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Becoming a 'Badass' Teacher

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“You are the only one in your school to speak up at faculty meetings (although many people who remained silent come up to you afterward to tell you how happy they are you did).”

“You tell administrators at your school what you really think, not what they want to hear.”

“Your colleagues come to you constantly with problems with the administration that they are afraid to raise themselves.”

Mark Naison, founder of the Badass Teacher Association, wrote these words to describe the teacher many of us want to teach with, want to be, want our children to have. They describe a teacher who is courageous, connected, creative … and so much more. I’m not personally a member of the BTA, and in fact I disagree with many of the group’s initiatives. But I appreciate Naison’s description of an outspoken, driven educator. As I read it, I remember admired colleagues, friends, and teachers of my own that perfectly fit the bill.

But is ‘badass’ something one just is as a teacher? Is it an inherent quality that one either has or doesn’t have, like being tall, musically talented, or athletic? Is badass a binary proposition—on or off, no in-between? Can one become badass, learn to be what Naison describes, and build conditions in which these qualities can develop naturally?

Personally, I think so. I think badass isn’t something one is by virtue of membership in a group or by ascribing to a certain set of specific beliefs or behaviors. I think it’s something one becomes. I think that teachers and educational allies who are described by their peers as badass tend to develop, both through personal initiative and experience, the following qualities:

1. Creativity: Badass teachers know that the best way to solve a problem is often the unexpected path. They cultivate a creative spirit both personally and professionally. They also have a sense of humor and they apply it liberally in all kinds of situations because they know that we can take the work seriously without taking ourselves too seriously.

2. Courage: Badass teachers know that being brave and being stupid aren’t the same thing. They know when and how to take action in ways that will help students—and teachers—to be successful. They’re brave enough to connect, to be vulnerable, to take instructional and professional risks. They know that courage is doing what needs to be done because the action that needs to be taken is more important than the fear—but sometimes the bravest thing one can do is wait, watch, and go back to school each day.

3. Personal Identity: Badass teachers know who they are when they aren’t being teachers. They have lives beyond school and they work hard to maintain them. They know that all work and no play leads to burnout and exhaustion, two seriously not badass qualities. Badass teachers maintain boundaries between what feeds them and what drains them and they take care of themselves because they pay attention to flight attendants, so they know to put on their own oxygen masks before attempting to help the people around them. (They also know when it’s time to go, and they respect their own right to change schools, change positions, or quit altogether.)

4. Professional Identity: Badass teachers know what they believe. They have a clear sense of who they are professionally, no matter where they’re working, what organizations they belong to, and what textbook series they may be required to use. They make these decisions for themselves, based on research, respect for the communities and the families they serve. (I don’t believe that badass teachers all hold the same set of beliefs, however. I think a badass is smart enough to make those choices for herself—and to walk away from anyone who uses her beliefs as a litmus test to prove her badassity, so to speak. Letting someone else tell you that you do or don’t qualify is the absolute opposite of badass.)

5. Relationships: Badass teachers are connected—personally, professionally, online, and face-to-face. They know that community relationships are the key to everything. Relationships serve as a mirror, helping to clarify how others perceive us; as a barometer, helping us check the perceptions of those outside the educational echo chamber that schools can become; as cover, when political storms sweep through communities, threatening jobs; and as learning device, when we need to find creative solutions to the problems we face.

All of these qualities can be learned or built or created. For some they will come easily, but many of us are not predisposed toward them. We don’t have the time, energy, or inclination to turn everything upside down. So how do we begin?

Start by building a small community of colleagues, parents, and community members we respect and trust. We need a network to push us to think more deeply about our practice and the students we serve, to stand beside us in the face of difficult decisions, to laugh with us when things seem dire, to problem solve with us when our options seem limited, and to help us reconnect with our passions outside the classroom. We need each other—teacher, parent, leader, and student—if we’re going to learn how to be our badass best. From there, we can begin to identify and live by our values with a sense of purpose.

It sometimes seems like the world of education has gone crazy, and the kids we serve are all at risk. The time has come for us to reclaim that part of ourselves that speaks louder, stands taller, commands more. The time has come for us to become badass.

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An earlier version of this item originally misspelled the name of Badass Teacher Association founder Mark Naison.

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