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.