4 Civil Rights Lessons Worth Teaching

Guest Post:

Here at Owl Eyes, we’ve recently been publishing and annotating primary source documents from American history. Some of the most illuminating texts to read and write about have been those from the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. The conflicts waged and resolutions struck in those years have done much to shape the United States as it stands today.

One of the most critical laws passed in the wake of the Civil War was the Civil Rights Act of 1866, a law that defined American citizenship and sought to protect African Americans from those who wished to take away their rights as citizens. Revisiting the Civil Rights Act of 1866 in 2018 reveals some fascinating and relevant lessons about civil rights, political change, and government in the United States. For educators interested in teaching the history of civil rights in the classroom, these lessons are well worth discussing.

1. Civil rights must be fought for and won.

The first century of American history tells us that civil rights are not merely granted. They must be fought for, delineated in painstaking detail, and carefully preserved for future generations. Rights require work. Because the founders set sail on the waters of nationhood in order to be free of the tyranny of the British crown, it is tempting to view “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” as the default condition of the American individual. Not so. The values set forth in the founding documents mark an ideal to strive toward, a national myth, not a description of American life.

In the century following the nation’s birth, one particular issue increasingly revealed the gulf between the dream of Jefferson’s “unalienable rights” and the stark realities of the young nation: slavery. Anyone wondering whether “all men are created equal” needed only survey the back-breaking slave labor that fueled the cotton plantations of the South to discover a resounding answer. The North noticed the problem. Cue the Civil War.

The scale of the war—its costs and casualties—revealed the split visions of American values. In the North, “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” were seen as rights for all Americans, or at least all men. In the South, the phrase read like a list of privileges for wealthy white men, especially those who owned land and slaves. Even after the North defeated the South in war, the progressive politicians in Congress had to pass a bevy of laws, acts, and constitutional amendments in order to clarify that “all men are created equal.” These laws, which sought to give freedom, citizenship, voting rights, and safety to African Americans, received pushback at every step. The basic tenets of civil rights needed to be refreshed in the mid-20th century and remain debated to this day. Civil rights always need to be fought for.

Discussion Questions for Teachers and Students:

What do Jefferson’s “unalienable rights” to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” mean to you?
What are the similarities and differences between the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s-60s and the progress made by Congress during Reconstruction?
Which civil rights issues do you find most relevant and pressing today?

Recommended Reading:

The Declaration of Independence
Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”
The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution

2. Government is an evolving process.

The other political issue that dominated American politics in the 19th century was states’ rights. The issue of states’ rights—which persists to this day—refers to the struggle between the federal government and the state governments over which level of government should have the power to pass and enforce laws. While the founders of the United States sought to lay out in clear terms the systems of government, one question arose and, unanswered, began to hover like a storm cloud over American politics: How much power should the federal government possess?

The dispute over this exact question defined the Civil War and Reconstruction. In many ways, this clash mirrored the clash over slavery and civil rights. Put simply, the North wanted to end slavery and expand civil rights and therefore wished to arm the federal government with the powers to do so; the South wanted to maintain slavery and limit civil rights and therefore wished to keep the federal government too weak to change anything.

It is no surprise, then, that the push for freedom, equality, and civil rights in the 1860s also empowered the federal government. That trend began with the Civil War. The Union’s victory over the Confederacy was, in itself, a victory for the federal government over the autonomy of the states. Much of the progressive legislation of the time explicitly declares, along with each new law, the federal government’s authority to enforce the law across the states. The Fourteenth Amendment included a critical clause that allowed the entire Bill of Rights to be incorporated into the state legislatures. Revisiting this historical period reveals how the federal government itself is an ever-evolving process rather than a fixed reality.

Discussion Questions for Teachers and Students:

Over the course of American history, how has the relationship between the federal government and state governments changed? Do you think the federal government has become more or less powerful? Explain your reasoning.
Some politicians and historians have argued that the Civil War was more about the issue of states’ rights than slavery. How valid is this claim, and why?
To what extent is a strong central government needed to instate and enforce civil rights? Is it possible to institute civil rights at the state or local level? Why or why not?

Recommended Reading:

The Bill of Rights
The Reconstruction Acts of 1867 and 1868
The Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution

3. There have always been progressives and conservatives.

If the current political landscape appears to be a staged clash between progressive and conservative sides, it has always been so. During the American Revolution, there were the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists; today there are the Democrats and the Republicans. The times change, as do the names of the political parties, but this central polarity does not. Progressives are more egalitarian, pushing social reforms and large government programs. Conservatives are more independent, seeking to minimize the government’s involvement in human affairs. Progressives want change; conservatives want tradition.

In a reversal of today’s parties, the progressives of the Reconstruction era were known as Republicans; the conservatives, Democrats. The push for civil rights in the United States has always been a progressive agenda, and so it was the Republicans of the 1860s—known as the “Radical Republicans”—who emancipated the slaves, abolished slavery, created the Freedmen’s Bureau, and gave African Americans citizenship and the right to vote. The 1860s represent an example of when progressive lawmakers took enormous—and often hard-won—strides in the ethically correct direction.

Discussion Questions for Teachers and Students:

Describe the party politics of the 1860s between the Radical Republicans and Southern Democrats. In what ways do today’s progressive and conservative parties reflect those of the 1860s? In what ways do they differ?
Do the opposing forces of progress and tradition—which can be found throughout world history—represent a conflict or a balance or both? Explain your answer.
What are other historical examples of conflicts between progressive and conservative sides? Consider other places and periods in history.

Recommended Reading:

The Federalist Papers
The Emancipation Proclamation
The Freedmen’s Bureau Bill

4. Presidents can be overpowered and overruled.

Following the end of the Civil War and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, Andrew Johnson took the presidential office. Unlike Lincoln, Johnson was a Southern Democrat and brought with him a highly conservative agenda. He attempted to reinstate the Southern state governments and resurrect the crushed postwar South. Furthermore, he tried to block, veto, and argue against the progressive laws passed by the predominantly Republican Congress.

Despite Johnson’s desire to return the United States to its prewar condition, the Republicans in Congress pushed for a better future, ignoring Johnson’s numerous vetoes in their march towards greater equality and civil rights. The best example of this trend is the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which Johnson had vetoed before the Senate and House of Representatives overrode the veto in a cascade of congressional votes. It was the first major veto override in American legislative history. Andrew Johnson’s term in office shows how American presidents can be overpowered and overruled, especially if they conflict with the stronger political forces of their time.

Discussion Questions for Teachers and Students:

How does a presidential veto work? Do you think the presidential veto is a proper tool in the system of checks and balances? Explain your answer.
What are some other times in American history when a president clashed with Congress? What happened?
Beyond American history, what are other examples of world leaders who tried to halt or slow the forces of change and progress? What happened?

Recommended Reading:

The Civil Rights Act of 1866, along with Johnson’s attempted veto of it
The Reconstruction Acts of 1867 and 1868
Frederick Douglass’s essay “Reconstruction”


We hope you find American history as fascinating and valuable as we do. In particular, the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction offers key insights into the current landscape of the United States, revealing important lessons about the workings of the government and the attainment of civil rights.

— Zachary, @ Owl Eyes

Zachary is an associate editor at OwlEyes.org, where he works with a talented team of fellow book nerds to make classic literature enriching and fun for teachers and students alike. Follow Owl Eyes on Twitter. 

Want Better Scores on the State Test? Bribe Your Students!


Way back when “Return of the Mack” was on regular rotation in my off-campus apartment and Randy Quaid saved the planet from aliens, I first learned about Alfie Kohn. I was in an undergraduate teacher prep class and we read an article of Kohn’s (it might have been this one) where he argued that rewarding kids at school for things they did well wasn’t any better than punishing them for things they did poorly. Kohn expands on this idea in his book, Punished By Rewards, which made a big splash in the 90s because, while society had moved away from the draconian punishments of yesteryear and state laws now forbade corporal punishment, rewards were passed out like, well, candy. Or colorful pencils. Or those awesome scratch-and-sniff stickers. Or gold stars. Or promises of ice cream parties. Or erasers. Or, well, you get the point. And now here came Kohn scolding teachers all over again.

And so I started my teaching career as most naive, just-released-from-college kids do. With the proper amount of self-righteousness and arrogance, I marched into my classroom determined to offer no rewards. Students would learn for knowledge’s sake. We would build a community and have respect for each other. We would talk about our problems and address underlying causes of misbehavior.

Then the real world hit and doing all of those things was really, really hard.

Some kids were just plain jerks who needed to be taught a few hard lessons, if only so the rest of the class would see that you can’t go through life treating people like dirt and get nothing harsher than a counseling session, a behavior plan, and rewards for doing the very things every other kid in the class was doing as a matter of course. And so I started rewarding some kids, punishing others, and playing that whole game.

And not long after that, I learned first-hand what I had read in a boring old classroom. Alfie was right. Rewards don’t really work. They’re manipulative, frequently arbitrary, and basically no different than punishments (they just feel nicer).

Fast-forward to 2011 and Daniel Pink’s book, Drive, made many of the same arguments. Citing some of the same research as Kohn, Pink concluded that extrinsic rewards are usually a bad idea. Motivation is largely intrinsic and the way to tap into that motivation is through autonomy, a slow and steady march toward mastery, and by doing meaningful things in service to something larger than the self.

All of that is well and good. I accept that it’s generally a bad idea to reward students for their performance and to bribe them to behave better. Make the work interesting. Offer choice. Don’t be such a dictator. Provide feedback so students understand their progress toward mastery. Assign meaningful work. Do all that.


The testing window opened in my state this week. Over the next two months, students from third graders to high school juniors will take The Big Test. And big it is. Schools will be judged on the results. They’ll be labeled on some silly statewide reporting system. Some will face consequences. Teachers will be evaluated based on the results. Some may lose their jobs. The scores will influence public opinion of American education as a whole and either burnish or tarnish the reputations of districts, schools, and even entire state’s education systems and policies.

There are plenty of problems with The Big Test, (one of which might be the questionable timing of asking students to take it after they’ve just had 10 days off for spring break, as my wife’s students did this week) but perhaps none are bigger than this:

There is no reason students should try hard on it.

In my state, students get nothing for doing well (it’s kind of like being a teacher in that regard).

No scholarship money.
No name in the local paper.
Not even a pat on the back.

Students suffer no negative consequences for doing poorly.* Nothing will happen to a student who decides to treat the entire enterprise exactly how it deserves to be treated, as a joke. Their scores won’t be reflected on their report cards. Grade point averages will be unaffected. Graduation is not at risk. Students’ parents won’t even learn the results for a number of months after the test is over (and by then, most won’t care). Students won’t be retained or asked to leave school. The only thing they lose is time, and they lose more of it the harder they try.

Subjecting the exams to Pink’s criteria, the tests offer its takers no autonomy. Because it’s a one-time event for which they receive no useful feedback, students cannot progress toward mastery. As for meaning, there is no purpose that students give a hoot about. It is, for almost every student, the very definition of drudgery. It’s busy work. By the state’s own declared aims, it’s got nothing to do with them.  For students, it’s as low-stakes as you can get.

All of which is why you should unabashedly bribe your students to take their time and do their best.

In the adult world, we offer money. In the classroom, we offer pizza, ice cream,  a dance party, video game time, or anything that will make students think twice before just clicking on answers so they can be done with the thing. When there is no expectation of intrinsic motivation, we have to find other ways to get people to try.

And here’s the thing: Bribery works! I have proof!

Every three years, 15-year-olds from around the world take the PISA exam. The results of this test are reported breathlessly in education circles and often lead to huge policy changes in the countries of the students who struggle. A group of researchers wondered an obvious thing. Did kids actually try on these tests? They had reason to be skeptical. There are no stakes for students who take the PISA; they never even get to see their results. And student effort matters. As I tell a handful of parents every year, it’s hard to report on a student’s abilities when they don’t try on their work.

American students traditionally fall in the middle of the pack on the PISA, but perhaps they underperform because they just don’t see the point in doing their best. The researchers decided to test motivation by paying students for their performance. So they pulled 25 math questions off previous PISA exams and they split students into two groups. One group’s participants received $25 and then handed over a buck for every question they missed. Students in the other group got nothing. Here’s what researchers found:

  • Students from Shanghai, who ranked first on the 2012 PISA, did just as well whether they were paid or not.
  • With the exception of low-ability students, U.S. students did better if they were paid.
  • When paid, U.S. students attempted more questions in the second half of the test and were more likely to answer those which they did attempt correctly.
  • Researchers predicted that if the U.S. had used financial incentives during the 2012 PISA test, the country’s math ranking would have risen to 19th, from 36th. (And to 32nd if all other countries also paid their students.)

Here’s a graph:

And here’s more about the study if you want the dirty deets.

Steven Levitt, the economist famous for co-writing the Freakonomics books, performed similar experiments in three Chicago schools. Bribery worked there, too. While there was some variation, Levitt and colleagues concluded:

“The magnitude of the impact of the incentives on that day’s test are quite large: approximately 0.12−0.22 standard deviations, which is similar to effect sizes achieved through a one-standard deviation increase in teacher quality or 20% reductions in class size.”

“Overall, we conclude that both financial and non-financial incentives can serve as useful tools to increase student effort and motivation on otherwise low-stakes assessment tests.”

To bribe effectively, Levitt’s research suggests you do the following:

Offer immediate rewards

If students have to wait, bribery doesn’t work. So you won’t be able to bribe students for improved performance on the state test because the results take too long. But you can bribe them on their effort, and the research suggests that you should.

Have established credibility

Levitt had the most success bribing students at the school where he had done previous experiments. Students there believed him when he said they would get money for doing well. He had less success at less familiar schools. Levitt surmised that those students, having never been paid to perform in a school setting, probably didn’t believe he would deliver and so the proffered bribe had little impact on motivation.

Leverage the power of loss aversion

Bribery worked better when students were given the reward at the start and knew they would have to give it back if they failed. So if you really want to be effective (and yes, maybe a little cruel), buy your class donuts before the test, place one on the corner of each desk, and threaten to take it away if you think they aren’t trying their hardest. (Hey, quit looking at me like that. I’m just reporting the science.)

Consider the age of your students

Smaller awards work with smaller kids, but you’ll need better stuff for high schoolers. Cheap little trophies worked just as well with elementary students as did the promise of ten bucks. However, it took a larger dollar amount ($20) to get older kids to give a damn.


You can read the whole study here. But if you would rather not, I understand. And I’m not going to bribe you to do so.

I will, however, attempt to entice you to join my subscriber list. By signing on to the Teacher Habits blog, you will be the first to know about newly released books. You’ll get discounts on those books. You’ll also get new articles emailed directly to your inbox. And you’ll be the first people I ask for advice on book covers and titles. Now aren’t those things better than a trophy?


* I am aware that there are stakes for certain students. Those with third-grade reading laws that require retention (my state of Michigan joined that merry bandwagon last year) and students who have to pay to retake the SAT may have all the motivation they need to try hard.

Does Your District Really Care About Student Achievement?

If you asked any employee of nearly any school district whether their focus was on student achievement, I’m confident most would say that it was. That is, after all, kind of the point. Why else would we spend countless hours planning lessons and checking papers? Why form committees to investigate curricular options and then spend thousands on new programs if we didn’t think they would improve student performance? Why would district leaders spend limited funds on professional development and other teacher training? Why stress over standardized tests scores to the point that we all but bribe students to try their best, and why spend hours analyzing the results of those tests if we didn’t care about what those tests said about how we were serving the educational needs of kids?

It certainly seems like everyone involved in a school system is trying his or her best to improve student achievement. And yet I remain unconvinced. Consider this:

Does your district do anything to identify and attract the best teachers from your area to come work for it?

I ask because we know beyond the shadow of a doubt that the largest in-school influence on student performance is the quality of the teacher in the classroom. I’ve been told this so many times during my teaching career that I’ve lost count. It’s not the principal, or class sizes, or the condition of the building, or the curriculum, or student access to technology.

It’s the teacher.

Which means that schools that are serious about improving student achievement ought to do everything within their ability to find, hire, and retain the best teachers they can afford.

Most don’t.

Here’s how most districts go about hiring a new teacher:

First, they wait until they have an opening. In poor districts, this often happens because fed up teachers head for greener pastures. In more affluent districts, openings usually occur after a retirement.

Once there’s an opening, the school district posts the job. They then sit back and wait to see who sends them résumés. They go through the résumés and try to guess who might be a good teacher. They interview some applicants, pick the one they want, and usually offer to start them somewhere near the bottom of the district salary schedule. Then they sit back and hope they chose wisely.

But if school districts really cared about student achievement, their hiring process would look nothing like what is described above. Districts that really cared about student achievement would:

Be constantly scouting teachers in surrounding school districts in an attempt to identify the best ones at each level. They would know, just like NFL or Major League Baseball general managers know, who the top five kindergarten teachers were. They would know the best chemistry teachers. They’d read student reviews on Ratemyteacher.com. They’d make phone calls to people in their professional networks. They’d interview students who transferred into their districts about the educational experiences those students had with different teachers in their previous districts. They might even get their hands on teachers’ year-end ratings, which are a matter of public record. They’d keep files on teachers they would love to put in front of their students, and they’d check in with them periodically, perhaps inquiring about how happy they are at their current place of employment and whether they might be persuaded to leave it.

When these achievement-driven districts had an opening, administrators wouldn’t sit around and wait for applicants. They would immediately reach out to the top teachers on their scouting reports. They’d find out what it would take to get those teachers to leave their positions to come work for them. They’d offer to pay them more than they were currently making, instead of insulting them by offering to start them at the bottom of the pay scale.

Once they hired these all-stars, they’d do what they could to keep them around. Great teachers might be more expensive, but districts would get more bang for their buck than they would spending that money on textbooks, PD, or fancy new tablets and SmartBoards. The research on that is crystal clear.

So why don’t districts operate this way? Because there’s a greater incentive for district leaders to save money than there is to improve educational outcomes. (And maybe because there’s an unspoken agreement among superintendents to not poach each other’s best teachers.)

Regardless of the reasons, it’s clear that if your school district doesn’t know who the best teachers are in the area, then they have no intention of hiring those teachers. And if they aren’t willing to pay effective teachers what they’re worth, then they’re not really serious about improving student performance, no matter how much they may protest to the contrary.




How to Get Your Principal to Stop Requiring Lesson Plans

In my last article, I wrote about the importance of teachers objecting to unreasonable requests at the earliest possible moment. Today, I’ll discuss one such objectionable practice that no competent teacher should put up with: required lesson plans.

There is almost no reason for principals to ask their teachers to submit lesson plans on any kind of regular basis. There are a slew of reasons why they shouldn’t.

Lesson Plans Don’t Tell Principals Anything Useful

Yesterday I planned to work out. I didn’t. Last year, I planned to publish six books. I published three. Most mornings, I plan to be patient with my students, but then Jimmy does what Jimmy does every day and those plans are quickly forgotten. Just 8% of New Year’s resolutions are kept. 41% of tasks on people’s to-do lists are never completed. Plans are regularly ignored or discarded as life happens. Plans don’t tell you anything except people’s intentions (and that’s if they’re being honest about them). Collecting teachers’ lesson plans doesn’t tell a principal anything about what actually happens in teachers’ rooms. If principals want to know if their teachers are doing their jobs, they should skip the plans and watch them teach.

Required Lesson Plans Waste Teachers’ Time

Every teacher I know has lesson plans. Very few teachers I know have detailed lesson plans like the kind they were required to write in college. There’s a good reason. In college, teachers are learning how to plan lessons. They don’t know much, so instructors read their plans and provided feedback so that teachers will consider things they maybe hadn’t.

Employed teachers are professionals, and the plans they write are for them. As such, they will vary just as much as teachers do. What works for one will not work for others. And there’s no way a principal can evaluate a teacher’s lesson plans without also watching the teacher teach. Required lesson plans are often concoctions. Dutiful teachers record learning goals and include things they never include on the plans they make for themselves.

As such, they’re a giant waste of time, and that is a huge deal. Any principal who doesn’t understand and respect how pressed for time teachers already are doesn’t understand teaching. Period. When principals require busywork they’re essentially telling teachers that they don’t get it or that they do, but don’t care. The one thing every teacher wants more of, even more so than money, is time. Principals should do everything they can to solve that problem. Requiring lesson plans makes it worse.

Detailed, Written Lesson Plans Don’t Make Sense Anymore

One interesting thing about teaching is that while governments and school districts have become more prescriptive they have simultaneously held onto practices that are no longer relevant. Detailed lesson plans are one such revenant. If you work for a district that doesn’t trust you to plan your own lessons and instead requires you to follow a scripted program with fidelity, then why in the world would you have to write down your lesson plans? They’re already written in the teachers’ guide that you’ve been told to blindly follow. If principals want required lesson plans, then a reasonable question is why. Why should teachers need to rewrite plans that they’ve been handed and told to use?

Required Lesson Plans Destroy Staff Morale

Principals who require lesson plans are micromanaging their staffs and sending the message that they don’t trust their teachers to do their jobs. They’re checking up on their teachers (and in a time-wasting, ineffective way), and if teachers have given no reason for such a lack of trust, then such a practice destroys staff morale.

Here’s an idea for schools: Hire the best teachers you can find. Let them do their jobs. If it looks like they’re doing that, then stay out of their way and let them keep doing it. Since they waste teachers’ time and don’t provide useful information, it’s hard to argue that required lesson plans are about anything other than control. They’re a reminder that while you may think you have autonomy in your classroom, somebody is watching. That’s horribly demotivating.

There is only one situation when a principal should require submitted lesson plans and that is in the case of a teacher who is struggling. In an effort to identify causes of the struggles, a principal should ask to see the teacher’s lesson plans to see if poor planning might be a factor. It may be that the planning is poor, or it may be that the plans are fine, but that the teacher doesn’t execute them, or that classroom management problems interfere with their execution. Whatever the ultimate reasons, principals should never require lesson plans of teachers who aren’t struggling and they shouldn’t require them if they aren’t willing to follow-up with an observation and then provide feedback on the plans and their execution.

So if you want to get your principal to stop requiring lesson plans, do the following:

First, talk to her about all of the above. Sometimes, bosses don’t realize how their decisions affect their staffs. Give her the benefit of the doubt, but explain the damaging effects this requirement has on teachers. Respectfully lay out your case, and ask her to explain why she requires lesson plans. Hopefully, that’s enough for her to reconsider. But if it’s not, then it’s time to fight fire with fire:

  1. Write your lesson plans.
  2. At the end of each submission, attach the following: I appreciate your willingness to look over my plans to help me be more effective. Can we please meet at your earliest convenience to discuss my plans? I look forward to hearing your detailed feedback on them. Because why should you be the only one inconvenienced?
  3. Submit the lesson plans.
  4. Wait.

If you don’t receive any feedback or a response to your meeting request (which of course you don’t actually want), stop submitting lesson plans. No feedback means one of two things: Your principal isn’t collecting your lesson plans to help you get better or he’s not reading them at all.

What will you do if he requires the plans anyway, even after listening to your objections and after ignoring your requests for feedback?

Remind him that he has bosses to answer to and that he has a staff he has to work with and rely on. And if you really want to twist the knife, let your principal’s supervisor know that you repeatedly requested meetings so you could improve your lesson planning, but he didn’t respond.

This is not a minor issue. It’s worth upsetting a few apple carts over. Principals who require lesson plans but don’t read them or even provide feedback on them do not respect teachers. Period. Principals who don’t stand up to district leaders on this issue can’t be trusted to stand up for their staff on any other issue. Push back. Demand that required lesson plans actually get read, responded to, and followed up on with observations. Anything less than that is exploitative and you shouldn’t let it pass. Because the exploitation and the arbitrary busywork won’t stop there. Give in on this and you’re volunteering for more unreasonable mandates.

Why Teachers Should Object

There’s a good chance that if you’ve been teaching for any length of time, you’ve been asked to do something that you knew to be educational malpractice. Either through your experience with kids or because of research you read, you knew that a decision was a bad one. How you responded to such a decision probably has a lot to do with how you feel about your current place of employment. If you’re resentful and unmotivated, there’s a good chance you went along with it. And there’s a better chance it wasn’t the only time.

When you agree to something you know to be bad for your students (or for yourself), you run into three problems:

First, you set a precedent. Agree once and you’ll likely agree again. People are remarkably consistent in their behavior. Once you see yourself as someone who “goes along to get along” or “flies under the radar,” then you’ll be unlikely to depart from that self-image and start objecting later, making it more likely that you’ll agree to increasingly noxious policies and practices in the future.

Second, you will start to lose your motivation. Follow enough bad orders and you’ll begin to wonder why you’re busting your hump for blithering idiots who don’t even read educational research. Why should you work hard when they’re obviously not working in the best interests of students? If the district is led by morons like yours, why should you strive for excellence?

Third, you’ll resent your boss, her bosses, the school board, and maybe even the community. You’ll think:

The feckless school board hired these administrators and then won’t do anything to stop them from making awful decisions. The voters, who happen to be the parents of the kids in my classroom, elected the hapless school board members and they won’t even show up to the meetings to ask what’s going on in the schools.

You’ll resent them all and end up miserable, having violated your core beliefs and sacrificed the idealism of your youth on the altar of servility, all under the mistaken belief that it’s more professional to hold your tongue.

If something makes you resentful, there are only two possibilities: you’re a whiner or you’re being pushed around. Either what you’re being asked to do is reasonable and you’re the problem, or you must act.

So assuming you’re not just a crybaby and you’re actually being told to do things that are bad for kids (or for yourself), what do you do?

You object, and you do so early. When you’re told to do something that you know is wrong, you should object at the earliest possible moment. Here’s why:

1. You might actually win.

Most people avoid conflict and back down when confronted. People are generally not courageous and will back off when challenged, especially if you present your side calmly and with facts. Win, and you won’t have to put up with the awful decision until someone better (you hope) comes along and reverses the policy (probably by asking, “Why the hell were you doing this?”).

2. By objecting, you will start to see yourself as someone who is willing to object.

Objecting will make it more likely that you’ll do so again. It will also put your bosses on notice that you will not be a teacher who agrees just because it’s easier.

3. The cost of not objecting is too high.


Yes, there is risk. You might be inviting retribution, especially if you’re dealing with one of the petty tyrants who inhabit too many district offices and has grown accustomed to having their orders obsequiously followed.

So you may be damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But it’s better to stand tall with your shoulders back and do the right thing and risk being asked to leave then it is to choke down your core beliefs and spend the next however-many-years doing things you hate for people you don’t respect, all while wallowing in self-loathing for not having the intestinal fortitude to say something when it might have made a difference.

Stand up and say, “No, I’m not doing it.” You’re not doing it because it’s a bad idea. You’re not doing it because if you do, you’ll be more likely to do more of it. You’re not doing it because you’ll be constantly annoyed and eventually lose the motivation to do your job well. You’re not doing it because you’ll end up resentful, which is a terrible way to live.

And if your objections don’t stop the lunacy, then it’s time to leave.

And you should always be willing to leave. Because if you can’t get out, then you can never say no. And if you can’t say no, then you cannot bargain. And if you cannot bargain, then you’ll do whatever you’re told to do every single time, no matter how egregious the request. That is a dangerous place to be.

Just ask the teachers in Atlanta who were sent to jail for following orders to cheat on state tests. Do you think they ever objected? Or do you think they agreed and agreed and agreed as the policies and practices got more odious, all while telling themselves that they were being good team players. Fat lot of good that did them.

Stand up for yourself and your students. Set clear boundaries, grow a spine, bare your teeth. When people realize you’re not a pushover, that makes you powerful. Showing someone that you’re willing to inflict pain makes it less likely you’ll ever need to. Stop worrying so much about being liked. Object, and object early. Your future self will thank you for it.


Note: The above was inspired by (okay, stolen from) this video by professor Jordan B. Peterson, which you should watch. It’s not specifically for teachers, but it should be.