Challenging the Status Quo: If Not You, Then Who?
Voices from the Field 06 August 2019
By Brittany Austin, Pike Road Schools
Those of us who seek to change the status quo have to continue seeking each other out, challenging each other, and learning from each other. We are here, and we are not going anywhere until we see change happen.
Change is inevitable. Or, is it? This seems like a chicken or egg quandary. Change happens all the time, so it appears inevitable. But, if we took away the leaders of that change, then our world would look rather similar with each passing century.
Without radicals, rebels, and dissenters like Martin Luther King Jr., Marie Curie, and Nicolaus Copernicus; Jim Crow laws, male-only PhDs, and flat-earth science may be as real today as it was in decades and centuries past. Today, it’s nearly impossible to imagine living in such a world. And, it makes one wonder what future societies will scoff at that the majority of us currently accept.
What types of status quo are we ignoring that are blocking our progress as a society? Better yet, what types of status quo are we currently uncomfortable living with but aren’t actively challenging? Are we okay with waiting on the sidelines for this century’s Harriet Tubman or Mahatma Gandhi to magically appear and lead us to a brighter future? Or, are we ready to collectively own that responsibility and change the status quo ourselves?
I’m gathering with folks in the latter category. Admittedly, making such a claim isn’t a huge surprise to anyone who knew me growing up. My first memory of challenging the status quo goes all the way back to my time in preschool. The adults turned out the lights and had us lie down for a nap. I wasn’t about the nap life then, and I still struggle with it today.
Why on earth would anyone want to sleep when there are toys to play with, books to read, and more importantly, interesting people to talk to? What began as an outright refusal, eventually evolved into me agreeing to the laying but not to the sleeping. You can pretend to do anything for thirty minutes when it means you get recess. My habit of challenging the status quo had begun.
Being the overachiever I am, I was good at this. My next four years, I mastered the art of preparing students for high-stakes state tests.
My habit to think and question—instead of looking for a simple, definitive answer—stemmed from conversations with my parents, who taught me to dig below the surface. Growing up in Alabama, many “norms” did not make sense to me. And, becoming an educator opened my eyes to the rest of the world where such “norms” were anything but.
Apparently, planning social events around college football schedules—including moving your wedding date after realizing it was the same day as the Iron Bowl—isn’t a common practice outside of Alabama. Being last in the nation in education is also an Alabama norm, but changing that is a bit more complex. Although entering the education profession opened my eyes to norms outside of Alabama, it also introduced me to norms within education itself that seem misaligned with our mission to serve young people.
The four years I spent in college didn’t prepare me for the realities of being a first-year teacher, except maybe the capacity to live off of popcorn, ramen, and plenty of Diet Coke. I was hired to teach in a high-poverty Mississippi school district where curriculum, books, and useful technology were completely absent. I had no idea what I had gotten myself into.
I remember the first time I questioned the education status quo. It was during a typical afternoon faculty meeting where we were discussing data. We had numerous students who were not “proficient” in reading or math, and I was asked to stop teaching the history curriculum I designed for my students and simply “teach the test.” It felt wrong, but whereas before I could not quantify success, I suddenly had an answer—test scores. Being the overachiever I am, I was good at this. My next four years, I mastered the art of preparing students for high-stakes state tests, including the history exam they had to pass as juniors in order to graduate.
Working to raise test scores always paled in comparison to the real work we could have been doing to help the individual needs of our students.
My job was to help these babies graduate and to make sure our school was reaching our Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) goals. My supervisors called me innovative, as I dreamed up ways to teach, remediate, incentivize, and work with my team to ensure we had quality history education at each level. The amount of energy we spent trying to figure out what exactly would be on those tests was astronomical considering the outcomes we were seeking. Working to raise test scores always paled in comparison to the real work we could have been doing to help the individual needs of our students. Jimmy’s “proficient” test score didn’t mean too much when he didn’t know how many meals he’d be eating over the weekend.
I remember being proud of the work I was doing, as if it made a real difference. But, as I got closer to the community, I realized the disconnect between what I was “accomplishing” with my kiddos and what truly mattered to them beyond the school walls.
This community was suffering. The violence, drugs, gangs, poverty, mistrust in the system, apathy, and continued failure of our students to do more than just graduate high school was a reality I could no longer ignore. The deeper the relationships I built, the more I questioned everything about the system that was supposed to shelter, strengthen, and enlighten young learners to go beyond their roots and give them wings. There was no way out for many of my students, and they could see right through the system that pretended to care about their needs as human beings. The real change they and I needed was out of our hands, and it became abundantly clear why apathy quickly settles in.
Evolutions are too slow for this fast-paced world. We often waste valuable time speaking over one another, further delaying the promising futures we claim to want for our children.
I wasn’t going to let apathy get the best of me, so, just like my nap-rebel self, I began questioning everything. However, the more I voiced my opinions, pushing back against policies that made little sense, the more walls I felt being built around me. Before the walls could completely contain me, I left. But, I immediately found myself in another situation where conventional measures led to conventional outcomes; and my hunger for more, my audacity to question, and my desire to do better for young people left me on an island.
I know many teachers who wish they could go back and apologize for the kind of teacher they were before they knew better, and I’m one of those teachers. I was ill-equipped. A product of an educational system that has produced teachers in masses but is years behind the latest best practices and management techniques. A state that lags behind as one of the last in the nation in education. Our curriculum, resources, teaching training and recruitment, and mindset is antiquated, but the tide in our state is shifting. There are educators, leaders, learners, and parents who are challenging the status quo in our state, urging for an education revolution. There are bureaucratic roadblocks, hearts and minds that need to be changed, and historic systems to shatter; but the work is real, it is here, and it is now.
For those of us who seek a better way, a truly learner-centered vision, we seek equity, access, collective efficacy, and to see ourselves move beyond the status quo. We have nowhere to go but up, and following the norm isn’t going to get us there. It is in the midst of failure that some of the greatest innovations and successes occur.
We are sick of the lack of transparency, the politics, and the excuses. Our paths may be different, but it is time for every educator, especially in my state, to rise up and challenge the status quo.
I have long thought about the idea of an education revolution versus an evolution, and I can tell you that we no longer have the time to stand by and allow those in charge to continuously apply the same thinking, resources, and practices to the same problems and wonder why nothing changes. Evolutions are too slow for this fast-paced world. We often waste valuable time speaking over one another, further delaying the promising futures we claim to want for our children.
Ironically, the children are the ones most affected, but their voices are the least valued. As adults continue to decide what is “best” for them, we will continue creating what is “best” (a.k.a. easiest) for us. As educators, we didn’t enter this work to do what’s easy, we entered this work to do what’s right. As individuals, we might not be able to immediately change the myriad systemic issues we deal with every day; but what we can change is how we approach learning in our classrooms. We can push forward an equitable, learner-centered, whole-person approach to the standards we are required to teach.
We can no longer accept what is, but we also cannot do it alone. Those of us who seek to change the status quo have to continue seeking each other out, challenging each other, and learning from each other. We are here, and we are not going anywhere until we see change happen. Our state, and many others, have quality educators working together to change the status quo. What began as pockets of change is rapidly erupting into a new normal for our learners. From better teacher training to developing curriculum that are more learner-centered, to lobbying for change at the capitol steps, these people and organizations are working from the grassroots to change the status quo. As a good friend of mine reminds me often, “We can’t stop, and we won’t stop.”
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