There’s a YouTube video called, “The Most Unsatisfying Video in the World ever made.” It lives up to its name. It shows people cutting tomatoes wrong, mixing M&Ms and Skittles, scraping utensils against the bottom of an empty bowl, and other cringe-worthy crimes against humanity. Each example in the video makes me reflexively recoil. It’s the visual equivalent of the many phrases in education that induce the same reaction:
“Teach with strict fidelity.”
“College and career ready.”
“Unpacking the standards.”
“Jigsaw this article.”
“Let’s put that idea in the parking lot.”
And also, “Doing What’s Best For Kids.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone — usually an administrator trying to make teachers feel guilty for self-advocating — say that we all just need to Do What’s Best For Kids. The phrase tends to show up during contentious contract negotiations with regularity. That’s no accident, because all too often it means, “Do what we want you to do, and if you question it, then you’re looking out for yourself instead of your students.”
Some teachers are guilty of using it, too. Questioned about why they made a certain choice, they will hide behind, “It’s What’s Best For Kids” without actually explaining why or how they know that to be true. It’s a way for anyone — teacher, parent, principal — to claim an morally superior position and send the message that their actions, unlike yours, have selfless motives. They’re doing things for the right reasons, while you may be not.
It’s almost always nonsense.
The problem with the phrase, “Doing What’s Best For Kids” is that it can be used to justify damn near anything.
“I’m spanking my kids to teach them right from wrong.”
“I allow my son to eat whatever he wants because I want him to learn he’s responsible for his own choices.”
“We’re taking away recess because students need more time on task.”
“I’m not vaccinating my child because I don’t want her to get autism.”
The phrase, then, is meaningless. But that doesn’t mean it’s powerless. It’s an ace up the sleeve, a flag planted firmly in the high ground, and it’s intended to be a conversation stopper. People on the phrase’s receiving end are supposed to look introspectively and question their motives. They’re supposed to think: I should sacrifice more.
How can anyone argue that educators shouldn’t do what’s best for kids?
Because it’s just not that simple. In addition to the fact that Doing What’s Best For Kids can be used to justify anything, there are three other problems.
Kids Are Different
This should go without saying, but since the phrase keeps getting used, someone ought to point out that kids are different. What’s best for one is often not what’s best for another. My daughter, always a reader, needed only to be given time and books to improve as a reader as she went through school. Other students — reluctant to read and lacking basic skills — needed much more direct instruction. Examples abound:
- Recess is great for some kids, but it’s a source of anxiety and a daily reminder of their lack of friends for others.
- Inquiry-based science is more authentic and engaging, but some students don’t learn the content they’re supposed to.
- Group work teaches kids to collaborate, but it also means some students do much more work (and therefore learn more) than others.
Additionally, what’s best for an individual might not be best for large groups. Ryan is continually distracting the class and making it impossible to teach. It’s certainly not best for Ryan to be kicked out of the room, but it might be best for everyone not named Ryan. Spending one-on-one time with a student will benefit her, but what about the rest of the class?
Of course, a solution to this problem is to differentiate because giving kids what they need is what’s Best For Kids. But differentiation leads to a second problem:
Beliefs Are Different
Not everyone agrees about What’s Best For Kids. That’s why we have standards. Teachers, once mostly left alone, taught whatever they thought was important. I learned about dinosaurs every year from age six to age nine (fat lot of good it did me, too). I know a former teacher who took time out of every day to have her students sing her favorite college’s fight song. Some teachers still waste class time teaching the dead art of cursive writing. All of these teachers tell themselves they’re doing What’s Best For Kids.
Many educators have diametrically oppositional philosophies about what school should even be. Should it be a place of rigorous work with the aim of producing young people who know things and can demonstrate their knowledge on tests? Should it be a place of wonder and discovery, where failure is encouraged? Should it reflect society or prepare students to shape a new, better world? Which philosophy is Best For Kids, and is that philosophy best for all kids?
Sometimes, determining what’s best is actually choosing between two benefits, in which case the determining factor is almost always something other than What’s Best for Kids. Field trips are great for kids. So is time on task in the classroom. But if you do one, you sacrifice the other. And since field trips cost money, guess which one administrators think is Best for Kids.
The Biggest Problem
But here’s my main objection to being reminded to Do What’s Best for Kids: It suggests sacrifice and that sacrifice, almost always, is supposed to come from one group of people: teachers.
Teachers, the people doing the hard work of actually educating kids, may have the only legitimate claim on the moral high ground, and yet they are often the ones accused of looking out for their own interests above those of their students. Politicians blame teachers’ unions for ignoring What’s Best For Kids, while turning a blind eye to a myriad of other problems. Administrators — people who have intentionally left the one place where they had the most direct influence on students — have the temerity to suggest to teachers — the people whose job is literally all about the kids and who have chosen to remain in that job despite stagnant pay, deteriorating working conditions, greater expectations, less autonomy, scapegoating, and being reminded to Do What’s Best For Kids — that they ought to sacrifice even more. And sanctimonious teachers wield the tired phrase to feel better about themselves, oblivious to the meaninglessness of their words but comfortable in their own moral superiority.
“Doing What’s Best For Kids” is a weapon. It’s the language of teacher-shaming. It’s manipulative. And when you hear it from an administrator, parent, policy-maker, or even a fellow teacher, prepare to be exploited. Because the insinuation behind this phrase is clear: Teaching is not your job; it’s your calling. And that calling requires you to sacrifice. It requires you to agree to whatever thing someone with more power believes is What’s Best for Kids. So sit down, shut up, sign the contract, and get back in your classroom. Go Do What’s Best For Kids. And if you can’t figure out what that is, don’t worry, someone will let you know.