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.




I am, once again, partnering with Angela Watson to help promote her 40-Hour Teacher Workweek Club. It’s an online professional development program that has already helped more than 32,000 teachers take control of their time and stay focused on what matters most. The next cohort is starting this summer, and the Club has been updated to cover emerging best practices for the changes ahead. Click here to receive a reminder email to sign up for Early Bird Access on June 8.

12 Replies to “The Teacher’s Veto”

  1. As usual, your articles are refreshing and sensible, always seeking the truth. I look forward to reading them because you honestly do get it, as the overused expression states. As a veteran teacher of 35+years, I certainly do what is best for my students regardless of new policies that simply do not work. I close my door and do what I do best- teach. No one looking over my shoulder and dictating how I am to run my classroom and teaching methods. Just pure passion and integrity to what stands the true test of time. The teacher is what makes the difference in the classroom. I learned that 35 years ago from a very wise supervisor and I thank him to this day. Nothing and no one will ever deter me from this principle.

  2. I was a maverick and I did all the things you said ….closed my door and did what I thought was best for kids. There were a few of us at my school that did. And then we got a new principal who decided she was going to “shake things up” and make us do things “her way.” Most of us had highly effective data but that didn’t matter. She literally stalked us — she peeked in the doors to make sure we were teaching what she told us to, when she told us to and how she told us to…like we were her robots. You didn’t dare argue or do anything different. If you spoke up she would make you pay. How does someone with highly effective data get a minimally effective evaluation? Yeah. Within 4 years, all but 3 of our staff either transferred, quit or retired. My friend that’s still there says the data for the school has plummeted, but the principal doesn’t seem to get the connection between her mandates and student performance. She’s ruined that school, and I couldn’t do it anymore. I was one of the ones who took early retirement to get away from her.

    1. I just read a book, Autobiography of An American Teacher, by D.J. Wright. There is a portion of the book that discusses these topics and teacher passivity. Really an excellent read, from a teacher’s point-of-view.

  3. I am a maverick. Administration knows it and they mostly leave me alone because they know I am there for my students and not them. I have a reputation as a rebel and have been transferred from school to school to “teach me a lesson”. I keep on doing the things I know work. Thank you for your article. Sometimes we need to hear that what we do is worth it.

  4. Murph: Every time – your integrity, honesty and overall your concern for true education of the children/young people – shine through. I’ve been thinking back over my own long teaching career – almost 40 years by the time I retired – and smiling as I read your take on teacher resistance – recalling instances from my career – in Australia, in Japan.

    And from my very first appointment I found myself resisting – not labelling my students with the scores of their primary tests and seeing those children who came from the town’s “wrong-side-of-the-tracks” as equally worthy of respect and effort as those from the homes of the captains-of-industry in that same town. That continued in subsequent towns and schools – sometimes with a principal who understood and followed those same principles – sometimes with school leaders exactly as has been described here – pushing the latest (usually commercially produced) panaceas – or formats or systems – along with their regional inspector buddies and special teacher seminars.

    I mentioned Japan. I had a couple of years as an exchange teacher in secondary schools (middle schools and senior highs) and then a further nearly 15 years in schools and universities – my qualifications recognised by the various boards of education and national accreditation bodies. I had the support of some of the best classroom teachers – and supervisors. I had professional freedom to teach – to write my own courses or to select some texts and use them in the way I saw best. I determined – given that professional respect – that I could not return to Australia until I had reached retirement age.

    During my nearly two decades abroad – the straight-jacket to teaching practices and “measurement” via Australian nationwide (NAPLAN) and statewide testing had taken a stranglehold (mixing my metaphors a little here – but you’ll see my intent) – it was teaching-to-the-test – not education.

    Some of the best teachers and educators in Australia have written books about this – recently Gabbie STROUD – TEACHER (as one review briefly describes it: A powerful and moving memoir about how the current system is letting down children and parents, and breaking dedicated teachers. Devastating, heart-breaking…).

    And interesting the findings by international education assessment that Australia has, over the past 20 years plummeted to the depths of international comparison in key subject areas to be almost as bad as the US – from somewhere up there near the top once upon a time – along with countries such as Finland.

  5. I agree so very much, and I appreciate the way you speak teacher truth.

    I’m wrestling right now with avoiding being hypocritical. Rules come down. Some are dumb. I meet them to the extent that seems personally reasonably. The rub is that I’m discovering we have staff who not only shirk a requirement, but also tell the kids…we are supposed to do this, but I think it’s dumb and a waste of time, so you (children) do what you think is right. Examples: rehearsing fire drills and lockdowns, doing parent teacher conferences, and enforcing hall, cafeteria, or bus rules. I dislike these teachers implying what we do doesn’t matter, and that the fall out is those kids go out in the school like it is Lord of the Flies, and the public hears the kids speak about it all being a futile waste of time. Sure, there are things we do that are an enormous wasteful time suck (State testing and prep), but some things we do quickly and efficiently for the greater good.

    What do you think?

  6. I had a giggle over leaving the learning goal up. Yep, done that. And I wish the powers that be would step into my room and observe for a day. One lesson doesn’t really show anything. I have a special needs student who is undiagnosed who needs more help and is disruptive of other students’ learning. The powers that be, will not give extra assistance and have basically said unless he’s a danger to himself or others, then he has to stay in school. They have no idea what it is like because they won’t step foot in my room! They have no idea how exhausting it is nor the impact it has on my personal life.

  7. Very balanced and real article. I’ve seen this happen and it’s true. Teachers who are trained have the confidence and consciousness to work with a diverse body of students, their methods can be undermined by untrained administrators given petty politics. It’s an unprofessional attitude and tends to happen in developing countries.

  8. It’s a double edge sword. We’ve got teachers in the zone of minimal effort and passionate teachers who go the extra mile in all they do. Those militant admins are hell bent on getting everyone one board to get the minimalists invested- but the admin is sacrificing the passion and creativity of the great teachers in the interest of fairness and to make sure we all, “Do it the same.” Really, they ought to can the minimalists. But that is too hard -it’s easier to say “we are all doing it” than correcting where it needs to be corrected. Sad.

    1. I have times in the year where I am a complete minimalist. I think instead of canning them right away, do what a teacher does. Why isn’t that person engaging? Is there something else going on? Everyone gets burnt out and their back burner turns off sometimes, so supporting the well-being of teachers would do far more than a new program and forcing compliance. Eventually, like a student who just won’t do it no matter what, they may get a bad evaluation or be transferred to a different school, or eventually fired. But when I hear about a new initiative during a burn out period, it’s not that I’m rebelling, it’s that I cannot handle one more thing on my plate, so that initiative gets written down and put in my planner for a month I know will be better.

  9. I was given a county curriculum a few years ago that I didn’t like at first, but now I have “made it mine” as I say. Since I teach history and would spend way too much time on the Civil War or WWII, I like the way this curriculum keeps me paced so that I teach everything.

    Does it look like the county wanted? Heck no! Did I change it into something good for my kids? Heck yes!!

    Thank you so much for your articles. They keep me sane!

  10. Hallelujah and AMEN! Thank you for your boldness and speaking truth! What an encouragement to know I am not alone!

    I’ve looked back over these last 10 years and thought….what is happening to our profession? When did we become yes men/women and are no longer treated as the professionals that we are? I feel more like a professional HOOP jumper! Fill out this form, this spread sheet, or write these words to PROVE that I am “teaching” my students the correct way that all the educational coaches and principals say will make the most difference. HA! Well I can say that to stay sane I have decided to keep my head down, shut my door, so I can love and teach my students the way that I KNOW is best for them where they are.

    Thank you for your blog…I just found it and I look forward to joining the many others on here to encourage everyone to keep making a difference…our future generations are counting on it!

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