Teaching in Mind

Helping Teachers Mindfully Transform Education

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The Teaching in Mind website has been refocused on how the unconscious beliefs and values of teachers influence the education of our children. Since the 2nd edition of Teaching in Mind: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education was published in 2010, the lives of teachers and students have undergone major changes. To this end, our goal is to publish an updated edition of Teaching in Mind by the end of 2017. Meanwhile, the key ideas about the effects of teacher beliefs can still be found here. New articles on the topic will be added as they are completed.

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Articles about learning and assessment, historic foundations of education, current issues in education, and transforming education that previously appeared on this site can now be found at our sister site, Learning in Mind.

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Think Mosquito!

I

n one of his Random Thoughts1 posts of more than a decade ago, Professor Louis Schmier described a moment when he recognized his own complicity in "the system" that we all love to criticize.

"For over a quarter of a century, I had looked at the challenge posed by 'the system' and used it as a bank in which I deposited, and from which I withdrew excuses, rationales, and explanations. I accepted it rather than challenged it and filled my life with silent regrets. I blamed it when things went wrong and filled my secret thoughts with resentment. I used it as a reason to stop and to hold myself back, and filled my spirit with hidden feelings of failure. I always bragged how I used the system and ignored how it really pushed me around, used me, misused me, abused me. I looked at 'the system' in a way that defeated me, or, at least, limited me. It was convenient. I could look at it and not at me. I could blame it and I didn't have to take any responsibility."
"I discovered that when I had been talking about the system, I was so often really talking about myself. I was not a victim of 'the system.' I had victimized myself. The system didn't dictate my behavior. I did. Or, at least, I gave 'the system' permission to dictate to me. I was a prisoner of my own perceptions and thoughts. As I peered deeper inside me, I … slowly realized that my success, achievement, happiness and fulfillment all depended not so much on 'the system' and 'others' out there, but rather on how I chose to view both myself and them. I saw that the most powerful and important control I have is over my own thoughts and actions. And, when I exercise that control, nothing has much control over me."

In the article, Professor Schmier repeatedly used the metaphor "Think Mosquito." Although tiny and seemingly insignificant, a few truly determined mosquitoes have the power to alter the behavior of organisms hundreds of times their size. It occurred to me that "thinking mosquito" might be a useful way for individual teachers to conceptualize their power. But first, many teachers must reclaim that power…they must stop giving it away to others and to "the system"!

How do you know if you are doing that? One effective way is to listen to the excuses, rationales, and explanations you give when describing your frustrations. When teachers utter statements such as, "He made me mad," "She gave me no choice, "My principal won't let me," or "I have to teach what will be on the test," they are saying that someone or something else caused (or inhibited) their behavior. As Louis suggests, that's an unconscious way of transferring responsibility for their action (or lack thereof) away from themselves—handing it over to another person or circumstance—to an administrator, the government, or some set of rules of nameless origin.

An insidious result of such statements is that they prevent people from acting on the choices they actually have. They are, in effect, transferring control of their lives to someone or something else. Personally, I would rather retain the choices for myself. I can choose to get angry—or not. I can choose to do what the other person wants—or not. I can choose to teach what others have selected as "essential" knowledge—or not.

Blaming government policies or administrators is a common practice among teachers. But when researchers questioned one principal about something teachers said he "wouldn't let them do," he responded he would have been happy to support the action if they had only asked him. Often, the "blaming" is a convenient excuse for one's unwillingness to take action.

There's no doubt that blaming others for one's lack of action is 'easier,' but at what price? We are already seeing the long-term effects on teachers who have done what they were told when what they were told conflicted with deeply held values and beliefs. One cannot continue to act in opposition to one's values without a growing sense of guilt, a loss of self-respect, or other emotional, psychological, and sometimes physical fallout. The effect may be unconscious—experienced simply as frustration or burnout—but the results are often the same. You are left with a choice of leaving the profession you once loved, or dissociating yourself from your deepest values about doing what is in the best interest of every child—a terrible price to pay in either case. Not to mention the even more terrible price paid by students.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that teachers stop doing any task that has been defined by others. What I am suggesting is that they do so mindfully, questioning aspects of their work or mandates that they feel are inappropriate or detrimental to effective teaching/learning. Teachers are unlikely to be perceived as effective leaders until they accept and act on both their expertise and responsibility in choosing the direction of the educational process.

What Is the Role of Teachers?

Some years ago, Education Week2 conducted a survey in which they polled 800 voters on a number of educational issues. On questions about 1.) Who is the most responsible for ensuring quality public schools; and 2.) Who has the most power to improve education?, voters chose school boards, parents, and the President as the top three answers. The other seven choices contained a mix of local, state, and federal elected officials, community members, and businesses. Note that teachers weren't even included by the survey writers in the "top ten" parties with the greatest responsibility and power in education!

Yet when asked who was the most responsible when students failed, the top three choices were 1.) the students themselves; 2.) teachers; and 3.) parents. In other words, teachers were perceived as having little or no responsibility or power to improve education, yet they are held responsible for student failure. Sounds fair to me!

First, let me say that respondents apparently had to choose from the categories provided in the survey. I also recognize that the responsibility and power to "ensure quality schools" and to "improve education" might be perceived as "administrative" tasks, rather than local ones—thus explaining why "officials" were the categories included.

Despite these factors, I find it extremely disconcerting that teachers were omitted, either unintentionally or by choice, from the list of those with responsibility and power to improve education. Yet, when it came to assigning blame for student failure, the roles were reversed. Students, teachers, and parents shouldered that responsibility, while school boards, politicians, businesses and the community didn't even make the list of choices!

Perhaps the most disturbing factor is that citizens—voters—have apparently become convinced that "big brother" has—or should have—the power and responsibility to decide how young people should be educated. Government dictums on education often have figurehead advisory committees comprised of so-called educational experts. But how can any group of experts, many of whom have never taught in a public school classroom, decide on policy that will be appropriate for the enormous range of teaching situations faced by teachers?

At the same time that officials are demanding better trained and more highly qualified teachers, those same teachers have little or no input into decisions that affect everything from content to methodology to the goals of education. Their expertise is apparently valued only in the execution of predetermined tasks rather than in judging when and where those tasks are appropriate for a given student—or if they are appropriate at all.

Many highly-trained, knowledgeable, and experienced people have chosen the profession of teaching, despite traditionally low pay, difficult working conditions, and an increasing lack of respect, because they care deeply about students. Why is their expertise ignored except at the most superficial level?

How can teachers take their rightful place as leaders in educational improvement? Again, no simple answers exist. One way is for each teacher to address the issues that most threaten his/her vision of effective education. Think globally and act locally. Stop making excuses and placing blame on factors over which you claim to have no control. Accept the responsibility to make a difference—whether in the larger system or for a single student. Accept that you may never know the outcome of your efforts, but know that whether you choose to act or to not act, you are influencing the future. Think mosquito!

I know what you're thinking. You can't afford to make waves! And you would be right if you were just one voice—a single drop in the vast ocean of teachers. A lone teacher in his/her classroom feels isolated. But you need only read the posts on teacher forums to realize that you are not a lone voice crying in the wildnerness.

Several years ago, I had occasion to speak to a highly-respected educational theorist and writer. He had just spoken to some of the top teachers and administrators in a large American city, and told me that they were nearly at the "torches and pitchforks" stage. (regarding standards and assessment)I found that extremely promising! Maybe teachers were finally ready to stand up and say, "I won't do this any more because it's not in the best interest of students!" I was wrong! When push came to shove, the torches and pitchforks were buried under government mandates that the teachers continued to obey.

What if every teacher in your school refused to go along with a policy that you—the experts—know is not in the best interest of students. Would they fire every teacher? And what would happen when other schools in your region or your state hear about your actions? Will the state school board shut down all the schools until they can find substitutes? Even more impactful would be the effect of your actions on parents. Unless they've done a lot of reading on their own, most parents have no idea how damaging one-size-fits-all standards and high-stakes assessments are to their children.

Look what happened when parents began opting out of having their students high-stakes tests. It started in New York, but has quickly spread to dozens of districts in dozens of states. And despite threats, no students have failed and no schools have lost their funding.

Why are teachers and administrators ordered to not make parents aware of their right to opt out? It's one thing when parents take a stand, but quite another when teachers begin speaking out as a group. As long as teachers allow others to usurp their power, they will be at the mercy of policy makers who accuse them of being lazy or simply bad teachers. Parents and the public need to hear the teachers' point of view. They need to hear how this obsession with assessment has affected what and how teachers are forced to teach. They need to hear why "one-size-fits-all" standards ignore developmental differences. And who better to tell them than the true experts—the people who spend each and every day working with real children.

Look at what happened when one teacher explained on YouTube why she was resigning from teaching. Her video went viral. Nearly 700,000 people watched it and it has led to other similar teacher videos. Many who watched it commented that they had no idea how bad things are for many students and teachers. All they know is what they hear from public policy makers about how important these tests are.

We begin to change the world by changing our perception of what is possible. We change that perception by literally changing our minds—by reevaluating habitual thinking patterns and old beliefs. As Louis Schmier says, the source of all possibilities lies within you, not in 'others' or in 'systems.' Only you can choose to explore the depth and breadth of those possibilities and your role in bringing them to reality. Think mosquito!


"I can't believe that," said Alice— "One can't believe impossible things."
"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes, I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast!"
~ Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass

References

  1. Schmier, Louis. 2002. Think Mosquito. https://therandomthoughts.edublogs.org/2002/06/26/think-mosquito/
  2. http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2002/06/05/39pen.h21.html

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New!

The Teaching in Mind website has been refocused on how the unconscious beliefs and values of teachers influence the education of our children. Since the 2nd edition of Teaching in Mind: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education was published in 2010, the lives of teachers and students have undergone major changes. To this end, our goal is to publish an updated edition of Teaching in Mind by the end of 2017. Meanwhile, the key ideas about the effects of teacher beliefs can still be found here. New articles on the topic will be added as they are completed.


Other Articles

Articles about learning and assessment, historic foundations of education, current issues in education, and transforming education that previously appeared on this site can now be found at our sister site, Learning in Mind.

Email Updates

Want to be notified when the latest articles and/or information is added?

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