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Katherine Bassett on 'Banning Hope'

As regular readers know, I've been at work on my next book, The Cage-Busting Teacher (it's due out in early spring 2015). The book argues that the disempowerment and isolation experienced by so many teachers are very real--but that teaches can more readily alter those dynamics than they often imagine. So, why don't more teachers do so?  Frequently, it's due to habits of mind that render teachers passive and leave them frustrated. Today, in a highly personal guest post, Katherine Bassett, a gentle 26-year middle school librarian, former New Jersey Teacher of the Year, and CEO of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year, offers a classic cage-busting take. She points out how the innocuous, admirable proclivity to be "hopeful" can leave teachers trapped in cages of their own design. All I have to say is, "Amen!"

Bassett writes:

Hope and I have a long and storied history.  Like most people, I started out embracing hope - as in, "I hope that Santa brings me the complete Tammy Family doll set" when I was ten.  This relationship had its ups and downs, but it mostly thrived until I was a mother and my daughter became very seriously ill.

In dealing with doctors at a premier children's hospital, searching for answers to a complex condition, I discovered my first bump in the road with hope, and its bosom buddy, trust.  In trusting the doctors to do their best for my daughter, I encountered the term 'hope' emitting from their lips as in, "I hope that this feeding tube works" when the doctor in question knew that the tube was too short and in the wrong place. 

My trust in the medical staff was severed - and with it my faith in hope - when it was discovered the tube did not work and my daughter's recovery was set back by months. In a meeting with the Chief of Staff, I was taught that 'hope' has no place in diagnosis or treatment unless one has reached the end of all other possible investigatory solutions.  At this point, for the first time, I banned hope. 

My next battle with hope occurred when I was leading a group at the company for whom I then worked, charged with winning new business, training staff to meet my own expectations for proposal responses. Receiving text from staff, I frequently encountered hope - as in "We hope to complete scoring within two weeks."  I banned hope for the second time, declaring, "Hope is not a strategy.  Our client doesn't care what we hope to do - they want to do know what we will do."

Most recently, I banned hope again in challenging the doctors at a renowned teaching hospital to follow the medical model, again as my daughter battled for her quality of life.  Over a three year time period, my daughter has spent over three months hospitalized, has undergone two surgical procedures, has taken countless doses of chemotherapy drugs, and has been unable to live a normal life. During this time, her condition continued to be undiagnosed.

As her health plummeted to dangerous levels, I challenged her physician - a doctor whom we have come to regard as a family member - to do what physicians are so reputed to do, but don't.  In my daughter's case, while numerous physicians were engaged, they were not engaging together.  They were not walking down the hall to share data, as we educators do daily.  They were not coming together, as we do after school, to creatively think through a strategy for dealing with a knotty problem. They were not engaging in group thinking. They were each working in isolation, reminding me of the fable the Blind Men and the Elephant - each seeing only his or her piece of my daughter, rather than the whole patient, what we call the whole child.

On the day in which the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards hosted its day on Capitol Hill to espouse the medical model - a wonderful event that showcased how things should work in professions - I stood in the hallway of a great hospital, and challenged a doctor to live that model, stating, "I am an educator, constantly accused of not knowing how to work effectively, and frequently pointed in the direction of medicine, because you physicians know how to work well.  You are not doing your job.  Why are you not bringing together the physicians who worked on my daughter to see her as a whole patient, pool data, and think outside the box?"  She quietly listened and agreed to do so.  She did so the next day.  And guess what?  Together, sharing data and creatively problem solving as a group, they came up with an out of the box theory; which they tested, and proved.

My daughter underwent a third surgery - a major realignment of her digestive tract - from which she is now recovering.  And again, I have banned hope. I am not interested in what these physicians hope.  I am interested in the hard facts and concrete solutions to give my daughter back her life.

Several weeks ago, USED and NBPTS announced a major initiative around teacher leadership, Teach to Lead. Like the RESPECT Act before it, it was announced with much excitement.  I led the development of the Teacher Leader Model Standards, which were launched in 2011.  At that time, the Teacher Leader Exploratory Consortium thought that it had created a document that would change education, creating roles for teacher leaders.  And it has, to a degree - but not to a degree great enough.

With Teach to Lead, we could be hopeful that the time has come for true roles for teacher leaders to become the norm, not the exception.  But again, I am banning hope. 

At NNSTOY, we have eagerly joined the Teach to Lead team.  We continue to research continuums of professional practice that will result in teacher leader roles.  We continue to promote our members forging and serving in true teacher leader roles in policy, practice, and advocacy. We have pledged to work with USED and NBPTS in this new endeavor.  But we refuse to hope. 

We do not hope this will happen - we intend that it shall.  We will hold Secretary Duncan and his team accountable for making teacher leadership a reality, rather than an idea. We will act and we will expect that action will result in real roles for teacher leaders. We will work zealously to make this happen - but we will not hope.

--Katherine Bassett

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