I wrote this essay about back in 2012, fresh from two tough years in traditional high schools. However, things have only gotten worse for teachers since then, with Race to the Top, Common Core, and an acceleration of the moral panic blaming teachers for everything that’s not perfect about American schools. For a longer version of this essay, which includes support from research, click here. If you’re interested in what reforms I’d suggest to change the situation I’m complaining about here, see my review of Diane Ravitch’s Reign of Error.
The Courage to Teach: A Lesson from Atticus Finch
People will say anything to get a job. But in a good interview, they won’t feel pressured to say anything false.
Recently, I have become involved in selecting and interviewing new teachers for the alternative certification program that helped me enter the teaching profession. The program focuses on placing recent graduates and career-changers in high-need urban public schools, and aims at closing the achievement gap. We want candidates to express complete confidence that their students are able to learn and they are able to teach them, as well as a realistic assessment of what conditions are like at high-need schools. We expect candidates to parrot an ideology of high achievement for all. Basically, we are asking them to say, “Yes, my students will learn everything they need to know, even though I know the conditions in which they live make learning impossible. I understand that my students will have appalling skill deficits, bad attitudes, no work ethic, and absentee parents, but by the end of their time with me they will be up to current grade level standards.”
It sounds crazy, right? According to this achievement ideology, all students are capable of graduating on time and college-ready, regardless of current skill deficits, time constraints, scarce resources, and lack of support, and teachers are solely responsible for making that happen. This ideology denies reality, and voicing honest concerns about how achievable certain state-mandated goals are results in accusations of defeatism. As the director of the program explained to us interview facilitators, “We can give new teachers skills for classroom management and content delivery. But we can’t teach them to believe in their kids. Either they do or they don’t.”
I think things are rarely that black and white. To reconcile this supposed conflict between realism and optimism, I turned to literature. In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch says, “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” To paraphrase, courage is doing something hard and thankless even though you know you will not succeed. If you think you’ll win and get all kinds of glory, it doesn’t take as much courage to do it. It is when there are no rewards in sight that actual bravery is necessary.
This is the type of courage that teachers need. In order to be sane people living in the real world, they need to be able to take honest stock of the challenges they and their students face. They need to know that the reasons for their challenges have nothing to do with their students’ innate ability, but with the social, emotional and material resources that their families lack. What the ideology fails to take into account is the contradiction in Atticus’s courageous outlook: knowing how bad things are, even knowing that you are destined to fail, is not the same as making excuses or giving up. What counts is what you do after you have a good look around at reality.
Atticus knew exactly how slim the chances of a jury of 12 white men acquitting a black man of rape in 1930s Alabama were. Did that make him just give up on his defense of Tom Robinson? Did he spend less time preparing his arguments, since he was going to lose anyway? Was his concluding speech any less passionate because he knew it would fall on deaf ears? Of course not. Atticus had integrity and courage, so he did his best, regardless of the outcome he expected.
It’s that way for teachers too. Every day, we’re called to do our best, even though we know we will probably fail because of forces beyond our control. Just because we know how bad things are does not mean we are allowed to give up. At no point is it ever okay for a teacher to just give up. As long as there are days left in the school year and students in the desks, it’s a teacher’s job to keep trying to help them learn. Atticus didn’t give up, and we must fight as bravely as he did. Recognizing that you face challenges and bad odds is not defeatist; it is courageous because it is realistic. My acknowledgment of factors outside of my classroom that have greater influence on my students’ educational outcomes than I do does not absolve me from the responsibility for trying my hardest to help them succeed. Not one bit.
However, it does absolve me from the need to flagellate myself over my failures. This larger understanding of the many factors that influence student outcomes, of which I am only one, keeps me from becoming overly discouraged when my best is not enough. The myth of total teacher responsibility overwhelms teachers, undermines their confidence, and makes them feel like failures when students do not learn because of factors outside the teacher’s (and often the student’s) control. An overwhelmed, demoralized teacher is not able to do her best for her students, so this ideology is actually harmful to students and teachers alike. Letting go of that myth would take a lot of stress off people whose professional lives have become a pressure cooker.
Since I began teaching in public schools, nothing has soothed my soul as deeply as the serenity prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” The current ideology is not wise because it doesn’t distinguish between things that are within the control of teachers and schools and the things that are not. Instead, it insists that the teacher is responsible for everything, destroying teachers’ serenity when they try to change things that they can’t. When we focus on what we can control, acknowledging that we are probably “licked before we begin,” but courageously “see it through no matter what,” then we actually do have a chance at success. A much bigger chance than we would if we willfully ignored the difference between controllable and uncontrollable factors, set unrealistic expectations, and assigned all blame for failure to teachers.