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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

Education Opinion

Stop Telling Lawmakers What to Do. TEACH Them!

By Guest Blogger — August 26, 2015 3 min read

Note: Today’s blog post is writen by Jeff Charbonneau, the 2013 US National Teacher of the Year in 2013 and finalist for this year’s Global Teacher Prize. You can follow him on Twitter at @JeffCharbonneau.

I have had the privilege to learn and share at hundreds of conferences and gatherings the past few years. At several events I have had the opportunity to meet with legislators, state superintendents, governors, secretaries, and even President Obama.

Before embarking on these meetings, I am often stopped by a colleague or two who will say, “You tell that politician what to do!”

Let’s stop right there for a moment.

As a high school science teacher, I am often looking for ways to improve learning for my students. My nightstand is piled high with books on pedagogy, learning theory, and instructional strategies. I attend professional development trainings in-person and online. I work with my colleagues and professional learning communities to develop new approaches.

In short, I eat, sleep, and breathe education.

So when a very (and I mean very) well-to-do business man told me that “the teachers in this nation just need to tell the kids to do their work!” I was floored! That’s it! All I have to do is tell them to do their work! Wow!

Reality check.

Telling. Does. Not. Work.

Don’t believe me? You must not have kids. Or at least not more than 20 of them in the same room at the same time.

If telling worked, then we would call the profession “telling” and not teaching!

When you tell a student to do something, you are conveying that you are the ultimate authority figure and are inviting them to challenge you. Adolescents seek out these challenges with a laser-like focus!

And that’s why we call it teaching.

When you teach someone you do so much more:


  1. Learn about their backgrounds, prior learning experiences and the current successes and struggles that they are faced with.
  2. Identify the learning targets and customize instructional strategies to help guide them to make connections between their backgrounds and the material you are putting in their foreground.
  3. Evaluate the effectiveness of those strategies and adjust as necessary.
  4. All the while, respecting the individual for their perspectives and contributions.

In fact, if you are a teacher, you probably treat your students better than you do anyone else.

Think about it.

Students are supported by teachers, administrators, counselors, coaches, and more both inside and outside of the school day. When they struggle in class, teachers do not give up on them and instead repeat and adjust their lessons until the student makes progress. In short, we do everything within our power to ensure social, emotional, and academic growth.

That’s what good teaching looks like.

And it works.

Simply telling a student to do their work does not.

So why in the world would I expect to be able to go to that meeting with the politician and expect anything to happen by “telling that politician what to do”?

More broadly, if teaching is what works, why do we keep trying to TELL all of the adults in the conversation what to do?

Teachers don’t want administrators telling them what to do.

Administrators don’t want politicians telling them what to do. The cycle goes on.

NO ONE wants to be told what to do and worse yet, it causes the same reaction that we all learned in adolescence — that when we are told what to do, we should react by pushing back and refusing to do what we were told!

I mean, let’s be honest. Do you really think that the governor is just waiting for someone to walk into their office and tell them what do without any background information and/or connections to other issues they are dealing with? I doubt it.

So what’s the solution?

Start treating everyone around you like they are your student!

That sounds bad to many at first, until you remember that often students actually get treated with more respect than the adults in the room!

After all, if you treat them like a student that means that you have the opportunity to teach!

In fact, scroll up to the four points on teaching and this time read those points as though the teacher is talking to a lawmaker. What if you did the same but it was an administrator talking to a teacher?

Pick any combination you want — teachers, parents, community members, administrators, and lawmakers. Wouldn’t every one of those combinations benefit by each group treating the other as though they were students?!

Imagine if we all agreed to stop telling each other what to do and instead committed to teaching.

--Jeff Charbonneau

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.

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