The story goes like this:
Five monkeys are put in a room by some scientists. A ladder is in the middle of the room. At the top of the ladder sits a basket of bananas. Each time a monkey attempts to scale the ladder to get the bananas, the scientists douse all the monkeys with cold water. After a few attempts, the monkeys get the picture and give up.
Then, the scientists remove one of the monkeys and replace him with a new one. This new monkey, unaware of the others’ experience, goes straight for the bananas. But knowing they’re all about to get soaked, the others pull him back and beat the hell out of him, sending the clear message that ladders are not for climbing. The scientists continue replacing monkeys. Each new monkey is similarly deterred. Eventually, the group is composed of five new monkeys, none of whom has ever been sprayed with water. Still, none will go for the bananas.
Imagine a new monkey entering the group and seeking advice from the sage monkeys who have years of experience in the habitat. “Hey, fellas. What’s with the bananas, and why aren’t any of you eating them?”
“Oh, we don’t climb the ladder.”
“We just don’t. Bad things happen when the ladder is climbed.”
Without questioning the conventional wisdom, each new monkey remains one degree away from ground-level truth, the information he needs to make good decisions.
Simply by asking “why,” the entrenched behavior of the monkey community could be turned on its head. It’s possible that circumstances have changed — perhaps the scientists got bored and left or maybe they’ve changed the experiment — and they won’t be sprayed with cold water when attempting to go for the bananas.
The story appears to be completely made up and spread by the Internet. That’s okay. Aesop made up a bunch of stories and we have no problem telling them because we recognize that they contain valuable lessons. Fables are good for that, whether they star talking ants and grasshoppers or sadistic scientists and monkeys.
This one’s especially good for teachers today because just about any time I write about working less or saying no or not sacrificing your personal life for your school life, I get something like the following response from a few teachers:
“But I have to say yes or I’ll get fired (or evaluated poorly or shamed or scolded or choose-your-own-negative-consequence).”
Almost all of these teachers are acting like monkeys. I’ve taught nearly 20 years, and while I have seen teachers let go, moved into undesirable positions, written up, treated poorly by principals, and dinged on their evals, I have never seen those things happen to an otherwise effective educator and pleasant person who simply said no more often.
There may have been a time when teachers were metaphorically doused with water for protecting their own time, but I’ve never seen it. Most of us are just like the new monkeys. Even though we have no first-hand experience of being punished for saying no, we go on believing that doing so is dangerous.
What’s Good About Teacher Shortages
There’s a lot of talk right now about teacher shortages. The topic is usually used to highlight everything that’s wrong with education today. Writers pointing to the shortage hope to create a sense of urgency to fix systemic problems so that teaching can be more attractive and schools can choose from better candidates. But not everything about the teacher shortage is bad.
Combined with our robust economy, the teacher shortage gives teachers more leverage than they’ve had since I started in education. When schools know they’ll be scrounging to fill open positions and might have to hire someone who they normally wouldn’t consider, it makes them less likely to let teachers go for frivolous reasons. Smart districts will try to keep their teachers happy, knowing that if those teachers leave they will have a difficult time replacing them. Since many people do not want to do the job, those who do have power.
Rahm Emanuel famously said that you should never let a crisis go to waste. The teacher shortage crisis presents an opportunity for educators to flex some muscle. It won’t last forever, so while it does, teachers should fight to protect their time. At the very least, they should demand to be paid for their work. They should say no if districts don’t offer additional pay for additional responsibilities.
The circumstances have changed, as has the balance of power in many places. The time is now for teachers to climb the ladder. And if you can’t bring yourself to do that, then you can at least stand back and watch when others place their feet on the rungs. You’ll probably see that there is no one waiting to soak you with water.
Stand up for yourself. Say no. Get what you want. Go for the bananas.