Being Positive Isn’t Easy for this Teacher

Blogger’s Note:  I’m bringing the pessimism (unfortunate truth?) to the party here, y’all.  If you want warm fuzzies about the joys of teaching, navigate away immediately. 

And if you work beyond the classroom and get your feelings hurt easily, you might not want to read this, either.

#forewarned

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I had an interesting exchange in Twitter today with Todd Whitaker, author and professor of educational leadership at Indiana State University. 

It all started when I stumbled across this tweet in Whitaker’s stream:

Thanks to my tweet buddies I wrote piece comparing a group of negative teachers to Hotel California!

As a guy who is often labeled “negative” by educational leaders, Whitaker’s message caught my attention. 

I’m probably extra-touchy, too, because it’s become all-too-common for eduthinkers to feed into the belief that “negative” teachers (read: anyone who pushes back or questions the choices made by those with power) are to blame for education’s woes. 

One expert even goes as far as to label resistant teachers “fundamentalists.” How’s that for a loaded word?

So I chirped back at Whitaker, writing:

"Negative teachers" can often be a symptom of poor leadership. Demonizing them is easy, but often irresponsible.

The conversation went on for a while, with Whitaker arguing that good teachers know what negativity looks like and that poor leadership cannot be an excuse for bringing negativity into a classroom. 

He wrote:

Ironically negative people hope it is something besides them that is cause – poor leadership, problem parents, political leaders.

Whitaker’s comments left me wondering whether it’s just plain easier to be optimistic about the life of a classroom teacher when you’re working beyond the classroom.

You see, I’m looking through the lens of a guy who still works in the classroom and there are a TON of things that make it difficult to stay positive as a teacher.

Perhaps most importantly, we have little real control over our work even as outsiders scream about holding us accountable for producing “results” that they’ve yet to carefully define. 

We’re expected to march our students through impossibly large curricula even as well respected researchers claim that there’s too much to cover in the time that we’re given.

We walk moral tightropes, making difficult choices every day between implementing test-centric classrooms or preparing kids for an increasingly complex future.

We’re on the receiving end of under-informed policies that even recognized experts on organizational leadership and change don’t believe in. 

We’ve seen experimentation and play squeezed out of everything that we do in schools—and we’ve watched our classrooms become places that reward automatons and crush the spirit of the quirky kid.

Our profession provides no opportunities for differentiation.  We do the same work—and are afforded the same professional respect and credibility—for decades no matter what we accomplish beyond the classroom.

Our work has been bulldozed.  We’re buried under initiatives that never seem to make any sense.  Our schools have no clear directionCliches and slogans substitute for leadership in our schools.

We watch our peers leave year after year.  Our professional development opportunities stink.  We’re forced to watch our students be defined by a number.

Our elected leaders declare war on us.  News commentators mock us.  Whacks and hacks start organizations that suggest that we have failed to put students first.

Should I go on?  (Sadly, I could.)

My point is a simple one: People working beyond the classroom like to believe that if teachers would just buck up—work a little harder, think a little longer, give a bit more—our schools would be sunshine and daffodils. 

In our Twitter conversation, Whitaker puts it this way:

There is a difference between trying to find a solution to a problem and complaining about it.

The sad reality is that no matter how hard teachers work to find solutions to the DOZENS of problems plaguing our schools, final decisions are made by people working beyond the classroom. 

We had little control over creating these problems and we’ll have little control over fixing them.  Instead, we’ll be expected to implement the solutions that others dream up, no matter how half-baked they really are.

That’s discouraging. 

And it’s the reason why I’m pretty darn sure that our schools will never be able to recruit enough accomplished teachers to ever really be successful. 

We need more than optimism to solve problems. 

We need authority. 

And that’s something we’ll never have because the gap between the rhetoric and the reality of life as a teacher leader remains impossibly large. 

#pessimism

17 comments

  1. Liz Wisniewski

    Bill – You do such a wonderful job laying out the problems with teacher morale, problems that those outside the classroom want to simply ignore. Thank you – this is going up on the wall of the teacher’s lounge!

  2. David Truss

    Hi Bill,
    I am no longer a classroom teacher, as I’ve moved into administration… but the best part of my day is still stepping into classrooms and rolling up my sleeves.
    Having had my entire teaching career in Canada, I feel blessed when I read this. I’ve been fortunate to have some amazing leaders that inspired me to be the best teacher I could be and did everything (often despite the system) to make our school great, to empower teachers and to empower students. Teachers in BC, Canada have had battles with provincial government decisions, but the atmosphere has never been about testing and holding teachers directly responsible for performance like I see in the US.
    I’ll confess that I did not follow any of your links, but I knew from the words you chose to link, exactly what the linked articles say… most of them sad testaments to a system that is negative, which works against educators (read teachers AND building administrators).
    That is (in my humble opinion) the key thing that is negative here… the system itself. One that is designed to impose ideas on educators while asking educators to nurture students, to guide and empower them. A hypocritical system that teaches teachers to do as they are told, stay in line, and meet quotas while wanting them to be innovative and offer more of themselves and be professional.
    You ended with #pessimism but I think the better word would be #frustration
    I could probably link to a dozen of my own posts that would read more like #pessimism than this.
    Continue to speak up, and to speak out. Your insight and choice to be vocal is needed. I’ve quoted this story a few times on my blog: http://www.chroniclesofwizardprang.com/two.asp
    “The purpose of a system is what it does.”
    I dream of an educational system that supports learning and leadership at all levels… if we aren’t there (yet~ I can still be optimistic) then we need to take a stand. That’s not pessimism that’s real leadership!

  3. Whitney Hale

    Hi,
    My name is Whitney and I am a student in Professor Strange’s EDM310 class. I think your post is very well written as well. As a future teacher, it is a bit sad to hear all of this, but at the same time, I know how very true it is. I hope that I am optimistic enough to work hard and try to make a change. I believe that it is a downward chain. The affects of our administrators, leak down to us and then have a drastic affect on our students. Thanks so much for the information! I look forward to making a change, with a positive attitude!
    Sincerely,
    Whitney

  4. Todd Whitaker

    Sorry for the typos! My last couple of sentences should have read:
    With so many outside critics of education and teachers the least we can do is work to not add to that environment from inside the school. Teachers already work hard enough. They do not need to feel beat up as well!
    Best wishes and keep up the good work.
    Todd

  5. Todd Whitaker

    Bill,
    Hi. Interesting blog. Very well written. If we have any disconnect it might be the definition of negative. You mention “negative” teachers (read: anyone who pushes back or questions the choices made by those with power) are to blame for education’s woes.
    I would have a different definition. Mine would be someone who consistently adds to the negative tone in the building by regularly running down or being critical of students, treating students in a rude or unprofessional manner, or almost always sees the glass half full and is consistently critical of their peers behind their backs. Pushing back on authority is not the lens I look through in defining negativity at all. That can be a very good thing and is something that typically in education we do not do enough of. I want teachers to ‘stand up’ to administrators when they are doing so based on what is best for the students. As you know, the thing I most believe is school leaders must make every decision on their best teachers. Part of my interest in reducing negativity within a school toward peers and children is that the best teachers do not want kids and their hard working colleagues to be treated like that. The best school leaders – formally and informally, want to do anything and everything they can to protect and create a successful environment for their students. And regardless of their formal positions effective people need to always ‘push back’ against things that are wrong for students. I hope that clarifies a little. Pushing back on authority in a professional manner is not negativity. Being disrespectful to students or back stabbing caring, hard working co-workers is. With so many outside critics of education and teachers the least we can do it work to not add to that environment from inside the school. Teachers already work hard enough. They do not need to feel best up as well!
    Best wishes and keep up the good work.
    Todd

  6. Bill Ferriter

    ZR999 wrote:
    Problems will come but try to find the solutions rather than showing
    complaining attitude.
    Hey ZR999, thanks for stopping by—and I agree with you that finding solutions matters.
    My guess is if you spend some time poking around my blog, youll see that Im constantly providing suggestions for ways that we can improve education. Ive written about new ideas and approaches for everything from teaching students in the 21st Century to leading learning teams and buildings to staffing high needs schools to holding teachers accountable to identifying effective teachers.
    And Ive been at the solution game for a long, long while now. Ive served on school committees, district committees, state committees and national committees. Ive presented to countless teacher, administrator, and policymaker audiences.
    The pessimism—which I think you see as complaining—-comes from the simple truth that despite all of those suggestions and presentations, nothing has changed.
    My profession is no different today than it was almost a decade ago when I started speaking and writing and presenting.
    Nothing Ive said has mattered.
    The constant attempts to drive change with no results—-and with no real authority to implement any of the suggestions and/or changes that I believe in—naturally cause me to be more than a little skeptical, both with education and with people who try to sell me on the idea that a little optimism and effort can go a long way.
    Ive put more than a little optimism and effort into my attempts to drive change in education and have gotten nowhere. Sisyphus had better luck than Ive ever had.
    ZR999 also wrote:
    If you are still pessimistic about Teaching and
    unhappy about your profession , then its better to change your
    profession from teaching to any other profession where you can fit
    yourselves.Its always
    love it , live it or leave it 🙂
    Think about the inherent pessimism in your love it, live it or leave it phrase, ZR. Basically, youre suggesting that nothing is ever going to change, arent you?
    Adopting a love it, live it or leave it approach means that teachers should just be satisfied with the state of our profession. Embrace the good and the bad—or get out.
    Where does question it, improve it, call out its weaknesses play into the equation?
    Loving it when it just aint right doesnt do anyone any good in the long run.
    Maybe thats why so many people really DO leave it?
    Bill

  7. vici

    I am having a hard time with your definition of ‘negative’ – questioning the status quo is essential to moving forward, not being negative. I see ‘negativity’ as people who see a problem and choose to simply complain about it rather than join the forces to correct it. ‘Positivity’ is a ‘let’s see what we can do’ attitude. I think, using my definition, this goes beyond whether or not you’ve been in the classroom or not or whether you have ‘power’ of making policy or not. It is a character trait. Actually, if you go back a few years it is stage one of ‘tribal leadership’ (see

    ) What I think you are describing is people who are into power and don’t like being questioned and therefore lable you ‘negative’. that’s different from Todd’s use of the word, which I think is closer to my definition.
    I have to keep reminding my self that you folks are in the states. I do see much more ‘us’ vs ‘them’ kinds of things going on there. If teachers felt this way about me, I would quit immediately. We do have problems, both in the school and imposed from outside (gov., funding, etc) but we meet those together. (Have to admit we still see the government as ‘them’) I see many indicators of a much more dysfunctional system in the states. I wish I could make that better.
    I have been reading all the posts about this topic for days and feeling quite unsettled. I think I was reacting to the ‘being outside the classroom comment’ (I am an administrator). I don’t think that means I don’t know what it is like. I have that background and I add to it a different perspective to advocate to those in power over us. I walk beside my teachers in trying to do our best with what we have, while we figure out ways to force change politically. I think after reading this piece several times, and everyone’s comments, I see far too many places where you are not feeling valued/consulted/worthy. Obviously that makes for a dysfunctional system. I think Canada, or at least B.C. is not quite so bad off. I know we have issues, but …. Do others agree?

  8. zr999

    Having so many problems in our education system as well as in schools, we should know our responsibility and try to act on it. we are the framers of the 21st century students’ character, if we will be pessimistic we will not be able to frame them up nor we will be able to develop our pupils’ skills. Being a teacher, face the challenges and play your part with full efficiency and sincerity.Problems will come but try to find the solutions rather than showing complaining attitude. If you are still pessimistic about Teaching and unhappy about your profession , then its better to change your profession from teaching to any other profession where you can fit yourselves.Its always
    “love it , live it or leave it 🙂

  9. Julie C

    Parents, producers, and politicians can be as negative as they want and no one says a word to them about it because they are just trying to “fix” things. I just want parents, the people who are the most responsible for the success or failure of our young folks, to be held accountable. I want to see parents publicly blasted when their kids don’t perform well on standardized tests. I’m not against accountability, but let’s divide it up evenly amongst EVERYONE who plays a part in education. Then we will see who has a negative attitude.

  10. John Ferriter

    I’d love to see Whitaker’s response to the comments left here. Your words, once again, seem to have struck a positive chord with your readers. Please, keep up the heat on the pretenders.

  11. A Evans

    Very pointed commentary on the state of our craft. Sacrifice the troops who have no control over what is happening in the trenches. Thank you for expressing what so many of us are feeling.

  12. Debbie

    Kudos to you for putting into words what many of us teachers feel and think, but often don’t vocalize. There’s real truth in your statement “‘Negative teachers’ can often be a symptom of poor leadership.” The educational system is (and has been) a convoluted mess, tied up in politics, bureaucracy, and economic shackles. But what’s often being labeled as negativity in some teachers is more likely frustration. We’re often disheartened, disillusioned, and confounded — having to deal with a multitude of disconnected initiatives and unrealistic expectations without having the proper tools or environment in which to manage. Like hamsters on an exercise wheel, most of us are running and working as hard as we can. But it’s never quite fast enough, far enough, or good enough. Any wonder why some of those that are working the hardest want to get off, and why there are less and less wanting to get onboard? It’s lucky for us that some of our students appreciate all we do, because we often don’t get that message from administrators, parents, or policy makers.

  13. Kerri

    When I first got into teaching I had no doubt that I would continue with this career forever. Now, only six years later, I am almost certain I will take my talents elsewhere. Your post puts into words exactly how I have been feeling lately. People will say “you have to keep it about the kids.” But continuing to work for this broken system isn’t helping kids or our country in the long run. It’s really disheartening.

  14. crazedmummy

    You are right. We have been given responsibility without authority. We should not accept this, as it is a no-win situation.
    I am afraid of this “argument is negativity” reasoning. It smacks of “you invoked the 5th amendment, you must be guilty” or “law-abiding citizens don’t mind having their phones tapped.”
    On the contrary, the complacent continuity is to say we cannot make anything better, just go along with the program. It takes a supreme act of optimism to continue to argue for, push for, try to effect change in the face of threats, bullying and verbal attacks on every front. To give up and comply with cheating our students is the negative option.

  15. Oldschoolteach.wordpress.com

    Yes, yes, yes… I agree on all points you made. I sat here shaking my head as I read your post, all true! I just wrote a post called, “Shouldn’t Educator’s Opinions Count?”, wondering why we don’t have a bigger stake in decisions being made. And you’re right, if we could take each one of those people with all their optimistic,simplistic, problem-solving ideas, and let them spend one day in our classrooms…

  16. Harold Shaw

    Thank you for putting into writing what so many of us teachers are feeling and why there are so many teachers leaving the classroom for less stressful work environments – but less satisfying work.
    You are correct when you say It is a control problem. I believe that we are being blamed for the mistakes of those who are in control of the educational process. Yet expect us to implement their “current” reform efforts or “great” idea that will work in every classroom, sorry reality just doesn’t work that way.
    What will be the next “great idea”. Allowing teachers to design educational policy? Naw we are still in the classroom trying to teach our students as best we can. I guess that is why teachers are not more involved in the reform process.
    Thank you
    Harold