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June 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 9

Commentary / Speaking Up and Talking Back

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I was flattered to have recently received the Badass Teacher (BAT) Award from my fellow troublemaking educators in New Hampshire. I proudly wear the prize T-shirt—with the image of a bat on it.
But truth be told, I'm not a badass. If I had to categorize myself as either courageous or fearful, the balance would be toward fearful, even on minor decisions. (Should I have my ice cream in a cup or a cone on this hot day? Damn!)
But here I am speaking up—about talking back. I have been thinking a lot about that lately in the current climate of top-down education reform. When we speak up, we disrupt a seeming consensus—an expectation that we are in agreement, that we are on the same team, on the same page. After all, the experts have spoken, and the authorities are lined up. The Common Core standards are, well, so common that what's the point?
Sometimes we may fear retribution, but usually the discomfort is enough. To speak up violates a desire, which I think we all have, to be cooperative human beings, to perform in an agreed-on way. There's a real seduction in following the rules, in going with the consensus—it eases stress for both us and the others in the room. I know I feel it.
We can feel so small and vulnerable in the face of standardized tests that are validated, benchmarked, aligned, and seemingly delivered from the hand of some objective god. It seems presumptuous to use our common sense and ask, Do we really value this testing? Is this even really writing or reading that's being tested? What do we make of the fact that the College Board is benefiting from the Common Core standards they helped create? Isn't that usually considered a conflict of interest?
We're allowed to ask.
When we speak up, when we challenge the expected consensus, when we question the mandate that has come down, we create discomfort—for ourselves, surely, but also for others in the room. They will notice the small strain in your voice. There will often be an awkward silence afterward as though you had made some inappropriate bodily noise. And after the meeting, you may, if you are like me, question whether it was the right thing to do and berate yourself for not having made your point well enough. Some may find that speaking up isn't stressful, but I suspect that for most of us, it's hard.
I have always felt this discomfort acutely and worked instinctively to avoid public discord. Only recently have I located one possible source. I was blessed with a great father to whom I owe so much. But he was an alcoholic, and I never knew when I would set him off, when some inadvertent act I couldn't control would bring down criticism and anger. I became hyper-alert to any sign of possible anger and would avoid—if I could—any precipitating action, with him or anyone else. I came to believe that nothing good came from public discord and disagreement, from anyone being upset, from anger.
I can't say that this alertness and caution have been totally bad things. People with tempers, who are prone to angry displays, who "don't hold back," can be damaging. Things said in anger cannot be unsaid.
But this caution can be inhibiting. When I speak up, when I say, "It will be a mistake if we go in this direction," I have come to realize that people in the room don't think I'm a bad person, although possibly they think I'm an annoying one. In fact, it may open up space for them. I often don't carry the day, but I have come to feel better in the long run. The more I speak up, the easier it has become, although I feel it in my stomach and voice almost every time.
It calls to mind an observation by Eleanor Roosevelt that I have taken to heart:
Courage is more exhilarating than fear and in the long run it is easier. We do not have to become heroes overnight, just a step at a time, meeting each thing as it comes, seeing it's not as dreadful as it appeared, discovering we have the strength to stare it down.
I cannot say I have weathered my own childhood—who has? Anxiety still pervades my worldview. I often operate by imagining the worst possible outcome. But I have come to believe, in my early old age, that we can disentangle ourselves from the fears we carry and speak our minds.
End Notes

1 Roosevelt, E. (1960). You learn by living. New York: Harper, p. 41.

Thomas Newkirk has contributed to educational leadership.

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