Instruction & Curriculum

Teacher Empowerment: Fight the Powers that Be

You gotta go for what you know
To make everybody see, in order to fight the powers that be
-Public Enemy
Public Enemy’s song, “Fight the Power,” was a call to action in the late 1980s for African-American communities (and beyond) to get more political and take a stand against the “powers that be.” When one looks at our history as a nation, there are many examples of various groups uniting and rising up against powers that were obstacles to growth and progress. Public Enemy’s name was created based on how they felt African-Americans were viewed in the United States, as a public enemy. I see similar correlations between how teachers are often viewed by the public. We hold a plethora of knowledge, yet many who make decisions about our systems, structures, and finances have never been educators. The “powers that be” are gravely disconnected from our field and continue to paint teachers as the public enemy of education. Although the awareness about our field is growing nationwide, due to more teachers amplifying their voices, there is still a great need for more teacher empowerment.
Currently, teacher pay, resources, and educational policies, are on the docket as hot topics that prompt teacher marches and media coverage. However, there is a missing item on the teacher empowerment agenda that often flies under the radar…having the autonomy to teach and use best practices in instruction. We think instructional practices are at the forefront, due to the myriad of initiatives thrown around, or the buzz phrases about instruction that are overused. Nonetheless, I often hear teachers frustrated they have to teach a certain way or use practices that are not best for students because of the autonomy/mandates of the district, their administration, or even their colleagues. Regardless of where our nation goes with school funding and its systems, one element that we can control is what we do everyday inside our classrooms. It’s overwhelmingly apparent that not all teachers feel they have this control.
I know first hand what it feels like to face resistance in teaching. As a matter of fact, my first encounter was during my first year teaching almost 14 years ago. First year teachers often experience empowerment struggles because they are new. It is assumed that if you are new, you don’t know what you should yet. Some veteran teachers may even create more resistance as fresh ideas with new teachers come in because it may disrupt their T.W.W.A.D.I (The Way We’ve Always Done It) mindset. The same could be said for administration as they may not be open to new ideas after they have set campus norms, procedures, and expectations. I came across what Jennifer Gonzalez, of Cult of Pedagogy, calls the groupers (teachers who will frown about everything no matter how promising or good it may be). I remember being told that my creativity was “fluff,” my on-level students shouldn’t be learning SAT vocabulary because it would be too hard for them, that I should forget about homework because my kids wouldn’t do it anyway, and that I couldn’t get “student x” to work because he never does anything. I was also too young to be the English department head. I heard a chorus of suggestions and comments that centered on the theme of “You can’t do that.”

Maybe I’m a natural born rebel, maybe I was just curious enough to keep trying, or maybe it was a combination of both. Did I get defeated, frustrated, or shed a tear a time or two? Yes. Did I stop? NO. The imaginary big bad wolf that we envision will come out of the shadows when we challenge or buck the system never showed up. I realized that other’s opinions and comments, even though they made me question what I was doing, were simply empty words. So, what actually happened?
My students’ scores were great and continued to improve.
I helped students grow.
I filled gaps.
I sparked engagement.
My students did their homework because I found the balance between purpose, practice, and engagement.
I taught students vocabulary they wouldn’t have otherwise received (simply because other teachers thought they couldn’t do it)
“Student x” came around because I worked on establishing a relationship first versus belittling him about working.
I raised expectations.
I led the English department (as much as I tried to hand this position back due to resistance, I retained it). I learned, I grew, and most importantly, I survived.
And that was just my first year teaching.
I also am aware that resistance can be much harder to navigate because it isn’t always an empty comment or eye roll from a colleague. Mandates, micromanagement, counterfactual claims (a.k.a LIES) and fear tactics are stronger forms of resistance that can crush teacher empowerment. Yet, I have learned, over the years, that even these obstacles aren’t insurmountable. So, why can’t teachers overcome these obstacles?
Dismantling the Power of ‘THEY’
“They said we can’t teach outside of the curriculum.”
“They said we have to stick with the pacing guide.”
“They said we can’t add to the lesson.”
“They said we can’t rearrange the order of skills taught.”
“They said we can no longer be explicit when teaching certain skills.”
As a teacher and even now as an instructional coach, I find myself asking, “WHO is they?” It’s actually a rhetorical question because I know exactly who “they” is. “They” represent districts, departments, administration, and yes, some of our own colleagues. Nonetheless, I continue to ask this question to teachers because I notice we have given “they” far too much presence on the educational stage. I realize that “they” have the power to make teachers’ jobs and lives more difficult. However, “they” don’t have as much power as we do, collectively. Most teachers grow to learn that this power is perceived and some of the carrots that are dangled are fake. The power of they wins because it can. It rarely faces resistance and is often a successful fear tactic because many don’t want to ruffle feathers. If teachers hear, “They said we can’t,” the fight usually stops. Not enough of us ask:
Who is they?
Why can’t we?
Those of us who tend to do so are labeled the rebels and the boat rockers, but so what? Rocking the boat has helped my students grow far more than staying on the safety of the shore. In the words of Public Enemy,

You gotta go for what you know
To make everybody see, in order to fight the powers that be

While there are many who are on the productive side of power in education, we know there are just as many who are not. These are the powers that be in which I’m referencing. Those who are making decisions based on preference and power rather than research, science, and content knowledge. As teachers we hold that knowledge, and should be leading the charge on best practices within our curriculum and beyond. We have seen examples of what can happen when teachers unite and challenge the power of they. Most teacher marches regarding pay and classroom resources have yielded change. And when change didn’t happen, teachers kept marching. Kept marching. Not every fight equates to a march, but the staying power is necessary. We know this from our experiences with students. We have to have staying power to see results. Students don’t learn in one day. We don’t create successful classroom climates and relationships in a week. We don’t drive sustained improvement in one grading period. It’s the persistence over time that produces the harvest. So, how do we cultivate a culture of persistence while challenging “the power of they” and practices that aren’t best for students?

What we need is awareness, we can’t get careless

Understanding the Power of Knowledge
Teachers, we have to do our homework. It’s easy to accept the status quo when you don’t have the knowledge to challenge the powers that be. This is particularly important when phrases like “this is a mandate” go floating around. As teachers, we are known for our compliance. At the core, we genuinely want to comply to maintain peace so that we can do what we are called to do. In that same regard, compliance is often the very trait that causes us to become too complacent with mandates, orders, and expectations that are not in the best interest of students. One of my AHA moments was when I took a Texas public school law course in grad school. My takeaways from that semester:
The law is not always followed on campuses, districts, or in our nation. (Things we already know but is worth repeating).
Most teachers don’t know public school law unless they’ve taken a graduate level course.
Every administrator has taken this course, or a similar variant, because it is required for their certification.
Public school law should be a required course in teacher education programs and alternative certification programs.
It was common for my peers and I to reflect on all the times we didn’t advocate for ourselves or our students simply because we didn’t fully know the law. This left us bamboozled, manipulated, and controlled. I was flabbergasted, and it spoke to a broader theme in our world of those in power holding knowledge that is sometimes manipulated unbeknownst to the masses. Today, we have knowledge at our fingertips and we must take full advantage, teachers:
Learn your campus and district policies.
Learn the law. While systems and policies may vary from state to state, you should be able to find books and other literature on the educational laws in your state.
Know how your teacher organizations or unions can support you.
Know your teacher rights and how to handle resistance/unfair treatment professionally.
Any good policy, directive, or mandate should be in the best interests of students.
When in doubt, do your homework.
Knowing the Power of Our Voice
For the most part, many of us can navigate the slights received when we choose to implement practices that are best for our classrooms, but some find it easier to retreat rather than engage. There is power in our voices and it is especially powerful when our voices are united. I remember a time when I felt I had to be in lockstep with my grade level department. I felt pressure to do the same assignments and utilize the same practices. All the while, I knew it was not what was best for my students. Although difficult, I eventually rocked the boat. I went against the grain. My classes were behind the other teachers because I took the time to teach what I felt was needed. I took time to fill gaps and create stronger retention and mastery. I ruffled feathers. I didn’t follow the calendar, and in the end, my students were successful. This can be particularly difficult if you are new to a grade level, campus, department, or district and find that your practices differ from those around you. At best, one would hope that we could all learn from one another. However, there are instances where T.W.W.A.D.I (The Way We’ve Always Done It) rears its head and some can’t see the forest for the trees.

Stop putting adult feelings before student needs.

We don’t speak up because of fear. Fear of not complying, being written up, etc. We don’t speak up because we don’t want to hurt feelings or cause a disruption. Why are we okay with putting adults before the kids? You are the only one who teaches your students in your specific content area. You know your students. You know their needs. Advocate for them by advocating for yourself. If the new initiative is not best practice, question it. Do your homework. If the scripted lessons are not helping your students learn. Do your homework and use what you know is best practice. It’s easier said than done, but our students’ lives and learning are worth the fight. One of the best things I learned to do as a teacher was to smile and nod (at initiatives I knew were not research-based best practices), return to my classroom and TEACH. The longer I’ve been in education, the more my backbone has grown. I’ve been in those moments where I expected I would be called into a meeting with administration about my instructional practices. The power of they became smaller and smaller the more knowledge I had (to back up my practices) and the less I was afraid to use my voice. We take a big risk when we follow the status quo as teachers. Often, our students end up paying the price when we don’t utilize our voices. The jig is up and it’s time to fight the powers that be. 
Be empowered, teachers.
Things don’t just change without questions. Without push back. Without being a rebel. Click To Tweet
Things dont just change without questions. Without push back. Without being a rebel. @GaryRGrayJr

It only takes one voice, at the right pitch, to start an avalanche. – Dianne Hardy

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