Teaching has a tall poppy problem and it needs to change.

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.

poppies in a field

“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.

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It’s all about you

This year, for the first time, I’m teaching one of my own children.  Now, it’s only for 75 minutes a week, but it’s an adventure nonetheless. My son, who’s 8, is having a very hard time separating Mommy from Miss Emily and it’s a challenge for me to manage his needs effectively when I have 9 other kids to teach at the same time. It’s usually not pretty and I often leave with a nagging headache.

But this week, for the first time in several weeks, I managed to sleep through the night uninterrupted prior to teaching his ballet class.  Instead of going into the class feeling exhausted and edgy, I went in feeling pretty good and I even had enough energy to teach the following class without worrying that I’d fall asleep on my feet.

I’ve been doing some extra reading about how to best teach younger boys in ballet class (there are 3 boys in my son’s class) so I’ve been putting some of those strategies into place for the past few weeks (floor exercises instead of centre work, movement games, team ballet ‘battles’, and lots of fun breaks between the serious bits… in case you’re wondering) but this was the first week when it felt like the dynamic had shifted.  For the first time this year, I felt successful with this group of kids and I didn’t get so frustrated with my own child.

After the class was over, I found myself reflecting on why things had shifted.  Was it because I had tried some new things that were more developmentally suited to that group of kids or was it because I was more well rested and better able to teach effectively and be present in the room?  How much of my frustration with the kids was really about me and my state of mind?  I had been blaming my negative experience of the class on them… but was it really all about me?

We get into this kind of thinking a lot in education.  Too often, I hear teachers talking about being “saddled with behaviours” in their classes, as though the children are choosing to overwhelm their teacher, as though their behaviour is a personal affront to the adults.  We talk about kids in a way that dehumanizes them, that ignores their individuality and that focuses exclusively on their deficits.  I have, many times, observed teachers who have become blind to the amazing things that children are doing right in front of them because they have become so focused on what their students aren’t doing that they can’t see anything else.  It’s one of the most challenging parts of my work: trying to push back against that negativity and advocate for the kids while at the same time not alienating the teacher.

Children are capable… what does that really mean?  Does it mean that we can never talk about the challenges we’re having with kids?  Does it mean that we have to adopt a Pollyanna tone in our conversations so that everything is about sunshine and robins who perch on your finger as you sing a merry tune?  No, I don’t think so.

A colleague once described me as a creative pragmatist, something I took as a great compliment. I don’t want to suggest that problems don’t exist; we all need to vent sometimes and it’s good to have people with whom you can let out all your frustrations. But when venting becomes the tone of all our conversations about children, we have a problem.  Children come to school with all sorts of experiences and it is our job, our mission, our vocation to help them learn.  They are children, we are adults; it’s not their fault, it’s just their turn.

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Courtesy of Anita Simpson @asimpsonEDU

This week has been an excellent reminder of the power of “yet” in my life both personally and professionally.  When things aren’t going well, I need to take a deep breath and remind myself that they’re not going well… yet.  Keeping that mental door open to the possibility of change makes all the difference in my perception of the problem.  As my perception changes, the problem changes too and I start to be able to see solutions that weren’t obvious when I was in full venting mode.  In order to be there for kids I need to be there… really in the room, wide awake (both literally and in the Maxine Greene way), and present, prepared to advocate for them even when it’s uncomfortable and prepared to make the changes in my own practice that will make a difference for them.  You’re the only teacher they have and so am I; what we do and what we say matters.  There are no mulligans in childhood.