People debate the pros and cons of immunization quite a bit in my personal parenting circle. My kids are immunized of course, as they have to be, but I’m fairly certain that every parent considers the safety of wide-range immunization practices. We have to, after all. We’re responsible for our childrens’ well being. Most of us learn what we need to and allow that knowledge to inform our widely varied choices. We all know that immunization isn’t a perfect science. Nothing is. But many people would agree that it’s a far better option than the alternative.

Teachers navigate the complexities of a different sort of immunization on a daily basis in their classrooms. Our children come to us in need. Some of them are healthy, but others are not. How do we proceed? Some teachers strike out quickly on their own, seeking proven remedies that might help their students best, collaborating with others around what they find, and testing their discoveries as soon as they can. Others wait for direction from those who may have more experience or expertise, and a smaller population typically sits back and questions everything, overwhelmed by the realities of teaching and somewhat hesitant to invest themselves in making a decision, for a variety of often valid reasons.

This week, some interesting questions have been presented to me from different corridors of my working life. These are the questions that continually resurface in nearly every school I ever work in from the word go, and they are important questions to consider, as doing so helps to sustain the changes that any of us aim to make. I’m sure they may sound familiar to some of you: 

  • What if this (strategy/initiative/intervention) doesn’t work?
  • What if it DOES work, but it becomes impossible to make it work systemically?
  • What if our administrators decide that they want us to get a different kind of training next year? What will happen to the work we’ve started this year?
  • And my favorite….because it makes me feel appreciated…..What if YOU aren’t here next year? What happens then?

In the end, the real question hiding politely behind all of these other questions is this one:

Why should we invest ourselves in this anyway?

And this is a good question that deserves a thoughtful response. When I find myself confronting any of those “what if” questions that really act as a polite cover for the big “WHY” question, it tells me that teachers care. Because when teachers don’t care, they typically don’t ask any questions at all.

So, what if?

What if communities of teachers begin to invest themselves in learning more about how their students struggle and how to help them better….and in the end, the initiative that prompted this discovery dissolves, the practices studied turn out to be imperfect solutions to the problems identified, the district decides to invest in other opportunities, or the other teachers in the building who NEED to be on board simply aren’t? What if all of that happens? Because it does. It’s common, in fact.

I don’t know that any district ever intends to make choices that result in this sort of outcome, and most leaders that I work with understand that there are no silver-bullet solutions. The fact is, we teach in a world where resources are short and problems are plentiful. I don’t see that changing any time soon, and until it does, districts will always be faced with incredibly difficult choices to make. No administrator can fully support teachers in all of the ways that she or he would like to, but all of the administrators that I work with try. Hard. Sometimes, I think teachers forget that administrators are actually people too, and this an important thing to remember. I like to think that we’re all doing the best that we can with the information that we have.

But that’s no answer to the questions posed, I know.

Let me say this: if I were a teacher responsible for helping my students in the messy reality described above, I guess I would handle it the same way that I handled the whole immunization issue as a parent. I’d do my research. I’d make decisions based on the best evidence that I could find, and I would try all on my own to respond well. I would try not to let the fact that others may be doing nothing stop me from doing something. I’d try to share what I was learning along the way, and I would hope that it will help others somehow. I’d also make a lot of mistakes along the way, but I’d try hard to establish a network of other passionate and informed educators who could help me stay on track, challenge my assumptions, and provide me a kick in the butt when I needed it. If, by chance, a larger entity were to support me further by creating an iniative around what that I was personally invested in, and if these efforts were to become systemic—well, that would be very powerful. This is why certain immunizations are mandated. It’s also why every school leader I’ve ever known values systemic initiatives and change.

But what if this didn’t happen?

Or what if it did, but what if my administrators still couldn’t MAKE every teacher genuinely invest in the proposed initiative?

What if that wasn’t easy, in the end?

As a parent, I know that immunizations are helping MY kids. I also know that not everyone is on board with these practices. Mandates help, but they don’t ensure complete compliance. Compliance seems to be better achieved when those who are involved are also invested. That’s the ultimate goal, after all, and achieving that is far more complex. Inspiring investment requires that we attend to the very real concerns and needs of those we hope persuade. When it comes to immunization, all parents want to know that there are no potential risks involved, and that just hasn’t happened yet. When it comes to changing professional practices, teachers want similar assurances for somewhat different but equally significant reasons, usually. It’s important that we all respect this. I don’t think we persuade people well when we stand in judgment of them or criticize their capacity to make good choices, learn, or grow. At the same time, it’s important for teachers to take whatever action they can, regardless of their circumstances, to help students. There is no time to waste here, and waiting for the world around us to change before we begin making changes ourselves doesn’t serve anyone well in the end.

There will be others who don’t agree and some who won’t commit. This may always be, but rather than waiting for everyone to get on board and waiting for someone outside of ourselves to MANDATE change, I think we’re all responsible for taking every opportunity that is provided to us to make these changes ourselves. Forget about the naysayers, the blockers, and those that are in it for all of the wrong reasons. They will probably always be there. But there is truly no limit on what we might accomplish as individuals when we remember that we can’t control any of these other people and we shift our energies back to where they are best used: in improving our own practices. In my experience, when groups of people understand this and act on it, they don’t require mandates to accomplish things, and they don’t perceive professional development as something that’s imposed upon them from the top down. Rather, they look upon it as a seamless part of their personal efforts to learn about how to help students from the ground up.

We beat up on each other far too much in this field,  and I wonder how this relates to that pervasive sense of helplessness that many educators possess. So many of us wonder if we’re able to make any real difference for kids ourselves. Rather than trying when we know that we might fail, we continue to focus on the constraints that prevent us from achieving some unrealistic ideal rather than on the possibilities that might assist us in doing better but always imperfect work for the right reasons in ways that might empower all of us more…..particularly students.


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