After we take the call for our journey, the archetype describes a pattern of human behavior that we all seem to follow. We refuse the call! We renig on our new commitment almost as soon as our journey begins; we change our minds. We start to get a big taste of reality that knocks us off our feet and makes us realize, for the first time, what we are actually getting into. Our instinct is to go back home and forget the whole thing! What were we thinking, anyway? Many people do indeed return home and refuse the call permanently, and that's the end of their story. The important thing to remember, though, is that everyone who has the courage to keep going, everyone who completes the hero's journey, also refused the call. They head home, too. But before it's too late, whether from their own internal grit or a timely "chance" meeting with a helpful stranger, they catch themselves, and turn around one last time, away from the safety of home into the wind and toward the unknown. I describe the "been there, done that eclectics" below in case you encounter this temptress on your way to truth- to put home in the rear window when we must.
"I have already settled it for myself, so flattery and criticism go down the same drain and I am quite free." --Georgia O'Keeffe
Plato's Cave Allegory is one of the yearlong points of reference I use with students when we encounter new ideas or experiences that require us to grow, change, shift, and re-think previously held thoughts or behaviors. It reminds us of how difficult change is to all of us- that it doesn't always bring out the best in us. We don't like it. And we do't like truth tellers, either. We kill the messenger they persist in pushing us out of our comfort zones. The story never grows old to the class, and it never grows stale for me, either. It continues to instruct and guide me toward the light. It reminds me to lean into truth, justice, and goodness when it's inconvenient, painful, or embarrassing. I sometimes manage to follow its lessons.
I can't think of a more important time to keep that story in the forefront of my consciousness than when searching for whatisarealeducation, soul searching about what is best for kids on the spectrum of progressive and traditional orientations, making commitments about my beliefs and then honestly trying to live in accordance with those beliefs. As I said, it's natural to resist such a rocky path.
When kids go through major changes in perception and have to deconstruct previously held beliefs, they are not comfortable. They need a lot of debriefing and support. All too often, there is lashing out, resisting, resenting, and rebelling. Sometimes, it's not until a year of two later that a student comes back to thank me for opening their eyes. This is as true for adults.
When exploring concepts such as self-exploration, self-evaluation or philosophy with kids, I'll ask students to think for a moment then, "Raise your hand if you know yourself." Every time I do, every hand in the class bolts toward the ceiling. For the next several weeks, our conversation slowly deconstructs our assumptions about self-knowledge. At some point, we'll read about Socrates' assertion that he really knows nothing compared what there is yet to learn despite being one of the wisest men history. We unpack his advice to "know thyself." We look at what it means to be yourself and how hard it is to do and why. We explore denial, self-deception, coping mechanisms and desensitization. After several weeks, most students will say they so NOT know themselves at all. A fundamental shift has occurred and their lenses are clearer even though to they seem cloudier to them. They are on unsteady footing with all of these brand new reversals about the way they thought things were.
Leaning into truth, especially new truths, is messy business. It's painful, disorienting, and it usually requires more out of us than we were expecting. They never changed perspectives without resistance. As long as they possibly could, they held onto to the comforting notion that they knew themselves. And they kept repeating that mantra. A few tried to unhinge the process with very funny but inappropriate jokes. Another went to the bathroom whenever I was working up to a crescendo of making some important point. There was always the well placed yawn, the one whose head hits the desk as though a double dose of Nyquil just hit their nervous system. And there were always a few who got just plain angry and combative, pulling out their most rigorous counter arguments before taking a pause to let any of it to sink in for a moment. Eventually, though, a few began to allow the walls to come down, and a steady trickle of others would make a shift in due time. But their new wisdom comes with an aftermath- of ambivalence, a little annoyance with Ms. McLinn for making them once again uneasy and uncomfortable with their certainties about the world. The best kept secret in education is that discomfort is a necessary pre-condition for learning breakthroughs to occur.
We, as adults in education- teachers and administrators- react the same way. There are two go-to ways that I"ve noticed we tend to escape impending change and its accompanying discomforts. I call the first escape tactic, " Been there, done that." I see it a lot when we are dealing with new and trending best practices in education ie. curriculum mapping, critical thinking, writing across the curriculum, curriculum integration, hands-on learning, cooperative learning, problem based learning, portfolio assessment, authentic assessment… you get the idea… No matter what the methodology or educational practice, inevitable, "been there, done that." We already do that.
Just like with the kids, if I were in an auditorium full of teachers and I said, "
Raise your hand if you implement cooperative learning, raise your hand if you integrate curriculum, ..", everybody's hands would go up. The same would occur if I said, " Raise your hand if you know your educational philosophy." Of course, we do all that and then some, we tell ourselves and each other. Cooperative learning implementation. I do a group project every February. Been there, done that. "I already do it." Hands on learning? I require a lab every 4 weeks. Been there, done that. Check it off the list. Next… It's kind of like saying I respect the environment just as indigenous cultures do because I have a recycling garbage can. The two just aren't comparable nor are piecemeal resemblances to these educational practices comparable to implementation of a mindset.
Educators also tend to this when there is a non-negotiable mandate that no one would dare challenge. I always shake my head (internally) when principals explain to me how they expect me to "cover' the standards, most recently, the common core. They instruct me to put a standard or two at the top of a lesson plan as an outcome and to make sure it is touched on during the lesson then check it off off my master list of standards for the school year. That way, I'll get through them all. There are multiple problems with this scenario, but the one I want to highlight now is the fact that I can say I hit all the standards, but I really didn't- not in any qualitative, thorough, meaningful and complete way. Many of my colleagues cover the standards with that methodology. If they were told to cover all the standards, they could and would say, loudly and clearly, "Oh, I already do that." If only it were really that simple to meet all the standards.
I was hired at a school that was featured as a cutting age progressive high school with all the newest research supported best practices in place. The teachers who were hired went through a highly competitive process. Those that were hired spent the entire summer attending classes and in-service training on all the practices, strategies, and outcomes necessary for us to create a progressive school. They only wanted teachers who were like-minded in philosophy. As the rest of the district was on an early learning curve for all of the trending best practices, our principal and her teachers would say, "We already do that."
Our principal was interviewed for a newspaper about what it means that our school was progressive and cutting edge. She talked about what a common myth it is that progressive schools don't care about tests. "We prepare for and take standardized tests every year," she says. She goes on, "Just because we're progressive doesn't mean we throw out the curriculum. We have all the core subjects throughout our student's education, science, social studies, English, and Math. Just because we're progressive doesn't mean we don't support grades. Our students know we have high standards and expect excellence. We celebrate our students' achievements and are always improving on our overall GPA." You are probably asking what I was asking myself when reading this article- What, exactly, IS progressive about this school? They had retained every institutionalized traditional practice. They had been given license to do any structural changes necessary for the integrity of the school's mission. Moreover, the few progressive elements that did exist in the school could be found in most other schools across the district, to one degree or another.
They liked the sound of being cutting edge and progressive, in the mission, vision, aims, and outcomes, but when it came to progressive practices, they were far too inconvenient, difficult, disruptive, and controversial. I do recall fighting my evaluation with this principal because she kept telling me to use the textbook more (we were supposed to only use as a reference and do project based learning), follow scope and sequence rather than themes (we spent days being trained in thematic instruction), to give more objective tests rather than portfolio assessment (the antithesis of "best practices"), and to stop talking about controversial issues in Socratic Seminars (on which we were trained for that summer; I was one of few, if any, that were doing it). I had made that principal extremely uncomfortable. She was hostile and frustrated with me, but I knew she couldn't place her finger on why. So the best she could do was order me to be a traditional teacher. She wanted to stay in the cave even while being a self-proclaimed change agent. If that newspaper interviewer had asked her if her school will be implementing those things that she wanted me to stop doing, she would certainly have said, " Oh, we already do all that."
Another school I worked at for several years celebrates being one of the most diverse schools in the country. Our district was moving toward a focus on cultural responsiveness and cultural diversity and sensitivity training, and our school sold themselves as the model for those best practices. "We already do that!"
Upon closer examination, they were mostly resting on the laurels of their coincidental demographic make-up, which is due to the happenstance of school boundaries. The utterances of intolerance and ignorance that I could hear at my table at the district inservice made me sick to my stomach. I had been so inspired by that inservice, I asked my principal if I could do a book study throughout the year about these issues. He told me, no. They all boasted, though, their celebration of cultural diversity.
There was the cultural diversity club that had monthly food parties with a different cultural theme each time (ie. tacos, egg rolls, and pizza), and the Native dance group met even though it also met in every other school in the district that has migrant education funding. In October, I made a bulletin board in the hallway showcasing some amazing student work about re-thinking Columbus Day as a holiday, and the kids were so proud to be able to express what they really thought about it. It was a cathartic process and gratifying to watch. Within hours, I got a rare personal visit from the principal, and I had to have it taken down before the next school day. When I sponsored a Black Lives Matter club, we were denied every activity that we applied to do, and I became an infamous rather than an invisible faculty member within a week of having those BLM meetings in my classroom.
Down the hall from me, they have a prestigious "school within a school" that is a well-funded program with advanced classes, with special field trips, a lower teacher student ratio, and a self-sustaining student government. These kids occasionally show up in the mainstream of the high school for electives or an occasional core class if scheduling glitches make it necessary. There is a palpable mutual resentment between the kids from the school within a school and the rest of the kids that had built up over time then passed down to incoming freshmen so it's insitituionalized now. A group of students from Costa Rica visited our school a couple years ago and were given a tour of the school. After passing by the school within a school, one of the visitors raised their hand and asked the guide, " Why is there only white kids in this part of the school?" I could go on, for a very long time, but I'm sure you get the picture. That school needs to work on cultural responsiveness and diversity training, but "they already do that," right?
These illustrations are instructive for me, and maybe for you. They are cautionary tales that remind us that change is hard. It's unsettling, it feels foreign. It's often unpopular, it makes us feel off balance and out of kilter. It makes us suddenly underconfident and self doubt starts to creep in. Resistance is our instinctive or socialized response. We are tempted to tell ourselves, "Oh, I already do that," or we will talk ourselves back to a place that is more comfortable. We will want to go back to simpler time when we could do no wrong by our peers and administrator. No idea could be worth the eye rolls and ostracizing that is starting to replace our dynamic fulfilling professional life.
But I do believe that when we hold out, the cravings to go back to the cave will pass and the challenges will be overcome, especially when we seek out like-minded educators that we can talk to, confide in, and mirror our thinking to. It'll make the tough times less difficult and less lonely.
If we are vigilant about resisting the "Oh, I already do that!" contingency by staying committed to listening to ourselves and remaining connected to others who we trust, we will prevail. But there is one more common and seductive self-delusion to protect ourselves from. When ideas or people begin to corner us into an uncomfortable truth or when the call to create fundamental changes in our practice are too loud to ignore, with two simple words, we create a catch-all to justify just about everything we do. This short simple statement can even distort reality to make us look like the oh, so wise, and ever so much more thoughtful one compared to those with a clearer more committed orientation.
We can simply say, "I'm eclectic!" a characterization to be celebrated by those who have a diverse fashion sense or a wide variety of musical preferences. A self-proclaimed "eclectic" educator, though, is really saying, "I'm not going to turn my universe upside down because of an inservice, another trend, a new program, some young teacher who thinks she knows more than me, or a nonsensical state mandate. I will do what I've always done and I've always done what I got used to a long time ago." The temptation is there for all of us, to suddenly become eclectic. It grants us the freedom to pick and choose what we integrate into our practice.