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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Are You a Good Little Soldier?

By Peter DeWitt — February 16, 2014 4 min read
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Perhaps teachers are making changes in their instruction, and we as leaders are blind to those changes because they aren’t the ones we want.

We have certainly seen a lot of changes in education. For a profession that has been accused of never changing, we have made up for it in a few short years. At this point, it’s not even important to mention them all, but what is important is how we have reacted to them. Sadly, when educators are resistant to all of the reforms, they are thrown in the category of those who do not like change. Never mind actually going into their classrooms to see the individual changes they have made.

Education reform has had an enormous impact on much more than just teaching and learning. It’s had an impact on relationships. School leaders and teachers who may have always gotten along, no longer are on the same “sides.” What’s worse is that, because of reform, we have lost relationships. Yes, that is true. In these days of high stakes everything...you are either on one side or the other. Even moderates have to lean to the left or the right.

The problem is that when there is discourse is any district, you are either right or wrong...depending on where your loyalties lie. True leaders need to step outside their roles, leave their egos to the side, and understand that just because someone may not like your change, doesn’t mean they don’t like change at all. During a time of change, leaders want good little soldiers.

Good little soldiers make everything easy for leaders. They agree with everything a leader says, sometimes even try to be the cheerleader for the reform, and like things in tidy little packages. Good little soldiers don’t like discourse. It doesn’t make them feel good. They don’t like to be challenged.

If you don’t like challenge, perhaps your argument is weak.

Truth be told, I used to be a good little soldier. I wanted everyone to feel good. Life, for me, was like an episode of the Love Boat, where we felt the love at the beginning, had an argument half way through, and made up at the end. When my half hour sitcom was turning into a mini-series, I grew nervous. I didn’t like discourse.

And then I became a teacher.

As a teacher I saw the backgrounds that my students came from, and understand why some parents hated school based on their own previous experience as a student, and I realized my classroom, just like my life, didn’t come in a tidy little package. Not everything had to be a fight, nor does everything now, but the discourse was healthy.

I had a first grader drop the “F” bomb in class. He told me I wasn’t the boss of him, and added the colorful word before he told me that fact. Besides being really, really angry, I stepped out of my roll and realized that his colorful language was modelled at home. I didn’t judge him for growing up in a house of colorful language, and realized we had to work through the discourse...even with 6 year olds.

And then I became a leader.

As a leader there are always good little soldiers, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. I like when people follow along, just as long as they feel they can be honest and disagree with me at times as well. When good little soldiers are the ones who question the direction you’re taking, you need to stop and listen.

The problem is that in many states, and even across the country, we have all been good little soldiers. We have watched political leaders behave badly, make enormous mistakes, and then forgive them for doing so. We have been the rule followers who stopped questioning changes, no matter if we agreed with them or not.

In many states, we are dealing with a mess. Whether it’s the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, high stakes testing or teacher/administrator evaluation, education is divided between those who believe in the changes, and those who don’t. There seems to be no middle ground.

We can learn from being good little soldiers. As school leaders we need to realize that just because we have teachers who disagree with us doesn’t mean they are bad and resistant. Clearly, they don’t have to resist everything that comes their way, but perhaps teachers are making changes in their instruction, and we as leaders are blind to those changes because they aren’t the ones we want.

There will always be a group of people who do not want to speak out. They want to show up, do their jobs, and go home. I envy those people. It doesn’t mean they are bad at their jobs, they just want to take the path of least resistance. I need that more in my life, but it’s not going to happen anytime soon.

Things to Keep in Mind:

  • Foster respectful discourse in your building. Just because teachers may not agree with you doesn’t mean they’re bad. There is enough of that in education.
  • Just because a change comes from the state doesn’t mean it’s a bad change. I always go back to the Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) in New York State. It requires schools to have codes of conduct, board policies that not only help protect marginalized populations, but requires curriculum to be included in classroom discussions that leads to a better understanding of those populations.
  • Pummeling staff into submission with reasons why something is good may not lead to everyone getting on board. Perhaps the rhetoric about the changes is so persistent because you don’t believe in it yourself. Take a step back and ponder that.
  • Find the good in everything, before you find the bad in it. Weigh both sides before throwing something out. Not all changes are bad. Sometimes it’s what we do with the changes that is bad.
  • Good little soldiers may be important, but so are the rabble rousers. Ignoring their voices, and not listening to their concerns, won’t make any decision better.
  • We’ve been stuck in the same arguments for two years. Can we move forward together or have we not hit rock bottom yet?

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.