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Start a teaching revolution

A colleague recently shared with me a Ted Talk circulating the internet of a lone man dancing like a lunatic at an outdoor music festival.  After a while, another person joins him — called a first follower — and then another, and another, until eventually, a huge crowd of people — a movement — are dancing like maniacs in the center of a field. This video has been repurposed to demonstrate leadership techniques, explaining how it takes one seemingly crazy person brave enough to look like a fool to start a full blown movement. But the key to getting from the crazy person to the movement are the followers who join along the way.

Many teachers I know have a keen knack for being willing to look like a fool and surround themselves with people who don’t mind joining their dance. With the new Every Student Succeeds Act, as states are given more power and jurisdiction over their own accountability systems, I believe it is imperative that we find these dancing fool teachers and let them lead the way.

One of the greatest compliments a former  principal gave me was, “Lamb, you will probably someday burn down this school, but we’ll help you sweep up the ashes.” He wasn’t speaking metaphorically. He actually thought I might burn down the school because in an old moldy building, sparks flew from the sockets in my classroom while students plugged in ten different CD players to work on music videos for a project-based unit on song analysis.

Meanwhile, I faced challengers who disagreed with my methods. I did not blindly follow a mandated curriculum that required rigid alignment with a fifteen year old reading textbook containing outdated articles about Ricky Martin that started at a 5th grade reading level and ended at a 7th. My students were 7th graders. It was demeaning and demoralizing for them to read this text. I refused to teach from it. I was told that I must teach from the textbook. It was proven to bring up test scores, they said.

I was willing to get into serious trouble — school burning and all — for that cause because it meant that my students would get a better education. Luckily, I gathered a few followers, my principal included, who kept me from doing any real damage to the building, but who definitely fought alongside me to challenge the curriculum. I had the trust, respect, and support of my colleagues and administration, which allowed me the opportunity to teach my students as human beings, rather than as bodies in a seat.

I’ve fought this battle from the very beginning of my career until the present moment. I refuse to allow top-down decrees, which are divorced from the realities of classroom practice and student needs, to prevent students from receiving a true education. I have often felt lonely because of this pursuit, but just as the lone dancer in the Ted Talk eventually gathers followers, without fail, I have too. People always come around. And there are teachers across the country dancing away and gathering followers every minute of every day. They need our support.

A teacher does not work in a vacuum. We should be held accountable to those who are most immediately impacted by our work:  our students, their parents, and our colleagues, and we should hold them accountable for allowing us to do our best work as well.  I have taught in schools where teachers, students, parents, and administrators were not held accountable to one another for support and motivation, and that formula does not often bring success.

Test scores mean very little when it comes to showing teachers, students, and the school community how to grow. I know that I am responsible for my students’ futures, not just their test scores, and for my colleagues’ experience with my students the next period or next school year, and to my students’ parents who send their children to me every day hoping for them to be educated and not just standardized — and they are all accountable to me as well.  I truly believe that the system for accountability should be a community effort. Change may begin with one dancer, but only followers can make it a movement. And those followers must be our community at large, looking to teachers to lead that movement.

I also believe that our current system for accountability is based on assumptions that teaching is a black and white endeavor. It may be easy to see the lone dancing fool and assume that she is just a fool, rather than a leader. But starting a movement is complicated, just as teaching and learning is complicated. A couple of multiple choice tests at the end of the school year cannot possibly provide clear insight into a student’s knowledge or a teacher’s effectiveness. The classroom and school culture, the level of critical thinking and creativity, the amount of parent involvement and teacher support, the diversity in a school or given classroom, and many other factors influence a student’s achievement and a teacher’s success, and therefore should also be utilized in student and teacher accountability systems.

Students deserve more than cookie-cutter schools, and teachers deserve the opportunity to look like dancing fools in order to do what’s right for their kids. We are starting a revolution, one teacher at a time.

Here is Ashley Lamb-Sinclair’s blog, Beautiful Junkyard.

Ashley Lamb-Sinclair

Ashley Lamb-Sinclair is the Kentucky Teacher of the Year.