“A Modest Proposal”: 12 Step Program for Educators in Recovery from Following Unethical Mandates

Following directives tied to testing from a principal is like using crack.  They both make us do things we swore we would never do.  They transform us from wonderful and idealistic people into a destructive self-serving force who we and those around us no longer recognize. And once we do either long enough, there seems to be no way out because our perspective and autonomy are gone.

John Light, the science teacher, didn’t see the testing directives as terribly bad, at first.  The tests, they say, are just formative assessments that allow us to interpret invaluable data in collaborative professional groups and to create interventions to make all kids successful.  Who in the world could disagree with that?  How could anything be bad that can incorporate that many politically correct progressive teaching practices?

Mr. Light decided to drink the Kool-Aid, and jump in.  He made sure he taught the standards that would be tested. At times, it was cursory coverage because, of course, he still planned to try to adhere to the “less is more” approach to curriculum that has been encouraged in his professional development for years so students can learn a few concepts more in depth than many concepts with only surface coverage.  And, he wouldn’t give up his labs or the writing and reading across the curriculum he developed for the last five years, and he was going to spend the time needed on the integrated complex exhibition projects that took all summer to write with his colleagues. The students always love those as will the community and the parents when they come to view their projects at the end of the year. John thought, you’re a great teacher. He has been told that throughout his career. He told himself, You can do it all- you can remain committed to best practices and still get the kids to do well on these tests.  And maybe they’re right, the “data” on the tests will help you improve and refine your best practices. John Light told himself that.

A red flag was raised early in the year when the teacher inservice week in John’s district was spent learning how to interpret data and work the software that extrapolates data from the upcoming formative assessments.  Well, it is the first year of this, so what heck, even though John was really looking forward to the team planning time day that was now being used to help each other figure out this new computer program. And he was also looking forward to the day that was supposed to be devoted to differentiated instructional strategies. The staff was asked what they wanted for their fall inservice, so they spent half a day at another inservice having thoughtful discussions then reached consensus- they all wanted differentiated instruction. But he didn’t have time to dwell on these little disappointments when he had only a few days to get ready for a brand new school year.

By October, another red flag arose.  The first of three formative assessments disrupted six to ten days of instruction.  After three days of testing, they spent the next three or four days doing make-up tests for entire classes who couldn’t get logged on because there were too many students on the server.  And then they kept pulling kids from classes to make up tests because it seemed like almost everyone was absent for at least one of the three testing days. And of course, a class couldn’t move forward while kids were coming in and out of the classroom like a revolving door.  These absences were “excused”, of course, so a week of instruction was lost catching kids up and then it took a few days just to get back into the swing of things, but by then it was approaching Thanksgiving, and then it was Christmas, and, Oh, my God, we’re doing the second set of tests in January already?  And the cycle repeats, again.  Missing three days seemed more like missing three weeks.

Yet another red flag was raised in January.  The students, who never had trouble with Mr. Light before, were being downright disruptive during the testing. Some were actually talking throughout the test.  Some miraculously completed the 90 minute test in about twenty minutes. They kept asking to go to the bathroom or get a drink.  A few tried to put their head down to take a little nap.  He could have sworn Jessie was plotting a route to Subway with the multiple choice dots. As kids came and went during the January test, they arrived late and huddled at the door to leave before the bell rang.  They had bored glazed stares, for the most part, but was it John’s  imagination, or were quite a few of his beloved students glaring at him?  And had they all lost their hockey pucks during that week, or were they really saying, “What the f—?” and “These suck” as they came in and out of classrooms.

By this time, the science teacher and his colleagues were getting concerned, and those concerns were finally expressed at a staff meeting.  It almost seemed like this testing was a complete disaster and not worth the benefits when weighing the costs. But the principal was so encouraging!  “We’re all in this together,” he said. “We’re a team, and we can get through it!”

A few days later, the principal brought the science teacher into his office to have a conversation “just between you and me.”  He asked about his kids and his father’s health.  He said he really sympathized with how hard he works and how valid his concerns were at the staff meeting. The principal even confided a little joke about the superintendent being behind many of these mandates, and the principal’s “hands were tied.”  It was almost like the principal was going through the same experiences as he was- two kindred spirits!  The principal told him that he considers him a leader here.  Not everyone can do what you do, he says. I need your help with the other teachers, to show them how important these tests are.  As the science teacher leaves the meeting, he thinks, finally, a principal who really appreciates me, and he really needs my help to keep everyone on the team.  So he told his red flag/ Jiminy Cricket /BRAIN to go away, and you get back to work.  If John were an addict rather than a science teacher, we’d call this “going into denial” that he has a problem that has grown out of control.

More red flags pop up, too many too count, like when the team cancelled the exhibition project so they could make sure the kids were prepared for the last test of the year.  Or when no one new signed up for science club this year.  Or when he still couldn’t remember a handful of kids by mid-year.  But over time, he started getting good at ignoring those red flags, and after a while, they just went away.  If John were an addict rather than a science teacher, we’d call this “going into DEEPER denial.”

The following school year, by the end of the fall in-service, the science teacher had reached a new bottom.  The last day was spent looking at graphs of test results at the front of the auditorium then moving into committees and work-groups analyzing away, but John didn’t notice or remember any of that from the time he double-clicked on the icon to his own classroom test results. He saw that the results were “inconclusive” at best- that many of the kids, most of whom he was certain made tremendous gains, had done poorly.  He felt like a failure because according to the one he was trying to please, the principal, and those the principal was trying to please, he was indeed a failure.  Starting this year, test results like that will be reflected in his evaluations.  Two short years ago, he was among the most respected teachers by his colleagues and the community.  Now, he is a failure. How could that happen?

This was a pivotal moment.  Will John unchain himself from testing insanity and repair his classroom practice to its original state, or will he abandon the remnants of his old self to ensure he gets those test results and approval of his principal?  A pivotal moment for an addict might be when his family threatens to leave or when his car is repossessed. Will the addict get help to take steps toward recovery or will he let go of all that was, and fully commit to his addiction? Well, if he didn’t lose it all (hit bottom), he will likely do the latter because he’s already too far gone from his former self.  The science teacher, too, will likely re-commit to the dysfunctional cycle of trying to please his principal and others who use their power to disgrace him.

Within another year, John and the addict will be a shell of who they once were.  They won’t remember who they used to be because if they did, they would be forced to deal with the situation as it is.  This is another common survival skill for addictive behavior.

John relinquished his autonomy to his principal and the forces controlling the principal. The opposite of autonomy is heteronomy.  Heteronomy is the state of being beholden to external influences; we take actions that are influenced outside of ourselves for a variety of reasons that we think won’t hurt anybody, at first. We must cover up and deny associated problems along with the reality of our predicament because of the shame, fear, and confusion that will otherwise overwhelm us.  Recovery is possible for the heteronomaholic, and the cure has been the same for every sober addict under the sun, following the 12 Steps.  Get a sponsor and go to meetings.  The future of our children depend on it.

The Twelve Steps- Heteronomy Anonymous

Educators in Recovery from Following Unethical Mandates
1. We, educators in the public school system, admitted we are powerless over our compulsion to follow orders from pseudo- authority figures in a dysfunctional system that allows teachers to avert punishment if they submit to the will of the authority instead of personal will- as a result, our lives and that our students’ lives have become unmanageable.

2. We came to believe that the transcendent power of educational ideals that are aligned with the internal landscape of our personal introspection and consequent beliefs.  Our educational ideals and our personal beliefs are far superior to the willy nilly policies and procedures dictated by reactionary ideas of non-educators, the business sector and the religious right- and these ideals and self-knowledge could restore us to sanity.

3. We made a decision to turn our practice and our actions over to those educational ideals and our internal voice as we continually seek to understand them.

4. We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of the way we followed directives that were unethical and unprofessional, allowing standardized testing, arbitrary standards, and political pressures to change fundamental aspects of our teaching in ways that were bad for kids.

5. We admitted to ourselves and to others the exact nature of our wrongs, such as
    •delivering mindless curriculum and then disciplining kids who rebelled;
    •putting the desks back in rows and out of small groups to maximize efficiency
    •eliminating the poetry unit, the field trip series, and the big popular end-of the year projects
    •implying imminent doom if the kids don’t do well on their tests
    •setting a 10 second timer to radically abridge the kids’ stories they share about their weekends

•avoid sitting with kids who seek advice for a problem they are having at home and just hanging out having good conversations because the principal said that’s what counselors are for

6. We are entirely ready to remain true to our educational ideals and our internal voices so we may remove these defects of character.

7. We humbly find strength in order to remove our shortcomings.

8. We made a list of all the children we have harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all, including the:
    •kids who we watched the school let drop out because they would lower our test scores
    •the kids the school forced back to school, not because they cared, but because they have to reduce their graduation rate       to get their federal funding
    •the kids who we watched the school deny their request to attend their an academic  speaking opportunity during testing         because their tests would bring up our scores
    •the kids who have the lowest scores who don’t extra help because all our extra resources are used for the kids just                barely below proficient.
    •the gifted kids who can’t score any higher, but we make them take the tests 3x a year anyway, taunting their self-esteem with the fluctuating score from the standard of error.
    •the kids who hate school who used to love it
    •the kids who hate themselves who used to love themselves

9. We will make direct amends to such people when possible, and indirect amends when it isn’t.

10. We will continue to reflect vigorously to match our aims to practice, and when we are wrong, promptly admit it.

11. We will seek through reading the great works in education, scholarly journals, and books about best practices by education scholars, not edupeneurs; and through writing, sharing, discussing with peers, and careful introspection, to improve our conscious contact with the true purposes of education as we understand them, so we may find the courage, confidence, commitment and power to carry them out in our daily actions.

12. Having had a raised consciousness as a result of these Steps, we will  carry this message to other heteronomaholics so we 

may practice these principles with integrity.

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