It’s a Miracle All Kids Don’t Hate School

The other morning one of my students picked up a banana from the bowl of fruit set out for breakfast. From across the room, I heard her say, “I hate school,” which was an odd thing to say for someone about to eat a banana. I cringed. I want students to enjoy being in my room and to have a positive school experience. When students don’t like school, I take it personally.

But the more I thought about it, the more I questioned how much ownership I should take. I didn’t love school, and I chose to work in one. My daughter, who does very well in school, balks at getting up in the morning. If you ask her if she likes school, she’ll shrug. Lots of kids will tell you they don’t like school, even those who seem to like it just fine once they’re there.

Teachers, of course, are supposed to feel bad when students hate school. We’re often blamed for failing to engage them. We’re told we need to make learning more meaningful and fun. If kids don’t like school, it’s probably because we’re not allowing our students to move enough or collaborate enough or create enough or choose enough. We teachers talk too much. We’re boring.

Certainly, there are times when those are valid criticisms. Teachers can help make school more appealing to their students. But they’re fighting a steep uphill battle. Because the truth is that students have two very good reasons to not like school.

They’re Required to Be There

I’m not one of those people who thinks we should abolish compulsory education. On the whole, it does far more good than bad. But let’s be clear: Requiring something never makes that thing enjoyable. I struggle to think of a single thing I am forced to do that I enjoy. As a child, I hated taking baths, going to bed, attending church, and eating many of my mother’s dinners (they were fine, I was just a picky little shit). As an adult, some of the best parts of my life are bathing, sleeping, and eating my mother’s food. The difference was that when I was a child, I was forced to bathe when I didn’t want to, go to bed earlier than I wanted to, and eat things I didn’t want to eat. As an adult, I get to choose. It’s the best thing about being an adult.

In high school, I read a fair amount, mostly Stephen King. Once I got to college I stopped reading. The reason was simple: I was required to. There are books I was assigned in college that I didn’t read but later enjoyed when I made the choice to read them on my own. The difference wasn’t the book; it was the freedom to choose.

As a teacher, I have read a number of professional books, but if my school decides to do a book study and I’m required to read even a single chapter, I’ll put it off as long as possible and then resent it when I do read it.

My former district hosted an ice cream social on the last day of school every year to honor retirees. Almost everybody complained about it. It’s not that we didn’t like ice cream or retirees. It’s that the district required our attendance when we had other things we wanted to do.

There’s a really simple way to make an enjoyable activity unenjoyable and something people resent doing. Force them to do it. Take away their freedom to choose. Want to make them really dislike it? Make them do it for seven hours a day for 180 days, year after year. I love Disney World.  But I’d like it a whole lot less if you made me go there five days a week between September and June, year after year.

Almost Everything is Contrived

Almost everything done inside a school is contrived. Very little of it reflects the real world. Think of the reading you do and compare it to the reading we ask students to do. I read primarily for two reasons: to learn things I’m interested in and for entertainment. Now consider the reasons your students read:

Because you told them to.

To answer questions.

Because they have a reading response entry due.

To prepare for a discussion.

To get better at reading.

The standards practically require inauthentic tasks. We’re all going to learn how to reduce fractions today. Why? Hell if I know, but it’s in the standards and you might need it someday (or worse, you need it to pass the contrived test the state devised to see if your teachers are doing a good enough job teaching you contrived things).

Yes, there are moments where students can do authentic tasks, but they are few and far between. You find an article in your local paper and students write letters to the editor. People in the real world actually do that (of course, most of us who read such letters think the writers are quacks with nothing better to do, but still). You have an actual problem in your classroom with storage, so you have students design a cabinet. A group of students saw something on the news and you decide to guide them in some research and have a class discussion about it.

There are opportunities to connect to the real world, but they also require you to be constantly aware of those opportunities and be willing to scrap your carefully prepared plans and possibly ignore the standards everyone expects you to teach. They also mean deviating from whatever cruddy program your district is forcing you to use, so you better keep such lessons on the DL.

Teachers can mitigate this natural resentment of contrived and mandatory things. They can try to bring authentic tasks into the classroom. They can inject fun into their day. They can provide students’ choice to give the illusion of genuine freedom. They can build relationships so that students want to be there to be around people they like. But they can never change the two fundamental truths about school to which students are justified in rebelling against.

The next time you hear a student say she hates school, don’t feel so bad about it. Don’t feel guilty, like you’re somehow personally failing her. Be thankful that all students don’t feel the same way. Because to hate contrived things that you’re forced to do is a natural human reaction. It is, frankly, exactly how we should want freedom-loving people to respond.

 

*If you’re curious, the banana-eating student’s declaration of hatred was in response to a well-meaning food service worker writing the phrase, “I love school,” in marker on the banana’s peel.

Teachers Don’t Need To Find Their WHY

find their why

Every couple of years or so, a Big New Idea sweeps across the business world and ends up being adopted by (or forced on) education leaders. Fish! Philosophy, SMART goals, strategic planning, data-driven decision-making, and choosing your One Word have all found their ways into central offices and welcome back PD days. One of the latest of these fads is finding your WHY. This one is brought to us by Simon Sinek, who you probably know from this video:

Finding your WHY (he’s the one who capitalizes it) is about identifying the reason you do what you do. It’s your passion, your reason for existing. Sinek describes it as, “why you get out of bed in the morning and why anyone should care.”

Because we revere business in this country, schools love hopping on the bandwagon when these fads emerge from the ether. When a business management expert sells a few million copies of his new book and racks up a few million views on YouTube, you can bet there will be plenty of school administrators champing at the bit to shoehorn their ideas into their organizations. “How can this apply to teaching?” they’ll ask.

The truth is, sometimes it doesn’t. Unfortunately, that rarely dampens people’s enthusiasm for it.  I’m willing to bet there are thousands of teachers across the country who have been asked to find their WHY in the last few years. Administrators who push this question have good intentions, but they’re focused on the wrong problem.

Teaching is pregnant with meaning. Teachers do not need to find their WHY. I know very few teachers who don’t recognize their purpose. All of us know our work is meaningful. That’s why most of us chose it instead of fields that paid more but offered less meaningful work. Teaching is a mission-driven profession entered into by largely selfless people for noble reasons. Most teachers are idealists at heart. You have to be, considering the challenges of the job and the modest tangible rewards for doing it.  No teacher enters the profession confused about its importance. In fact, one survey of 30,000 teachers found that 100% of them (that’s all 30,000!) were enthusiastic about the profession when they started. That’s because they were 100% sure of their WHY. Even veteran teachers haven’t forgotten why they’re there. Since finding meaning in one’s work is a major contributor to personal happiness, it’s not surprising that teachers rate their lives better than all other occupation groups except doctors. 

But teachers are far less happy when they’re actually at work. 61% say their jobs are always or often stressful, and they rank their work environment lower than farmers, construction workers, and miners do. How can this be? If teaching is so meaningful — if teachers know their WHY — how can they be so unhappy at school?

Simple. Teachers don’t burn out and quit because they lose their sense of purpose; they burn out and quit because they can’t pursue that purpose. 

Teachers don’t burn out and quit because they lose their sense of purpose; they burn out and quit because they can’t pursue that purpose. Click To Tweet

The unanimous enthusiasm young teachers feel when they start quickly wilts under the crushing reality found inside today’s schools. While every teacher starts off believing in the promise of their jobs, just 53% said they were still enthusiastic about teaching at the point they took the above-mentioned survey. Those who “strongly agreed” had dropped from 89% to 15%. The most dangerous year for a teacher is her first. More teachers quit after year one than any other year. The job didn’t suddenly become devoid of meaning for these young idealists. They quit because of the disconnect between what they want to do (their WHY) and what they believe they can do.

Say I start a food pantry because my WHY is to eradicate hunger in my community. My job will certainly not lack meaning. I will be motivated to seek out donations. I’ll research neighborhoods and identify potential clients. I’ll use traditional and digital media to get the word out. I’ll work with schools and businesses to organize food drives. I’ll move heaven and earth to fulfill my mission.

Now say that upon starting my food pantry, the health department tells me I can’t accept certain types of foods. Then I discover that it’s hard to find and keep reliable volunteers. Then I run into capacity problems; I need more space! Then some of my clients start showing up too often and taking more than their fair share. I have to make new rules. Some clients hate my new rules. I regularly run out of popular items and have to purchase them with very limited funds. Some complain about the food I do provide. Then somebody gets sick and sues me. Now I’m paying a lawyer. At some point, I might decide that having a WHY isn’t enough. There are simply too many impediments.

That’s what too many teachers decide.

If a lack of purpose was a real problem for teachers, then we’d expect greater turnover in affluent schools than in high-poverty ones. Teachers might rightly question the meaning of their job if they’re teaching in a wealthy district where kids are going to go to college regardless of their teachers’ efforts. Teachers unquestionably have a better chance at improving the lives of those who come from less. Finding meaning in their work isn’t the issue. The fact that far more teachers leave high-needs schools than affluent ones suggests that it’s not the meaning of the job that makes the difference in whether teachers stick it out, but the likelihood that such meaning can be effectively pursued.

It’s the barriers that are the problem. The lack of resources needed to do the job. The outside factors that influence students’ motivation and abilities. The insufficient training. The absence of mentors. The lack of parent knowledge or support. These are the things that make it hard to remain passionate about a mission that grows increasingly unlikely to be realized.

Even worse is the bureaucratic buffoonery that tends to be especially egregious in high-poverty districts. It’s exhausting to fight for what should be basic needs and rational policies. Teachers are too often forced to do things that conflict with their sense of purpose. No teacher went into the job to focus on test scores and compliance. They shouldn’t have to give a weekly reading test to a kid they know can’t read the test. They shouldn’t be prohibited from reading a math test to a student who’s excellent at math but can’t decode the words in the problem. They shouldn’t be forced to use this grading scale and enter this many grades by such-and-such a date. The decision to assign homework or not shouldn’t be made for them. They shouldn’t be precluded from taking lethargic students outside for a break or discouraged from providing students time to read whatever they want because they have to teach from a canned program that the kids despise and that doesn’t even work.

Those teachers find their WHY, but the why they find is, “WHY did I become a teacher again?”

Teachers already have a WHY. They don’t need soul-searching and deep introspection. Those who are burned out haven’t mailed it in because they believe teaching lacks meaning. They’re demoralized because the meaning inherent in the job has been stripped away in service to some other less meaningful goals.

Teachers do not need to find their WHY. They simply need to be allowed to pursue it.

Teachers don't need to find their WHY. They need to be allowed to pursue it. Click To Tweet

 

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Their Levers Are Destined to Fail

How do you get educators to do things differently? That is the question anybody with an idea about how to improve any aspect of education must consider.  

Such a question derives from dubious assumptions. First, you have to believe that things need changing, an assumption that probably says more about you than about what’s happening in schools. Second, you have to believe your idea will actually work on a large scale, an assumption that reveals your hubris and something teachers who have been doing the hard work for at least a few years find unlikely.

Their suspicion means that teachers won’t try your idea on their own, so you must force them to. In order to force someone to do something they’d rather not do, you must offer rewards or threaten sanctions  Rewards usually cost money, and you didn’t get to be rich enough to force your ideas on others by giving that away. Punishments must be severe enough to compel action.

It’s no secret that the success of any rollout or implementation is more dependent on teacher buy-in than almost any other factor. When initiatives fail, it’s the reluctance or incompetence of the teachers asked to implement it that’s blamed, not the idea itself. And it doesn’t matter what the reform is. You could be trying to get your teachers to use the textbook you purchased, to stress learning goals to their students, or to develop and use performance scales. You might even be trying to help them. I’m in conversation with someone at the Department of Education who wants to focus on educator empowerment. We’re brainstorming ways to educate teachers on how they can protect their wellbeing and fight for better work cultures. But we face an uphill battle because no matter the initiative, recent history proves it’s hard to get teachers to change and even harder to get true buy-in. 

First, there is the issue of time. When are teachers going to get the training? When will they be given an opportunity to look over the materials? The U.S. requires its teachers spend more time in front of their students than any other developed nation. That leaves very little time for everything else. Because they have too much to do and not enough time to do it, any new idea will meet immediate resistance. 

Second, and more importantly, there’s the issue of motivation. Why should teachers do this new thing? To be as cynical as possible (since any new initiative will have to deal with cynical teachers who have been through this a time or two before), what’s in it for me? I’m offered the opportunity to take an online class, or receive some coaching, or use my PD hours the way I want to and the first thing I’m going to ask (if I’m being cynical) is why should I?

Because it’s not as if this new thing comes without costs. There will be a time commitment and a learning curve. It will take effort. If I’m working with others or receiving some coaching, there’s some risk. There’s usually additional work involved and I’ve already got plenty, thank you. And there’s no evidence that it will work. In fact, based on my considerable experience, the evidence suggests that it will fail and be replaced by something new within a couple of years.

So why do any of it? 

Enter the levers.

Reformers (and I don’t use the term pejoratively here, but just to describe people who are trying to change the way teachers do things) love levers.

Which says something about how they view teachers. As Peter Greene writes,

A lever is a tool that one uses to force movement. There’s nothing collaborative about a lever. And you don’t apply a lever from inside the area you want to affect– you stand outside the box and bear down. If something breaks and snaps loose, it will go flying away from you.

As a metaphor, levers leave a little something to be desired.

But questionable metaphors are not the only problem with levers. The real problem for reformers is that their levers are destined to fail. 

Their Favorite Levers

 

Teacher evaluation

The thinking, I suppose, went something like this: Our test scores suck, which means our teachers must suck. To improve both, we’ll get rid of the duds. In order to identify the dead weight and make this appear at least a little bit objective, we’ll have to rate them. You know, with checklists and numbers and other sorts of data-y things. We’ll make it complicated so it’s harder to question. Anyway, the ones with the lowest ratings will be shoved out the door. The others, seeing those teachers summarily dismissed, will fall into line. Bill Gates, the champion of stack ranking at Microsoft, led this effort to the tune of a half-billion (with a b) dollars. Gates assumed that a practice that worked (except it didn’t) in the sphere where he had the most familiarity would work elsewhere. His efforts failed. In hindsight, it’s not hard to see why.  

Most teachers quickly figured out that they only needed a good enough evaluation to return next year and that the odds of that happening were very high. With a teacher shortage, they could take their chances and not sign up for extra work just to earn extra points on their evaluations. History has proven that’s almost always a safe bet. If there’s one enduring lesson from the Gates experiment, it’s that billionaires and state governments may bark, but principals who have to do the actual firing won’t bite. Even at the height of the teacher evaluation craze, very few teachers received the lowest possible rating and even fewer were fired. 

Reformers hoped that the fear of losing our jobs would make us easier to control. They hoped to provide administrators with the leverage they needed to force compliance so that if they wanted to implement any of the fine initiatives being fed to them by reformers, they’d be able to raise an eyebrow, point at their tablets, and get teachers to bend the knee. When that didn’t work, merit pay was trotted out. The thinking: If we can’t threaten them into compliance, let’s try bribery!  That didn’t work, either. Most of the bribes weren’t large enough, and they were attempting to bribe people who knowingly sacrificed the opportunity to make more money when they chose education in the first place. If we cared about 500 bucks that much, we wouldn’t be teachers.

Badges (or mini-credentials)

So if teacher evaluations and merit pay won’t work, what will? How can reformers and the administrators who’ve signed on to their reforms get teachers to attend training or choose their own professional development or attend a three-day workshop that they don’t really want to attend? The latest solution seems to be digital badges. 

Digital badges are mini-credentials that teachers can earn when they display competencies with new skills or acquire new knowledge. Proponents point to their personalized nature and gamification as reasons teachers find badges better than traditional professional development. When used this way, teachers may indeed find digital badges more motivating. Used as levers to move teachers to action, however, they suffer from the same problem as other methods.

Digital badges are essentially résumé builders. As such, they only appeal to ambitious social climbers who are always looking for the next rung on the ladder.  As levers to get teachers to change, they’ll work on very few and those who do chase them will soon be out of the classroom, on to bigger and brighter things. Teachers who are content to finish their careers in the classroom have no use for them. These types of Scooby Snacks only motivate the already motivated, who would show up for whatever you’re offering anyway if they think it will help them move closer to their next job.  

Extra pay

Just kidding. This isn’t a favorite lever. Normally, if you want somebody to do disagreeable work, you pay them. Some teachers would likely trade autonomy for money. But as the response to nationwide teacher shortages demonstrates, education reformers, most of whom are right of center and proud supporters of our capitalist system, suddenly forget how the free market works when it comes to education. Few of them suggest paying teachers more as a way to attract them to the field. Instead, they look for alternatives, be they Teach For America temps,  long-term subs, or computer programs. Although many want to model America’s schools after America’s businesses, they don’t want to use the lever nearly all businesses use.

Appeals to Professionalism (Guilt)

When all else fails, reformers and the administrators who do their bidding can call on an old friend, guilt. Of all the levers, this one is most effective, at least in the short-term. “Do what’s best for kids,” teachers are told, and what’s best for kids is almost always what people who don’t teach kids think is best for kids. You’ll be reminded that you’re a professional, with the unspoken implication that professionals would never shirk their responsibilities, one of which is constant improvement. You’ve heard all the lines. They’ve probably even worked on you. And no matter how many times we’ve been burned, some of us keep coming back.

It’s manipulation, pure and simple, and it’s a lever that ultimately fails because it never achieves genuine buy-in. Guilted into doing something, some teachers will do it, but they’ll be resentful and unenthusiastic, hardly the mindset those with the idea had in mind when they imagined their brainchild in an actual classroom. Other teachers will exercise their teacher’s veto: they’ll pledge to do the thing and then go back to their classrooms and do what they know works. Compliance, however achieved, is a poor substitute for buy-in.

 

Those Damn Cynics

The only lever left might be to get rid of the cynics so the levers face less resistance. But this is a fundamental attribution error. Cynics don’t become teachers; cynical teachers are created by the situations they find themselves in. And being poked and prodded with levers is one of the causes of the cynicism reformers continually butt up against.

Cynics don't become teachers; cynical teachers are created by the situations they find themselves in. And being poked and prodded with levers is one of the causes of the cynicism reformers continually butt up against. Click To Tweet

It’s a vicious cycle. Reformers hope for docile acquiescence but are instead faced with skepticism and obstinance. To move the doubters, they pull out their crowbars, none of which work. Teachers, convinced that the reformers’ ideas are bad since they needed to be jabbed by levers in order to even try them and because every previous initiative met the same resistance and inevitably failed, have their cynicism confirmed. They become even less likely to change. It does no good to get rid of the cynics because there aren’t enough idealists to replace them, and if you keep sticking levers into them, those idealists will be cynics soon enough.

The Lever That’s Not a Lever

The only lever that will work is the one no reformer wants to use. If you want me to try your new idea, then offer me more freedom and create something useful. Say to me, “We’d like you to try this. We think it’s pretty nifty, and we want to see if it works. We’re so high on this idea that we’re sure if you try it you’ll never go back to teaching how you did. But we’ll trust you to make that decision because we know you want what’s best for your students. We also know that if you try this new thing and it works, you’ll tell other teachers and they’ll start using it. Everybody will win.”

This is how Flipgrid, Pear Deck, Google Classroom, Prodigy, and countless other products ended up being used in thousands of classrooms. Teachers didn’t need to be coerced into using any of them. None of them needed levers. They spread because they worked. 

Of course, allowing teachers to choose is not really a lever at all. That’s trust and treating teachers like professionals. And if reformers did that, well, teachers might decide the ideas they’re being pitched suck. They might not try them at all. And there’s no possible way that teachers, the people who do this teaching thing for a living, can possibly know more about what works than the people who hold the levers.

 

Peter Greene wrote about the unfortunate use of levers as a metaphor for education policy here and like everything he writes, it’s on the nose and fun to read.

Autocomplete, Buffets, and How Schools Are Set Up to Fail

There are all sorts of fun things you can do with Google’s autocomplete function. You can start typing strings of words and see what pops up. (I just tried “what do people” and Google suggested “see in Birdbox?”) You can play Google Feud, which is more fun than you might expect.  You can also read this or watch this:

But if you hate fun and would rather be frustrated, then start a query with the words, “Schools should teach” and be prepared to be blown away by the sheer number of problems people think schools should attempt to fix (which is weird, considering how many of those same people seem to have little faith in schools’ ability to teach anything).

If you follow “Schools should teach” with every letter of the alphabet, you will soon understand exactly how schools are set up to fail and why teachers feel like pulling their hair out trying to keep up with the expectations.

To save you the trouble, here is what Google “suggests” schools teach:

cursive writing skills

etiquette

life skills

taxes

entrepreneurship

sex education

character education

home economics

religious education

reading with only digital materials (I didn’t make that up)

students how to fail

students to protect the environment

classes on friendship

you how to be happy

intelligent design

emotional intelligence

practical skills

world religions

abstinence-only education

a second language

art

sign language

self-defense

foreign languages

financial skills

good behavior

gun safety

handwriting

keyboarding

Latin

how to cook

values

conflict resolution

morals

manners

mental health

meditation

media literacy

 

At least there’s nothing that starts with ‘q’ or ‘z’.

Yet.

More is not better

You may have noticed that reading, writing, math, social studies, spelling, and science do not appear. I didn’t omit them. Google did. Which says something, though I’m not sure what.

You may have also noticed that a lot of what people want schools to teach are important things. In fact, you may have agreed with many of the items on the list above. If so, you can understand why legislators, school board members, and superintendents eagerly accept responsibility for so many subjects and skills. It’s hard to be against teaching kids manners, or conflict resolution, or handwriting.

The problem isn’t any one thing on the list. The problem is the list in its entirety. It’s like my diet. No one food is making me fat, but when you put them altogether … well, let’s just say I need to reread my own book.

While most schools don’t try to teach everything, they also don’t do a very good job of drawing some firm lines about what they will and will not teach. My guess is that most schools take a stab at about 80% of the items above and many others that aren’t included (it doesn’t take much effort to come up with things not suggested by Google).

Schools suffer from the same fallacy that buffets and genre-mashing movies do: They believe that more is better. Click To Tweet

A larger variety of food will appeal to more diners. Offering crab legs, lasagna, and sirloin steak pretty much covers everyone, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t love a buffet?

Mixing genres will attract more moviegoers. Because if you like buddy movies,  comedies, and mysteries, then why wouldn’t you want to see the new Sherlock Holmes movie starring Will Ferrell and that other guy?

Offering more to students will make more of them (and their parents) happy. We’ve got something for everyone! Latin, cooking classes, mental health screening, boater’s safety, and AP Chemistry!

The problem with that kind of thinking is that when you do more things you invariably sacrifice quality.

If you want a good steak (or good crab legs or lasagna), you don’t go to a buffet. Buffets offer a lot of food, but none of it’s the kind of thing that’s going to impress a date.

If you want a good movie, you don’t watch Netflix’s genre-mashing Brightwhich Rotten Tomatoes said, “tries to blend fantasy, hard-hitting cop drama, and social commentary — and ends up failing painfully on all three fronts.”

One can easily imagine a similar review for the many public schools that make the same mistake of trying to please too many people:

“The school tries to blend rigorous academics with conflict resolution and proper etiquette, along with a focus on life skills such as tax preparation and gun safety — and ends up failing painfully short of the mark on all six hundred fronts. Three thumbs down.”

Critic Brian Lowry called the movie a “bloated, expensive mess.” The New York Times called it “a loud, ungainly hybrid that does not serve police procedurals or fantasy spectaculars very well.”

Our public school system might aptly be described as a “bloated, expensive mess” that doesn’t serve its students, their parents, or the people working inside of it very well.

When you try to do too much, you end up doing very little well.

We should stop asking schools to solve every societal problem. Until we do, we shouldn’t expect any more from them than we do from a buffet dinner or the latest Hollywood mash-up. Schools won’t get much better until Google completes the phrase “Schools should teach” with the word “less.”


Related:

Schools Should Do Less

 

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The Teacher’s Veto

We’ve all been there. Sitting in another meeting and being told about yet another initiative that promises to solve the same problem the last initiative was supposed to solve. We’ve sat stone-faced as failed teachers (also called trainers) explained to us exactly how to use the fancy new program our district overpaid for. We’ve kept silent as principals informed us of new policies that conflict with everything we believe about good teaching. And we’ve nodded along, feigning assent, as district leaders sold us on the latest education trend, which they have eagerly adopted on our behalf, that will at long last get the results we all want.

In spite of the furious rebuttals trying to punch their way past our lips, we’re able to hold our tongues (and our good standing among our supervisors) because we all know where the last line of defense resides. If you’ve taught for even a couple of years you’ve heard (and probably thought) the teacher’s saving grace, the one sentence that likely prevents teacher after teaching from doing their best Howard Beale, upending their neatly stacked letter trays, kicking their tote bags across the room, and storming out of the building in righteous, fed-up anger.

It’s always there, whispering its comforting assurance:

“Whatever,” the voice says. “I’ll just close my door and keep doing what I’m doing. Who’s going to know?”

This is the teacher’s veto, the last vestige of true autonomy in the classroom. It recognizes a reality that all teachers understand but few reformers or school leaders seem to acknowledge:

What happens in classrooms is ultimately up to the teacher.

You can tell teachers how to do their job. You can tell them what to teach. You can tell them what to write on their boards. You can demand fidelity to your new program. You can ban movies or independent reading or competitive games or candy in prize boxes.

But the only way you can enforce any of it is by actually going into classrooms, observing, and disciplining the mavericks. Most school leaders, for reasons both good and bad, won’t do that.

And teachers know it.

You can design brand new standards that you claim will raise student achievement, but you can’t make teachers teach them. You certainly can’t make them teach the standards the way you want them to.

You can purchase the best curriculum money can buy, but you can’t force teachers to use it with fidelity.

You can require learning goals be written on the board before every lesson. You can even require a particular format for them. But you can’t force teachers to use the goals with students or to actually teach the things that are written on the board. (Admission: I’ve often left the same goals on the board for weeks. No one’s ever noticed.)

You can make teachers define success criteria and write performance scales and you can send a document telling teachers which assessments they will use to mark report cards and how to use the scales, but once teachers sit down to mark report cards, they can use whatever criteria they want. And chances are pretty good that no parent will ever question it.

You can institute a no-movies policy, but unless an administrator is going to spend a lot of time peeking through classroom doors, you can’t do much to prevent teachers from showing whatever movie they want.

You can roll out a new state test and you can force teachers to give it to their students, but you can’t ensure that teachers stress the test’s importance, or that they establish a good testing environment, or that they don’t tell their students, “I don’t give two mushy turds how you do on this stupid test because you’re far more than a test score and besides, no one is ever going to care about your dumb fourth grade science test score results, so if you want, just go ahead and click stuff so we can finish this thing and get back to learning.”

Thank God for the teacher’s veto. It may be the only thing keeping some of our best teachers in the profession. The knowledge that you can usually ignore the dumbest ideas and continue to do what’s best for kids is what makes laughably bad policies and ill-conceived mandates bearable.

Smart teachers will figure out ways around stupid policies. They will follow the letter of your law while protecting students from its unintended consequences. They’ll limit the damage created by your ill-informed mandates.

So what’s a reformer or school leader with new ideas to improve education to do? If teachers are going to ignore anything they don’t like, what’s the point? Why not just throw in the towel and admit that change will never happen?

Because the solution is remarkably simple: Include teachers from the start.  Ask them what they need instead of telling them what to do. No, you won’t get them all, but they will be a lot more likely to try something they’ve had a hand in creating than something they’ve been compelled to do.

If teachers are telling you that something is a bad idea, then they’re telling you it’s not going to work and you can be sure that teachers aren’t going to do something that doesn’t work for very long. They are the ones who’ll be blamed when it fails. They’re the ones who have to field the parent phone calls. They’re the ones who have to look students in the eye and explain why they’re doing what they’re doing. When they need to, they will exercise their veto.

And we should be glad they do.