Education Opinion

Creative Non-Compliance

By Deborah Meier — October 04, 2007 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

Years ago—when I was teaching both 5-year-olds at PS 144 in Harlem and teachers at City College—adults said that, unlike me, they weren’t allowed to do x and y. After ascertaining why they thought it was so important to do x or y, I’d ask: “and what will happen if you do?” There was always a pause.

So we’d have a class discussion about the consequences of not following orders (usually none).

I think this is an important exercise—for adults and kids. We can’t always get our way; there can be consequences that follow. But there may still be good reasons to accept the possible consequences and tactfully (or do I mean tactically) do what you believe is right.

Our first responsibility is to have a strong basis for making decisions—knowledge about kids, the nation’s system of schooling, mandated rules, curriculum, subject matter more broadly, pedagogy, and one’s own risk-status. (Of course, often you have to act instinctively.) I advise: take fewer risks, for example, before you have tenure, or if your principal doesn’t like you. Also, decide what’s important and what’s trivial.

When I left my kids with a baby-sitter I had the same dilemma in reverse. How many dictates should I lay down? My five rules. Rule one: Any good child-care giver had to be someone whom I trusted enough to make split-second judgments (there’s virtually no other kind when dealing with kids). Rule two: Provide information about the kids, the household (where things were), and how I could be reached. Rule three: Provide as few no-no’s as you can—we don’t hit our kids ever, or if they want the light left on in their bedroom, that’s okay. Rule four: Listen carefully to what the kids say after and what the sitter says about the same events. Finally, if there’s no one whose judgment I sufficiently trusted, I stayed with the kids myself. These pretty much fit the way I looked at being a principal, too.

I began teaching ten years after my first child was born, and I brought the same mindset into my classroom, and later into my schools. Over the decades I had many different supervisors, and fortunately no one ever stopped me from going my own way even when I did it pretty openly. Was it all just good luck? Probably partially.

What happens if you’re not so lucky? You learn to hide a bit more, say “sorry” rather (and rarely ask permission), build a strong record in other ways, and keep open to the possibility that you are wrong! That latter is not just wise strategy, but wise for getting to be smarter at one’s craft.

But there are some things I could never have done; and fortunately was never “required” to. Certain forms of discipline, for example. Teaching (e.g. covering too much) in ways that left kids feeling dumber than when I started off. Comparing kids in ways that led to misleading conclusions about their place in the world. Those were my “bottom lines.”

After I left Boston new rules came out that I’d have had a hard time following. During state testing sessions (which are un-timed and can last 2-3 hours a session) one is not allowed to pat a nervous 7-year-old kid on the back, offer a drink of water, or suggest a short break when clearly a kid has become too tense, and so on. All of those gestures are viewed as forms of cheating and could get me fired today. (I even had food brought into the testing room at Mission Hill in the early days!) I’m sad not to be in the schoolhouse anymore, but I’m glad not to be the adult responsible for carrying out such rules on little kids who trust me to use good sense. It’s not good sense.

One late afternoon, as I was leaving my Grade 7-12 school in East Harlem, I noticed three boys playing basketball (unsupervised) in the gym. I reminded them that it was too dangerous to allow them to continue and that they’d have to leave the building. They were very courteous about leaving; but the last lad turned and asked me, “do you really think we’ll be safer playing in the street?” I accepted the critique—I was thinking about my personal and “institutional” safety, not theirs. When we’re going along with bad policies, at least we ought to be straight about it.

At some point the compromises we make lead us to lose our love for the work. I hope that all practitioners can catch themselves before they reach that point and reverse course: break more rules?, get them changed, or…….quit. But “creative compliance” “creative non-compliance” in the interest of good practice is, as my one-time bosses Tony Alvarado and Sy Fliegal reminded me, an option one should not shun. For hundreds of years teachers have known this. There may be reasons to change the culture from solo to collaborative work—but not to giving up our collective

So I still tell folks, push ahead as far as you can doing what you think is right, and when someone in authority says “stop"—stop and think about what comes next. Maybe try a different crack in the pavement? In short, I still give my colleagues the same advice I did 30 years ago at City College. It may, however, be harder than I think.

Are these dilemmas that face folks in all life’s vocations, Diane?


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