What’s Wrong With “Doing What’s Best For Kids”

best for kids.

There’s a YouTube video called, “The Most Unsatisfying Video in the World ever made.” It lives up to its name. It shows people cutting tomatoes wrong, mixing M&Ms and Skittles, scraping utensils against the bottom of an empty bowl, and other cringe-worthy crimes against humanity. Each example in the video makes me reflexively recoil. It’s the visual equivalent of the many phrases in education that induce the same reaction:

“Teach with strict fidelity.”
“College and career ready.”
“Unpacking the standards.”
“Jigsaw this article.”
“Let’s put that idea in the parking lot.”

And also, “Doing What’s Best For Kids.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone — usually an administrator trying to make teachers feel guilty for self-advocating — say that we all just need to Do What’s Best For Kids. The phrase tends to show up during contentious contract negotiations with regularity. That’s no accident, because all too often it means, “Do what we want you to do, and if you question it, then you’re looking out for yourself instead of your students.”

Some teachers are guilty of using it, too. Questioned about why they made a certain choice, they will hide behind, “It’s What’s Best For Kids” without actually explaining why or how they know that to be true. It’s a way for anyone — teacher, parent, principal — to claim an ethically superior position and send the message that their actions, unlike yours, have selfless motives. They’re doing things for the right reasons, while you may be not.

It’s almost always nonsense.

The Problem

The problem with the phrase, “Doing What’s Best For Kids” is that it can be used to justify damn near anything.

“I’m spanking my kids to teach them right from wrong.”

“I allow my son to eat whatever he wants because I want him to learn he’s responsible for his own choices.”

“We’re taking away recess because students need more time on task.”

“I’m not vaccinating my child because I don’t want her to get autism.”

The phrase, then, is meaningless. But that doesn’t mean it’s powerless. It’s an ace up the sleeve, a flag planted firmly in the high ground, and it’s intended to be a conversation stopper. People on the phrase’s receiving end are supposed to look introspectively and question their motives. They’re supposed to think: I should sacrifice more.

How can anyone argue that educators shouldn’t do what’s best for kids?

Because it’s just not that simple. In addition to the fact that Doing What’s Best For Kids can be used to justify anything, there are three other problems.

Kids Are Different

This should go without saying, but since the phrase keeps getting used, someone ought to point out that kids are different. What’s best for one is often not what’s best for another. My daughter, always a reader, needed only to be given time and books to improve as a reader as she went through school. Other students — reluctant to read and lacking basic skills — needed much more direct instruction. Examples abound:

  • Recess is great for some kids, but it’s a source of anxiety and a daily reminder of their lack of friends for others.
  • Inquiry-based science is more authentic and engaging, but some students don’t learn the content they’re supposed to.
  • Group work teaches kids to collaborate, but it also means some students do much more work (and therefore learn more) than others.

Additionally, what’s best for an individual might not be best for large groups. Ryan is continually distracting the class and making it impossible to teach. It’s certainly not best for Ryan to be kicked out of the room, but it might be best for everyone not named Ryan. Spending one-on-one time with a student will benefit her, but what about the rest of the class?

Of course, a solution to this problem is to differentiate because giving kids what they need is what’s Best For Kids. But differentiation leads to a second problem:

Beliefs Are Different

Not everyone agrees about What’s Best For Kids. That’s why we have standards. Teachers, once mostly left alone, taught whatever they thought was important. I learned about dinosaurs every year from age six to age nine (lot of good it did me, too). I know a former teacher who took time out of every day to have her students sing her favorite college’s fight song. Some teachers still waste class time teaching the dead art of cursive writing. All of these teachers tell themselves they’re doing What’s Best For Kids.

Many educators have diametrically oppositional philosophies about what school should even be. Should it be a place of rigorous work with the aim of producing young people who know things and can demonstrate their knowledge on tests? Should it be a place of wonder and discovery, where failure is encouraged? Should it reflect society, or prepare students to shape a new, better world? Which philosophy is Best For Kids, and is that philosophy best for all kids?

Sometimes, determining what’s best is actually choosing between two benefits, in which case the determining factor is almost always something other than What’s Best for Kids. Field trips are great for kids. So is time on task in the classroom. But if you do one, you sacrifice the other. And since field trips cost money, guess which one administrators think is Best for Kids.

The Biggest Problem

But here’s my main objection to being reminded to Do What’s Best for Kids: It suggests sacrifice and that sacrifice, almost always, is supposed to come from one group of people: teachers.

Teachers, the people doing the hard work of actually educating kids, may have the only legitimate claim on the moral high ground, and yet they are often the ones accused of looking out for their own interests above those of their students. Politicians blame teachers’ unions for ignoring What’s Best For Kids, while turning a blind eye to a myriad of other problems. Administrators — people who have intentionally left the one place where they had the most direct influence on students — have the temerity to suggest to teachers — the people whose job is literally all about the kids and who have chosen to remain in that job despite stagnant pay, deteriorating working conditions, greater expectations, less autonomy, scapegoating, and being reminded to Do What’s Best For Kids — that they ought to sacrifice even more. And sanctimonious teachers wield the tired phrase to feel better about themselves, oblivious to the meaninglessness of their words but comfortable in their own moral superiority.

“Doing What’s Best For Kids” is a weapon. It’s the language of teacher-shaming. It’s manipulative. And when you hear it from an administrator, parent, policy-maker, or even a fellow teacher, prepare to be exploited. Because the insinuation behind this phrase is clear: Teaching is not your job; it’s your calling. And that calling requires you to sacrifice. It requires you to agree to whatever thing someone with more power believes is What’s Best for Kids. So sit down, shut up, sign the contract, and get back in your classroom. Go Do What’s Best For Kids. And if you can’t figure out what that is, don’t worry, someone will let you know.

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Related:

A More Effective Way for Teachers to Say No

The Myth of the Ideal Teacher

We Don’t Believe in Your Magic Bullets

 

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We Don’t Believe in Your Magic Bullets

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

“We Won’t Get Fooled Again”

–The Who

I was talking with a teacher who has a new principal this year. Her new boss is going to turn things around. He’s going to fix what’s broken. It’s a familiar story.

When I started my teaching career, I went to six nights of training in Balanced Literacy. It was the Next Big Thing.

In my fourth year of teaching my district adopted a new math program that had been designed by some very impressive people in Chicago with PhD after their names. The program “spiraled,” and we were told this would raise those stubbornly middling math scores.

When large corporations started using SMART Goals, schools couldn’t wait to jump on board. If businesses were using them, they must be good!

Robert Marzano extolled the benefits of making your learning goals known to students, so it wasn’t long before schools started requiring “I Can” statements to be posted at the front of the room. This, we were told, was going to lead to greater student achievement.

Got behavior problems in your school? PBIS to the rescue!

Having a hard time differentiating? You need one-to-one devices!

Reading scores too low? This program sold by this huge publisher is bound to raise them!

Tired of achievement gaps and mediocre scores on international tests? Raise the bar! Tougher standards! Higher expectations! 100% proficiency goals! That will do the trick!

Once you’ve done this job for a few years, you start to feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. You’ve seen this script before, and you don’t particularly like the ending. Or the middle. Or that damn song that wakes you up each morning.

Don’t Believe the Hype

I have no problem with new programs. I recognize that change is inevitable and that schools should constantly strive to improve. As someone who writes his own books, I don’t resent the peddlers of new initiatives for repackaging some stale idea and trying to make a buck for themselves. Most teachers I know are willing to give new things a go. We know our schools and classrooms are far from perfect, and we’re constantly on the lookout for solutions.

But many administrators, in their desire to convince their staffs to buy in on the latest and greatest fads, go five steps too far. They promise too much, selling one magic bullet after another, as though teachers have a peculiar form of amnesia that wipes their memories clear of previous flops and lackluster results. Like the Super Bowl, the real thing hardly ever lives up to the hype.

We Don’t Believe in Miracles

Schools face complex issues. At best, problems can be mitigated. Success in most instances would be moderate, incremental improvement. But no one wants to hear that. So principals and other leaders zealously pitch their new ideas alongside the unspoken question made famous by Al Michaels, “Do you believe in miracles?”

No. No, we don’t. We don’t believe in your magic bullets. Because if magic bullets actually existed, we would have discovered them by now. We would already be using them.

The overselling of new initiatives isn’t just harmless zeal. We shouldn’t simply forgive those who promise the moon when there is no moon to be had. Failures shouldn’t be dismissed as the folly of an overeager instructional leader. Nor should the responsibility for such failures be left to fall on the shoulders of those who implemented them.  The damage is in the original lie, not the execution.

Every time some earnest and enthusiastic administrator tells his teachers that this new thing is going to be the cure-all we all so desperately want and it then inevitably fails to be such, that administrator loses credibility. Do it once and teachers might forgive him. Do it twice and staff begins to wonder. Do it three times and he better expect some serious skepticism and pushback. As George W. Bush famously said, “Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.” Nobody likes to feel gullible.

The Genesis of Cynicism

It is this baseless conviction in the potential of new things that acts as an incubation chamber for the cynicism veteran teachers are often accused of. It’s not that those teachers are negative and unwilling to try new ideas; it’s that they’ve been there and done that, and like The Who, they have decided that they won’t get fooled again. Their cynicism is hard-earned.

There’s a simple solution for principals looking to implement new programs. It isn’t sexy. Honesty rarely is. But the next time you want to try something you read about–the next time you want to hop on the latest bandwagon–don’t lie to your teachers. Don’t blow smoke up their hindquarters. Admit the truth: You don’t know if it will work. Concede that you cannot guarantee a solution to the problem. Acknowledge past promises and the uphill climb you face to gain your teachers’ trust. Make it clear that because what’s being done isn’t working, you’re going to try something else. Be up-front. Stop pretending you’ve loaded your gun with a magic bullet, when it looks the same as all the other ones teachers have seen slid into the chamber.

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I left out about a 100 magic bullets. Share yours in the comments!

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Other Stuff Worth Reading:

Why Bad Teachers Are Hard to Find

Teach Like a Cat

The Simplest Way to Impress Parents

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