When I entered the teaching profession in the late 1980’s in California, U.S. public education was about to enter the accountability movement. The theory of action for the accountability movement shifted to state and federal authority rather than individual self-interest as a driver for change. By developing curricular standards and a set of aligned assessments, or so the theory goes, good schools can be recognized and rewarded, while bad schools can be identified for assistance or shut down. Prior to the school accountability movement, U.S. teachers enjoyed a high degree of curricular and instructional autonomy. That is to say, teachers made the majority of their curricular decisions based on state guidelines, the content of adopted textbook programs, and a fair degree of personal interest or opinion as to what is important. While this often provided students with a rich and varied education, it also allowed some teachers the freedom to drift toward a path of mediocrity rather than rise to the pursuit of excellence.
Over the past 20 years or so, the accountability movement has sparked intense national debate. How can schools best gather data on student learning and be held accountable for delivering results without inevitably focusing too heavily on high stakes testing at the expense of student engagement and the habits of mind so important to success in the 21st century? While most people recognize the need for some level of accountability, often absent from the rhetoric of the debate, is the reality that schools are comprised of people, not impersonal products that easily fit into an industrial quality control model. Both teachers and students bring so many variables that are not easily analyzed on a standardized test. And, while the accountability movement has certainly brought analysis of teaching quality out into the open resulting in many positive educational gains, I believe it is time for us to reemphasize the human element at the heart of education. Just as some in education prior to the accountability movement demonstrated complacency or poor quality instruction with impunity under a system of little to no oversight or accountability, we still have teachers who demonstrate the same lack of instructional excellence and complacency. The difference now, is simply that they can learn to play the game, teach to a test, focus on bubble kids, etc, and fly under the accountability radar.
The task before us now, as it was prior to the accountability movement, is to challenge those who have found themselves bobbing along with the current through the path of least resistance. Jerry Jeff Walker wrote, “Every wrong direction began as a step in what someone once thought was the right one. No one is foolish enough to go about the wrong things for the wrong reason.” I believe those teachers or administrators who have become complacent are simply well-meaning people who unintentionally started down the path to mediocrity for some reason that, at some time, seamed like a good idea. We compromise out of weariness, or fear, or any number of emotions or as a response to any number of external forces that conspire to rob us of our passion and leave us only with the will to survive. We all know teachers who begin each year with the singular goal of making it to June. It’s no way to live, and certainly no way to teach. Those devoid of passion cannot inspire it in others, and inspiring passion is at the heart of education.
To provide instructional or curricular leadership, I believe it is imperative to empower teachers as leaders in our learning community. In Learning by Heart, Roland Barth writes, “The lives of teachers who lead are enriched and ennobled in many significant ways. Rather than remain passive recipients, even victims, of what their institutions deal to them, teachers who lead help shape their schools and, thereby, shape their own destinies.”
Teachers are still the brave souls who hit the stage each day and lay it all on the line to guide students through the learning process. When it all comes down to it, I believe schools are successful when everyone involved grabs hold of a personal responsibility and passion for people. The challenge is to apply this commitment to people consistently, day to day, month to month, year to year. As educators, we will achieve some degree of success and suffer some degree of failure in the pursuit of these ideals. The goal is to never desert those ideals and wrinkle our soul, or the souls of those teachers and students in our care. There will be considerable motivation to do so from time to time. When that melancholy impulse to give up or give in does rear its ugly head, I believe it will probably have less to do with the state of education policy or finance or governmental bureaucracy than with the fact that education places us in dangerous daily proximity to people, and people are unpredictable, and messy, and alive. That is what makes working with kids so terrifying and wonderful all at the same time. In his book, Dangerous Wonder, Mike Yaconelli writes, “If I were to have a heart attack right at this moment, I hope I would have just enough air in my lungs and just enough strength in me to utter one last sentence as I fell to the floor: “What a ride!” My life has been up and down, careening left then right, full of mistakes and bad decisions, and if I died right now, even though I would love to live longer, I could say from the depths of my soul, “What a ride!”
I hope I can apply this kind of passion for life in all its unpredictable glory to my position as an educational leader, and that somehow this open, honest passion might inspire those around me to do the same. Passion is contagious, but so is apathy. I hope I choose to infect those around me with passion whenever possible.