In the eleven years I spent teaching at a suburban school I saw five principals come and go. Each new one was the exact opposite of the last. The hiring committee decided that Mr. A was not intellectual enough so they fired him and hired Mrs. B. She was intelligent all right, but no one could get close to her. They fired her. Mrs. C was chummy but couldn’t help us become better teachers. If we weren’t careful we’d get whiplash from watching them come and go. What was left was a faculty of dedicated, caring teachers who tried to do as they were told, who balanced equity with excellence. Even when the commands from the top were counter-intuitive. Even when they did not serve the life of the mind. Ironically, each new administrator brought with her a brand new set of “initiatives, values, beliefs,” to which the faculty was expected to conform. And quickly.
Harold Bloom famously said, “Not a moment passes these days without fresh rushes of academic lemmings off the cliffs.” As it was with our many principals so it is with the mandates that seem to change as the wind blows. I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, folks! The lemmings are busy trying to replace No Child Left Behind with Race to the Top. Instead of everyone reading by the time they are in third grade, we now dangle money in front of starving school systems and make them race, race to the top. We pit states against each other, demand that they show progress on standardized tests, and punish them if they fail.
No, wait (call your chiropractor): now we’re allowed wavers if our state agrees. And maybe we don’t have to have all kids reading by third grade…or do we?
And still thousands of dedicated teachers try to conform to the new mandates even while the old ones are still as warm as this morning’s coffee. Teachers will throw away their test prep books and buy the new ones. They will explain to their students that this time the administration got it right. They will try look in the mirror without saying, “This, too, will pass.”
There’s hope. There’s always hope if we peek from under the covers. Alan Arkin, in The Lemming Condition, has another idea. His charming story asks would happen if we decide that it is not only okay, but necessary to break away from the pack to survive? How about Occupying Education by standing up for the truth?
If you are a teacher, or hope to become one, live free. Give yourself 15 minutes to complain and then do end runs around the nonsense. Play music in your classroom. Do yoga with your students. Tell jokes. Stick with the cheerleaders, for the naysayers will tear you down and keep you there. Never forget that you are a member of one of the most honorable professions on earth. Millions have profited from your dedication. Hundreds of thousands support your efforts and stand in support every day.
If it’s the truth that will set us free, here’s the truth: Lemming do not commit mass suicide by leaping off cliffs. It’s a myth created 45 years ago by the Walt Disney studios while they were making The White Wilderness film. The cameramen shooed them over the cliff for effect.