Reading & Reacting: Encouraging Educator Courage

Image: Alfie Kohn Lecturing

Alfie Kohn Lecture – cc licensed ( BY SA ) flickr photo by Mike Gifford

By Alfie Kohn @ Education Week

I have to admit that I remember reading Alfie Kohn as a pre-service teacher and disliking him a great deal. I recall having to read Beyond Discipline and thinking he was way off the mark, finding some of his ideas laughable. Years went by before I was reacquainted with him.

Now that I am an experienced teacher, and hopefully know a bit more, I find I like Kohn a whole lot more. In fact, I am feeling compelled to pick up Beyond Discipline and re-read it. Perhaps I wasn’t quite ready to understand Kohn before I spent significant time in the classroom, gaining experience.

In his current commentary, Kohn continues to earn more of my respect and appreciation. His plea for educators to cast off fear is inspiring. Breaking his call to action into three parts (digging deeper, taking responsibility, and sharing power), Kohn attempts to articulate what courageous educators do with multiple examples.

He spells out the first part, linking it with a gadfly’s glee.

To dig deeper is to ask the root questions: not how many AP courses kids should take, but whether to replace the College Board’s curriculum with our own; not how much homework to assign, but why kids should have to work a second shift every evening; not how to grade, but whether to do so at all.

If only more people with positional authority would ask these kinds of questions. I have actually asked some very similar questions not only of myself but schools where I have worked. Unfortunately, decision-makers, at those times, either didn’t seem to understand the question or lacked the courage to seek genuine answers. I know plenty of teachers that possess the desire to voice tough questions but fear retribution in the asking. It is even harder when one feels alone.

When it comes to taking responsibility, I love the Kohn’s nicked phrase from Maureen Downey, “Lots of principals, she added, are “too cowed to practice ‘creative insubordination.’” I certainly do not think creative insubordination is exclusive to principals, but many principals are caught between two oppositional forces with very little power to share.

Yet when discussing sharing of power, Kohn revels in rattling off the most examples. From administration to students and everything in between, Kohn focuses on efforts to remove barriers to getting everyone involved in playing an active role in their own learning and meaning making. They are powerful and brave examples of individual humility in service of empowering others, a far greater good than the kind of ranking and sorting which is so prevalent in most typical school environments.

There is a political aspect to all of this of course, and Kohn does not duck that. In fact he embraces it and encourages others to do the same. Resistance is always best accomplished with solidarity. I believe now more than ever, educators at all levels have an obligation to inform everyone about damaging policies that threaten our nation’s public education system, resisting the most absurd as much as possible, while attempting to inspire change. As Kohn powerfully puts it, in his closing, “The kids are watching us, deciding how to live their lives in part by how we’ve chosen to live ours.” That might be the only rubric any of us needs.

Image: iPad

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