There are lots of problems in education, big systemic problems, governance problems, structural problems that seem unsolvable sometimes because they’re so deeply rooted in the way things have always be done. And then there are problems that are so darn easy to fix, it’s a wonder they haven’t already been solved.
One of those easy problems is the tall poppy problem (or syndrome). If you’re not familiar with that expression, it’s one of those fabulously apt British turns of phrase (also popular in Australia). Wikipedia defines it as describing “aspects of a culture where people of high status are resented, attacked, cut down and/or criticized simply because they have been classified as superior to their peers.” While I’m not keen on the term “superior” in their definition, I’m sadly all too familiar with the problem itself; virtually every teacher I know who has moved into a leadership role, whether in their school or in their system has experienced it. When a poppy gets too tall, we cut it down to size.
“Wow, the superintendent is coming to your class again?!?”
“You’re sure out of the school a lot.”
“Why does she get to go to so many conferences?!?”
“Giving another workshop, are we… what’s that, the fourth one this year?”
Comments like these, tossed around casually in the staff room or peppering the conversation in the hallway, are the tip of the tall poppy sword. They give new teachers the message that it’s not good to stand out, that it’s better for your social survival to blend in, to be average, to find the middle and stay there. These comments stigmatize striving, they punish achievement, and they disparage risk taking. It’s already scary to take risks, to try new things in your teaching, to put your hand up when opportunity comes knocking; when we normalize comments like this and the social exclusion that often comes with them, we make it even scarier.
I am grateful to my dance training for many things but top of the list is that it has made me basically immune to these types of remarks. I get angry about it, sure, but it doesn’t ever stop me. Not everyone, however, spent their adolescence having their every flaw and foible pointed out to them. It toughens you up and it helps you to understand that other people’s opinions are valuable only insofar as you deem them relevant. Feedback is great when it helps you to get better; in that context it’s an investment in your practice whether it’s as a dancer or as a teacher. When its goal is to bring you down, however, it’s not worth paying attention to.
While a thick skin is great, and I highly recommend developing one, it’s no substitute for a culture of lifting people up, of celebrating when colleagues are recognized and of supporting each other to take risks, stick our necks out and become ever better. The tall poppies among us should inspire us all to grow, to reach, and to make our classrooms and schools better places for kids and families. We need to start challenging comments that disparage the tall poppies; like all forms of bullying, this type of power play thrives in dark corners. Naming the behaviour when we see it would go a long way towards changing the culture.
Cutting people down makes us all worse off and, at a time when we’re encouraging our students to take risks and to find innovative solutions to our many problems, we need to make sure that our schools are places where teachers too feel safe and supported as risk-takers and innovators. We need to grow to meet them; I hear the sun is warmer up there.