Teachers Cuffed by Culture


Students. Beyond Our Control.

How many times have you heard the argument that merit pay for teachers is a terrible idea because “there are so many things that teachers can’t control”? People like to ground their argument for not paying teachers based on student outcome on this idea that there are so many contributors to student success that teachers can’t control. And that’s true. There are so many things that teachers can’t control. There are so many things that parents can’t control. There are so many things that mid-level sales management at Chic-Fil-A can’t control. There are so many things that General Petraeus can’t control. In fact, I can’t think of anywhere outside a lab that “control” exists—and even then, they’re not always reliable. Yet everyone else on that list is held accountable for the outcomes of the people that report to them regardless of how much control they have on outside influences. Writing off accountability with this argument that circumstances are outside their control throws the baby out with the bathwater, whether you pay teachers more or not. Everyone has extenuating circumstances that effect performance outcome.


They Can’t Control It. Who Can?

Forget the merit pay thing. Why do we just throw out those “things teachers can’t control” when we talk about education for any reason? Here's a handful of the myriad things teachers can’t control:

•  How students’ parents talk about education

•  Whether parents model life-long learning to their children

•  The messages students receive in the media about the relevance of education

•  How much arts participation a student experiences

•  What teacher the student had before them

•  The level of discipline they’re permitted to impose on their students

•  The ways in which students see discipline modeled outside school

The truth is that there are hundreds of things that teachers can’t control that the rest of us can.


Corporate Culture, The Golden Child

One of things we hear a great deal about in business chatter is changing “corporate culture” and what great corporate culture can do for a company. Zappos is notorious for its great corporate culture. Google enhances corporate culture with its 20% time policy. We’re not at all afraid of changing corporate culture; in fact, we glorify it. “These groups have totally changed their values, expectations, and habits,” we exult, and then we put them on the covers of Inc. According to Carol Dweck, “In 1993, [IBM] turned to Lou Gerstner and asked him to be the new CEO. He said no. They asked him again. ‘You owe it to America. We're going to have President Clinton call and tell you to take the job. Please, please, please. We want exactly the kind of strategy and culture change you created at American Express and RJR.”’ [1. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success for Kindle, location 2176] Companies in the know seem to beg for reformed corporate culture because they know the cultures that they have now don't work.

It’s Our Culture, People

Those things that teachers can’t control are products of our culture—both on the whole (what our whole society reflects) and our personal cultures (the things we do as individuals day-to-day). Let’s be clear: I’m not talking about our educational culture or our culture of learning. I’m talking about the giant, gobstopping culture of the United States. Fortunately for us, our culture is something that can be controlled, whether teachers can control it live from their classrooms or not. According to Merriam-Webster, a culture is “the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.” [2. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/culture] What we as everyday adults, just people walking around interacting with each other, know and believe and our subsequent behavior sets up what succeeding generations are doing—we’re driving what’s going on in the classroom. It’s time to become as fanatical about changing our own culture as we become when a major corporation changes its.


Coming To Terms With It

We’re going to have to come to terms with two major things here if we’re going to make any headway:

1. It’s our problem! Yes, what you do this afternoon, how you spend your time, what you create, and how you conduct yourself next weekend (same goes for me) influences this phenomenon. If teachers were given disciplined, driven students who came to school with an understanding of where they fit in the world now and how they can contribute to the world down the line, they’d be a heck of a lot more likely to be able to teach (or, at the very least, it’d be easier for those of us outside looking in to see how effective they really are at it). Our culture is consumer-driven (don’t ask me; as the GDP) and our rewards system is unwarranted-praise based (trophies for showing up at little league are the standard). Everybody’s workin’ for the weekend (thank you, Loverboy) and our biggest stars are largely famous for that part of themselves over which they had no control, their beauty. What does any of this communicate about the values of hard work, developing a growth mindset, and taking on challenges and problems whether or not we feel inclined to or find them interesting? Adult arts participation is at an all-time low (and arts participation is a statistically proven indicator of the likelihood that anyone will want to “play sports and attend sports events, do exercise and outdoor activities, and volunteer in their communities.”) [3. National Endowment for the Arts 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts] What this means is that if we as adults, everyday people, change our culture we will automatically change education by changing the accepted standard.

2. Changing culture isn’t comfortable and it isn’t something that just one particular group of people needs to do. Notice that I’m not saying, “Well, if those people in Harlem could just get it together [4. I just lived more than 4 years of my life overlooking 125th street.] then we’d all be fine,” because this problem isn’t limited to the inner city and under-served. The cultural fitness that Thomas Sowell talks about isn’t confined—it applies to all of us. This isn’t going to be easy. It’s easier to be worried about a child’s conduct than to hold ourselves to the same standard. We’re talking about changing our values and beliefs. “Do this. Do that,” is so much easier than “I’m doing this. I’m doing that. Come along beside me.” Embodying the culture that we claim to want for our children, a culture that ultimately contributes to, competes with, and shares with other societies, is seriously hard work. The sense of momentum we saw in the Detroit Chrysler Super Bowl ad is the sense of momentum we need to expect not just from a company or from a city--that momentum needs to define our national culture if we plan to get anywhere in education.


How to Begin Controlling Things that Teachers Can’t Control

There are so many ways that we can begin to make changes, but here are a few to start.

•  Look at the work you do. How do you talk about your work with others? Does the way you talk about your work influence the attitudes of other workers? Do students ever hear you talk about your work? What might their perceptions be? Do you revisit fundamentals?

•  Are the things you do for fun complementary to your work? Do you do productive things for fun? How much of your free time is spent passively consuming (vegging out) and how much is spent actively engaging (with ideas, with people, with new experiences)?

•  Do you know how to relax and rest? Does that look any different than when you’re being lazy or procrastinating?

•  Are you disciplined? How do you eat? Do you get exercise? Do you finish projects and tasks?

•  What do you reward? What do you admire in others?

•  Do you notice quality? Do you demand it in things you eat/drink? Wear? Drive? Can it be seen in how organized you are? Do you care about your things?

•  Do you read? Do you get your news from various sources so you can compare ideas?

It's generally accepted that it takes about three weeks to start a new habit before trying to add in a new one. We’re all going to have to start small, but we can each start with something different. What can you start doing today and carry on for the next three weeks that's your first step to take back control of the culture and truly being to change education?


Elizabeth KingComment