliminate our rights to fully participate in setting the terms of our work and our lives, and to destroy the unity that gives us strength.

Some well-intentioned people have been pulled along for a rhetorical ride—our thoughts and language have been so poisoned that many from all sides of these issues have been coaxed into saying and agreeing to all sorts of things they'd never choose if they could think and speak clearly. We must remember that others are intentionally creating this state of affairs. To ignore this is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of this situation, and to remain vulnerable to their manipulation.

That means one of our key challenges as an education movement is to find ways to come together and recreate that net for each other, so we can once again feel safe enough to dream of—and do—big things. In many cases, that will require being patient with each other as we re-learn how to think, speak and act in our shared best interests.

Instead of undermining each other because we aren't all doing the same exact thing in the same exact way, we'll have to learn how to respect and optimize the different roles we play in this effort. It will also require us to learn how to recognize when we're dealing with people who are unwilling to honestly cooperate in this endeavor, and to accept that we cannot extend to them the same trust we extend to our allies.

Finally, when it comes to elected officials like President Obama we must develop a better understanding of what they can and should do for us, and what we can and must do for ourselves. He cannot wave a wand and make our schools be exactly what we want—especially considering that each of our communities want slightly different things.

But he—and the rest of our elected officials at all levels—can use their policy power to better align our material resources to support our personal and group attempts to change, as well as to support other policies that can help us ensure our common wealth is being spent on our common needs instead of a few people’s greed. It's up to us to keep the pressure up and ensure that this happens.

Paper dolls on a blue background photo via Shutterstock

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