Rocking the Boat
Task Zero, Review:
‘It is not the critic who counts…credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena…[He] who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat’.
Teddy Roosevelt’s famous quotation, one of my recent favorites and the opening to Part 3 in the book, describes well tempered radicals. A tempered radical is one who fights hard for the betterment of others and worthy causes; those who criticize the man in the arena, the tempered radical, however, often undermine the efforts of those ‘whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly’ (Roosevelt). Meyerson’s book addresses various challenges in the workplace that are particularly germane to educators: we worry about (a) selling out, (b) whether leveraging small wins matters, (c) burning out because we fail to assimilate or acquiesce among other things. Sometimes, as happened with Morgan Davis, we lose ourselves – or at least our good intentions – along the way. We have a hard time, as Martha did, enjoying ‘the spoils of her success…[while believing] that the system distributes these privileges’ (7) unfairly. Another Roosevelt quote comes to mind when I consider Martha’s point: ‘The greatest gift life has to offer is the opportunity to work hard at work worth doing.’ As teachers, we are afforded this opportunity. Too many of our students are not. Around 10% of low-income students will graduate with a four-year college degree by the time they are 25 years old. As tempered radicals, as people who have enjoyed privileges our students have not, this is difficult to negotiate and not feel guilty about. Martha’s thought, which Meyerson returned to in describing Peter, who was accused of hypocrisy later in the book, had a profound effect on my thinking. Indeed, our ambivalence takes a toll on our ability to be a successful tempered radical if we don’t manage these thoughts successfully.
Task One, How am I different?
As far as being different from the majority, I’m not sure I am to a large extent. I am a white male teacher, a part of a faculty that is predominately white. Our students are mostly Latino or black – and from low income households – so from that standpoint I do feel different within my classroom. With respect to feeling different from others as an educator, I think there are great differences within my department. There are teachers whose instruction could be considered mostly traditional. There are teachers whose classrooms frequently demonstrate creative new pedagogical approaches. I would consider my instruction to be somewhere in between. This year, I have collaborated with teachers in my department far more than I have in the past; perhaps this makes me different from the majority in my department who prefer to work in isolation. This might put me in the third category (those who have philosophical differences, which conflict with prevailing beliefs and agendas), though I would not say my actions cause conflict within my department or school or internal conflict within me. If in fact working closely with others on a daily basis on different avenues of instruction and assessment makes me different, then I – and, I would assume, my coworkers – are comfortable with this. I simply cannot imagine there being issues with me working closely with others in an effort to become a better educator.
Task Two, Becoming a Tempered Radical:
I see myself resisting quietly and staying true to my ‘self’. I also believe that trying to leverage small wins is something I can, and have, found success with. For example, there is often tension between my colleagues’ views and my views with respect to curriculum pacing. (Incidentally, I do not view this negatively. It ultimately benefits my students and makes me better decision maker.) I resist the idea that coverage trumps depth. I try to move through the material at a methodical pace. I want my students to view math graphically, numerically, verbally, and algebraically. This takes time, and some of my colleagues prefer not to make time for such investigation into the material. They believe a survey approach fits their style and the learning of their students better. I resist this idea, which often means I’m ‘behind’ in the curriculum. My small wins come from the students who benefit from my approach by earning higher marks on exams than they otherwise would and who, I hope, learn the material more deeply.
I think I can broaden impact through negotiation in coming years. With a couple of the younger teachers in my department, I see myself providing emotional, social and task support. I see that they will do the same for me. My willingness this year, more than any other, to implement others’ ideas and talk through instructional and assessment dilemmas has created buy in. Leaning on third parties – namely, our wonderful math coach – will make expedite this process.
Task Three, Facing challenges:
With respect to the tolls of ambivalence, this thread in the book really spoke to me. I feel badly about not living in the community in which I teach. My daughter will likely not go to a CPS. I feel like a hypocrite because of both of these things. This makes me wonder, too, whether I’ll unwittingly lose the common touch needed to teach successfully in a low-income school. I’ll understand if my inconsistencies damage my ‘reputation and alienate me from people who could be natural allies’ (145). I’ll understand, but I won’t feel good about it.
Frustration and burnout are on my mind, especially this time of year. I try to be a good sport about doing required work, even if I don’t believe in it (e.g. sketching unit plans according to Network standards and pacing issues), but this does lead to a heightened sense of frustration. Time that I’d rather spend tutoring, planning or grading is sometimes chewed up by meetings and initiatives that I don’t believe in. I try to guard against burnout by taking care of myself – physically and mentally, personally and professionally – and remembering the best part of my profession: working with intelligent, kind kids. There is a tension that I faced at my first school and very well may face again: ‘Giving up too quickly is a danger, but [I] also must recognize when it is time to acknowledge that the right choice is to move on’ (155).
Reading: Meyerson, D. E. (2008). Rocking the boat: How to effect change without making trouble. Harvard Business Press.