Teaching Profession Opinion

TEDx Talk (Video): Finding the Courage to Voice the Taboo

By Marilyn Rhames — January 06, 2014 9 min read
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My personal theme for 2014 is “Courage.” I’ve long been the person who didn’t like the sound of my own voice and would grimace when watching myself on video. Grappling with false notions of beauty, I purposely avoided broadcast journalism, choosing print reporting instead. I hid behind my writing, letting my words on a page speak for me.

On September 28, 2013, however, I presented a talk at a local TEDx event called Teacher Voice Beyond the Classroom. Some 200 educators and advocates filled the auditiorium at National Louis University in downtown Chicago. My thesis was a somewhat provocative one, but the forum prohibited speakers from using hand held notes, which only worsen my anxiety. I fumbled some of my words and forgot about a quarter of my talking points. I left the stage profoundly disappointed in my performance, and I nearly refused to authorize the release of my talk on YouTube, where critics show no mercy.

So it’s in the spirit of “Courage” that I now present to you—with my original, complete speech notes—my TEDx Talk entitled “Finding the Courage to Voice the Taboo.” I’m finding more courage day by day, and I hope you do, too.

Happy New Year!

Finding the Courage to Voice the Taboo

Brazilian educator and philosopher Paolo Freire was a leader in critical thinking instruction. In his book “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” he writes, “Human existence cannot be silent nor can it be nourished by false words, but only by true words, with which men and women transform the world.”

I believe this is true, and I want to transform the world.

I graduated from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and worked as a reporter in New York for six years in hopes of asking the tough questions that would forth justice, and perhaps change the world. I loved being a journalist, investigating the truth and writing about it, but the publications I worked for forced me to temper my activist spirit, which I sometimes found difficult to do.

I’m a passionate woman, and when I unearthed a nugget of truth, I wanted to express my feelings about it. Online media was in its infancy, and any serious journalist knew better than to post their personal feelings on that new platform strangely called a blog.

When the 9-11 terrorist attacks occurred in 2001, I was among the reporters who attended funerals and interviewed survivors for The Journal-News in Westchester County, New York. I was seven months pregnant with my first child and was discovering a deeper meaning of life. I wanted to touch humanity with my own humanity. I wanted to be able scream, cry, or roll my sleeves to help in catastrophes, not stoically stand on the sidelines to report it.

I decided then I would choose a different route to transforming the world. I would become a teacher. Teaching, I reasoned, would allow me to make a direct, more immediate impact on people’s lives. I could be more of an activist, changing the world—one student at a time.

Well, I quickly discovered that my true words would be muted more than they ever had been. The education system wasn’t ready for a teacher like me—trained to ask the hard questions. A teacher whose probing follow-up questions were viewed negatively by administrators as “push back.” In fact, one principal chastised me and demanded that I “Stop asking WHY and start asking HOW.”

“But wouldn’t knowing WHY we do things make the HOW we do it more effective?” I replied.

I am an inquisitive thinker, but I’ve never been a bull. My down-to-earth personality also helped me earn the trust and respect of my school community—the kids, the parents, the teacher next door.

As it turned out, my journalistic skills and gentle persona made it more natural for me to come into a school and voice the taboo—to actually speak out about the pesky inconsistencies that discourage teachers but that teachers are too scared to address.

This is where the true power of the teacher voice lies—right there in our own school buildings, talking about the nitty-gritty details of how and why we operate the way we do.

Teachers like to complain that education policies are created by corporate executives or rich politicians who have no idea of how hard it is to teach. We want Washington to hear us so that the laws they pass will actually help children to learn and teachers to teach—not stress us all out, which is what is happening now. That’s all valid and true—I agree 100 percent. More teacher voice should be heard before any politician or education bureaucrat parts his or her lips to announce another brilliant education strategy.

But how many teachers are willing to be vocal about sensitive school matters that are hindering student learning? Who will stick their necks out to address these taboo issues, some big and some small, that are within our locus of control?

For example:

  • Who’s going to break the news to the principal that those expensive education consultants she’s so proud of have provided a curriculum that is confusing and boring your students to tears?
  • What do you do if you just happen to see a couple of teachers erasing student answers on a standardized test?
  • How would you react if the black kid gets expelled for fighting, but the white kid gets in-house suspension for threatening to blow up the entire school?

Yes, teachers deserve a seat at the table when systematic reforms are being decided, but the vacuum of teacher voice isn’t just in City Hall, the state capitol building, or in the U.S. Department of Education. The true power of teacher voice is local. It’s in our schools.

Are you a scared teacher?

I started blogging for Education Week Teacher in 2011 and the feedback from my readers have validated the impression I’ve held since joining the profession 10 year ago: teachers are scared.

In the age of public teacher-bashing and an ever decreasing sense of job security in the classroom, more and more teachers are feeling trapped in a code of silence or stuck in an angry, defensive mode.

Unfortunately, the compulsion to stay silent or defend our teaching practice at all cost often prevents us from fully advocating for our students and colleagues. We are forced to depict ourselves as perfect people in a selfless profession fighting against the injustices of the world. And while teachers are incredibly hardworking people, the truth is that no one is perfect. Sometimes we can be just as selfish, bitter, and cruel as the next person, refusing to own up to our own prejudices and flaws. How do I know this? Because teachers are human, and humans also make mistakes. If we pretend that we are perfect, we lose credibility on the public stage.

Teachers in America are scared to hold each other accountable because we fear being ostracized by our colleagues, labeled as troublemakers and denied promotions by administrators, or worse—fired.

I should know, I spoke the taboo once and was fired.

It was my fourth year of teaching. The principal had given me a rave review the year before and heralded me as “one of the best teachers in the primary building.” Now he was calling me “negative” and not welcomed back. What happened?

Well, my grade level partner who was tenured and Nationally Board Certified co-authored a memo with me chronicling specific instances of unacceptable behavior by our assistant principal. We felt we could no longer keep silent about her condescending comments about our black inner-city students compared to the wealthy white kids she used to teach in the suburbs; her inability to manage student behavior; and her outright refusal to do any modeling of instruction in the classroom despite her frequent, unhelpful critiques.

Many teachers complained about her to each other, but not us—we were wanted to be professional. So we put our concerns in a memo and took it straight to the principal. My friend and I had no idea, of course, that the principal and assistant principal, both of whom were married to other people, would within two years of our memo be divorced and married to each other!

Needless to say, that memo didn’t bode very well with either of them. And since I was four months from achieving tenure, I was sent packing. My tenured and highly accomplished grade level partner received no retaliation, but she decided to leave the school anyway (as did one-third of the teaching staff).

I had the courage to speak the taboo and I was fired. I loved my students enough, my school enough, my principal enough to tell him the truth. And the truth sure enough set me free ... free of employment!

I’m not going to pretend that I wasn’t hurt. With two young children at home and a new mortgage, I was devastated. It was a very scary time in my life. But I’ve never regretted speaking my true words.

Holocaust survivor and famed neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl taught me that “What is to give light must endure burning.” I got burned, but look at me shining now!

Please let me be clear: Voicing the taboo is very different from gossiping or snooping around the next tabloid-like school scandal. When we speak the taboo in our schools, it must come from a place a virtue, a place of wholesomeness, and love.

The goal is to find a solution to a persistent problem, not to embarrass or shame anybody. The courage to speak the taboo comes from our passion to elevate the quality of education for our students. Polarizing the staff, sowing seeds of discord, or demonizing another person only works to degrade our profession.

And just because you have the courage to speak the taboo doesn’t automatically mean your principal or supervisor will want to fire you. There’s a proverb that goes, “The same sun that melts the ice, hardens the clay.” While some school leaders are not receptive to hearing a teacher’s true words, there are many administrators who welcome honest feedback and actually desire to know what is on their staff members’ minds. These are the kinds of educators who have high functioning schools with high staff morale and parental engagement.

Still, before a teacher decides to voice the taboo, I recommend a substantial amount of introspective—even prayer. If we find that our hearts are in the right place, here are steps we should follow:

Be True to Yourself

  • Be the best teacher you can be so you can have credibility (come on time, work hard, know your content)
  • Be humble and be open to the idea that you could be wrong
  • Document the inconsistencies that you observe in an honest way, and in writing.

Don’t Do it Alone

  • Collaborate with other courageous teachers who have observed the same problem
  • With those colleagues, make your case for change in the most objective, solutions-oriented way possible
  • Schedule a meeting with as many school administrators as appropriate, ideally respecting confidentiality of discussion from the meeting

Be Relentless, If Necessary

  • Try to resolve the issue in-house, if possible, before taking the problem to outside authorities
  • Call outside authorities for help if the taboo issue persists and students continue to suffer injustice

Rae Pica of the Bam Radio Network invited me to co-host her online education-based show called “Taboo.” It seeks to provide teachers with a safe space to wrestle with the sticky, controversial issues at school. It’s worth a listen.

In closing, more teachers must feel empowered to use true words to transform their schools. If we feel powerless to change our local schools, how will our voices ever effectively reach Washington?

More importantly, if we stay silent how can we ever hope to inspire and empower our students to push for change? I don’t want my 2 and two-thirds children being taught by spineless wimps! I want them to be led by confident teachers who will not just do what they are told but are governed by internal principles of justice and truth—the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

That’s the genius of Paulo Friere’s true words. When spoken from a place of virtue, in the spirit of dialogue, they have the power to transform a school, if not the world.

Thank you.

The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course 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.