The Deeper Issue That Could Kill the Teaching Profession

teens jumping off a bridge
Jump off of a bridge into shallow water? Hey, why not? Photo Credit: zJMac via Compfight cc

Especially for those of us who have taught high school for many years, this is true: If you shake us awake at 2 AM we can immediately recite a list of reasons why one should not be too reckless in this life.  It’s because we witness the recklessness of teens daily and in very large numbers.

Witnesses to reckless lives

What the average parent of  a teen maybe will witness in one year is multiplied by hundreds if not thousands daily in just about any big public high school.

Young people in their teens are hard-wired to be reckless — to not think about consequences. It’s why we send teenagers to do the actual fighting in our wars. And it’s why those young people grow and change. It’s why they can be so inventive and creative, if we can keep them alive long enough.

Because all of us across the K-12 teaching spectrum work very hard daily to protect our students, we end up being overly cautious ourselves. We rehearse caution throughout the school day, and so it can color our whole orientation to life.

The bad side effect of good teaching

Teachers being cautious and deliberate has made teaching an amazingly resilient and stable profession, but that same caution often slides off into risk aversion which can lead to the death of our profession as we know it.

These days risk aversion or referring to someone as being risk averse is terminology that we most often hear and read about in the banking and investor world. Do a Google search for the term and the top page rank goes to articles about investing and banking. How to take the necessary risks in order to move ahead without losing it all is the focus of much financial consulting.

But for teachers, it’s time to look at the broader sense of the term. Are we risk averse when it comes to our political activity?

Most often, yes.

Strength becomes weakness when teachers engage politically

This is from a very good article on risk aversion from the Harvard Business Review that gives a broader definition of being risk averse:

…research conducted by Harvard’s Francesca Gino and Joshua Margolis, indicates that prevention-focused people are more likely than the promotion-focused to behave ethically and honestly — not because they are more ethical per se, but because they fear that rule-breaking will land them in hot water.

The boldface in that quote is mine. And it perfectly describes many of us in the teaching profession. Are we “prevention-focused”? We sure are, and for good reason.

But there is a down side.

teachers note principal
A note like this from their principal is one that nearly every teacher dreads.

It seems that the longer we are in the teaching profession, the more risk averse we become when it comes to openly opposing our own building administration or, God help us, the administration of the school district. There seems to be a deeper fear of “being in trouble”.

Our strengths in the craft of teaching become professional/political weakness that won’t allow us to thrive in a hostile environment. And reformists have made sure that we have one now.


This was illustrated quite well in the recent struggle between two elementary teachers in Tulsa Public Schools in Oklahoma and the TPS administration over the number of tests and surveys being used with very small children and the time that it was burning up that should be used for instruction.

After their having addressed the administration in TPS, and other teachers having addressed the issue, the administration simply passed it off as grousing when it wasn’t.

Eventually these two teachers, Karen Jones and Nikki Hendren, decided to send a letter to their students’ parents announcing that they would not be giving certain mandated tests, and they gave evidence and rational reasons why. The letter that they sent is HERE at the United Opt Out website, which promotes parents opting their children out of massive testing that has become a regular thing in reformist education.

The Tulsa World reported on it and on Superintendent Keith Ballard’s response. Suddenly they became the big story. While many parents had chosen to opt out their children, very few teachers had stood up in this way to the testing mania that has spread.

What was unique about these two particular teachers is that they put their own jobs at risk by this refusal. Technically, this could be treated as insubordination, which could result in their firing.

This was a big story. I wrote a post about it, as did many other bloggers and news organizations, some of them nationally syndicated.

Uncomfortable with conflict

While many rallied behind them, the deeper story is how many teachers and even retired teachers responded to this in a classic risk averse fashion.

There was a lot of talk about “cooling off” and “we need cool heads”. When the superintendent developed an idea to take this issue to several committees, a number of teachers quickly gave verbal sighs of relief. In fact, the issue is on pause and the two teachers are still at risk. But many teachers were nervously eager to declare the issue resolved.

One would think, without a reference point, that the discussion was about a bloody street brawl where people had been killed and truckloads of people had been taken to the ER. No such thing happened.

Two people stood up for their students, first directly to their administration, and then in full public view.

Risk aversion is the deeper threat

In the larger scheme of things, this happens in many other work environments in the U.S. quite often. People actually risk firings every day because they stand up for what they believe to be the right thing. And many of them who take that risk get fired. What happens? They move on and get another job.

The difference is that the type of people who go into teaching are those people who think proactively, and thus are not used to even getting in trouble, much less getting fired!

We just aren’t a rowdy bunch are we? Smart? Yes. Committed? Yes. Willing to sacrifice for our students? Absolutely.

But when it comes to standing up for our profession, and especially when it comes to opposing our building administration, school administration, state administration, or legislature, we are extraordinarily risk averse.

  • It means risking being fired, which we aren’t used to.
  • It means risking being disliked, which we aren’t used to.
  • It means taking a position on matters that are and always will be arguable and anything but clear-cut.
Up against the wall

We are at risk of having our pension system destroyed and our profession de-professionalized for the financial benefit of bankers.

Our public schools took generations of effort and tax money to build. It took generations for traditions of public schooling to take hold. Now investors want to close them for the financial benefit of those who have already grown wealthy from the hard work of someone else.

We just can’t let that happen.

But we will have to find a different way to being risk averse one by one no matter how scary or distasteful it may seem. The existence of public education is seriously threatened and that is obvious. We have to overcome our innate caution and take a political stand in large numbers to oppose the biggest money ever thrown at the destruction of public schools.

The existence of our profession depends upon our getting beyond our own risk aversion.

Our students and our society are counting on us.