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Four Dichotomies in Education Worth Interrogating

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Language can be limiting; it can also be liberating. With that in mind, I wanted to look at some of ways we categorize people and ideas in education, and how they might represent false dichotomies that need to be opened up. 

Teachers & Leaders: Let's stop dividing these two roles in our language and imagination. Teachers are leaders. Every day teachers are leaders of students. Every day, teachers lead each other in and beyond their schools, formally and informally. Sometimes—and we could use much more of this—teachers can be leaders in developing and spreading the practices associated with their discipline or age group, and in the policies that affect our work. But when we separate teachers and leaders, we suggest that teachers are followers. While sometimes teachers get cornered into that kind of role, it doesn't make for effective teaching, so let's not perpetuate that as the image of our professional work. Instead, let's look to models of collective leadership of schools. 

Teachers and Learners: It might be difficult to get away from this language, but still—we are all learning all the time, and teachers should think of our selves as learners. Language is, after all, symbolic representation that both reflects and creates reality. This would represent a positive move away from what I call the teacher as "chief thinker," a traditional role that doesn't propel the intellectual development of students. I like how some teachers are describing themselves as "Lead Learners" in their classrooms. To be sure, our roles and responsibilities are distinct from students; we are definitely leaders, but we should also view ourselves learners.

Education Leaders & Union Leaders: There are progressive and regressive individuals and forces on both sides of this equation, as is generally true in any group of human beings. Pit these two "sides" against each other, however, and we end up with an extreme lose-lose situation: education leaders thinking they can make progress in the best interest of students while harming teachers' wellbeing and ability to use their professional knowledge to serve they students for whom they are responsible; at the same time, union leaders stuck defending basic needs of teachers that were already fought for and won, rather than being able to move forward in powerful ways.

Union leaders are education leaders. Education leaders should support and incorporate unionization of teachers into any progressive (or simply responsible) vision for the future of education. The data speaks loudly in favor of the quality of education students receive in unionized versus non-unionized states. (As the recent teacher walkouts underscore, if teachers have to work several jobs just to make ends meet, students are not getting the best education. Come on, now.) We need these sides working together to create quality education for all.

Professionalization & Standardization: This one shakes out a little differently—isn't really a dichotomy at all, but still worth interrogating. These two are opposing forces in education that often get paraded around as if they belong together. No, they don't. If teachers are expected to be professionals, we need to be able to use professional discretion; standardization of materials, methods, and assessments generally denies us that agency. And our students are anything but "standard." Daily, we face the real and varied needs of our students. In a standardized system, if teachers are compliant, then we must do things that we know will hurt many of them, often whole knowing full well what would help.

While some standardized materials might work for some students some of the time, they never work for all students, and never every time. Invest instead in the training, support, and resources that help teachers do the professional work needed to serve all students.

What other dichotomies should we discuss? 

[Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash]

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