Published Online: November 20, 2012

First Person

A Call to Teachers: Don't Be Sheep

Our country is currently swept up in a public education revolution. Change is happening, due in large part to an opportunity gap perpetuated by parents' socioeconomic status.

And yet reform efforts—while necessary and imminent to a more equal future—too often disregard the voices and acumen of classroom educators.

This approach is often paired with a disregard for social structures that exist outside of the classroom that very much infringe upon a student's psychological, emotional, and educational development. Educators have found themselves in the puzzling position of being blamed for the cycle of poverty, while simultaneously not having been invited to the conversation about how to equitably provide effective teaching and learning for all students.

Anyone unfamiliar with the current opportunity gap in our country need only visit the Philadelphia high school where I worked last year. Ninety percent of the students came from economically disadvantaged homes, while 85 percent read below proficiency level. The bathrooms lacked soap, the water was unsafe to drink, my classroom was without heat for the entire winter, and neither the classroom bells nor clocks worked. When I pointed these realities out to my students, they shrugged them off as "just how it is." Angered by the notion that my students were being told that they were not worth time itself, I put a large sign over my (broken) classroom clock that simply read, "Don't Be Sheep. Think."

This moniker soon became a staple of my classroom and my personal pedagogy.

Empowering Students Through Inquiry

Stories of American success and self-making are intrinsic to how we see ourselves in this country, and rightfully so. It is an American truth that success is a result of hard work, determination, and smart choices. A much harder truth to accept, however, is that we cannot choose where we begin in society. We cannot choose how many words we encounter in the first three years of our lives, whether our parents are addicts or accountants, or if our home life is marked by abuse or adulation.

Countless research demonstrates the effect these variables have on a student's learning life. Students struggling at home and school tend to receive consistent remediation and rote practice, which perpetuate academic disengagement. This creates what Martin Habermann observed as the Pedagogy of Poverty, resulting in one group of students receiving an entirely different educational experience than another. One group is asked to think, while the other is told to do.

My mission as an educator serving students who have traditionally been told to do, is to elucidate ways for them to assess and access power. I strive to have my students ask meaningful questions that lead them to generate solutions with focused research and reflection. Through culturally relevant inquiry, my curriculum seeks to empower students with self-confidence in their ability to write, identify, and apply solutions to problems.

Students with academic backgrounds marked by fill in the blank and packets of worksheets initially protest against this approach towards teaching and learning. I have had students on more than one occasion cry out for a desire to "take notes"—the process by which the teacher stands at the board and students blindly copy down whatever information is posited. When it is time to assess what students have learned, all they have to do is regurgitate the information. Why do students favor this practice? The answer is simple: It is easy, and it is all that has ever been expected of them.

The cold reality is that there are not many jobs for scribe available in our nation. Our country no longer has a Fordian economy predicated on the assembly line. We are a knowledge-based economy—one that puts value on applicable skills, ingenuity, and the ability to communicate ideas. We can't be sheep. We have to think.

Lost Teacher Voices

There are many great educators who share my belief in backwards design, thematic teaching, inquiry, cultural relevance, and social justice. But their voices are lost in the public education debate across our country—drowned out by entrenched stakeholders on both sides of the political spectrum.

On one side are advocates who believe that reliable student-assessment data can only be obtained through rote testing. Scripted curriculum that aims to teach to the test creates a classroom culture of "record and regurgitate" that is designed solely for teacher technicians and standardized students. This pedagogy does not instill in young people the intrinsic values of ingenuity, creativity, and innovation that are the backbone and catalyst of the American spirit.

On the other end of the spectrum are slow-moving bureaucracies, whose prosperity is often dependent on an inoperable status quo that protects seniority over value. This is not a condemnation of the right for educators to organize, but rather a critique on the frame with which these interests are being advanced. A majority of educators are, in fact, mission-driven, and they deserve reforms that supplant complacent and ineffective colleagues in order to foster a healthier learning environment. Until that happens, we will continue to witness the derogation of educators in the court of public opinion. We deserve representation that is able to communicate a transparent vision of the goals and aims for the future of American schools.

As it stands now, I would suggest that many believe our chosen occupancy suitable for … well, sheep.

In order to prepare our students to become contributing, socially conscious citizens, educators must have the resources and freedom to create innovative methods of teaching and learning. We must have the confidence and opportunity to become leaders in our chosen disciplines and in the communities that we serve. We must advocate for resources students need to concentrate on learning—resources that include an adequate number of mental health professionals and the assurance that students can feel safe from harm at their school. Finally, we must have the courage to stand up to entrenched interests and demonstrate that we know how best to accomplish the enduring understandings that will help our students walk through life successfully.

In doing so, we educators must also accept more responsibility for our personal pedagogy. We need to be attentive to our students' needs and passions, and craft our curriculum accordingly. We should understand that we serve not only our classroom but also the broader community of learners in our schools. And most importantly, we must perpetually be evolving—not through mandated professional development but through personal and collaborative research about our disciplines, technology, and the communities that we serve.

American public education is in the midst of a transformation, and it is time for educators to recapture the narrative of the work we do. All parties—policymakers, administrators, and unions—are accountable for the failure to address the inequality of opportunity available for our nation's young people. The changing education landscape offers a chance to reframe the role and mission of the classroom educator—and it's an opportunity that we cannot afford to miss. We can accomplish this task through many different means, including curriculum, teacher leadership groups, advocacy within the political spectrum, and even changes to how we communicate our work and its impact to those outside the education community.

The American educator cannot afford to sit idly by and wait to be dictated to. It is time to cogently fight for not only our well-being as innovators and intellectuals, but for the well-being of our students and their futures as lifelong learners and achievers in our country's economic and social future.

I implore you, don't be sheep. Think.

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