Lay it all on the line

I lay it all on the line each day because pre-existing structures will only get stronger if I don’t.


Those are the words of a colleague of mine. I’ll call him Mr. N. We started chatting at lunch during a recent day-long PD and found ourselves still engrossed in conversation long after everyone else had left. He was referring to his teaching style, which many in our school community view as overly demonstrative and demanding. He pushes harder than any teacher I’ve ever known for students to be on time to his class. He tracks down those who miss his tutoring like a heat-seeking missile. From collaboration to self-assessment, Mr. N’s class functions with the expectation of greatness each and every day.

This has led many students at our school to say that Mr. N is “doing too much.” But in his eyes, “doing too much” is precisely what’s needed from him. If the future will be a just one — one that is full of productive, generous, thriving citizens who can reimagine society — Mr. N believes that it begins in his classroom. Because of this, he shoulders the burden of manifesting a better world. He bears direct responsibility for it with each lesson plan he writes, class demonstration he designs, and exit ticket he creates. If a given lesson of his doesn’t move the needle toward justice, then he doesn’t consider that day a success.

This may seem like Mr. N is putting a lot pressure on himself, that he’s setting unachievable expectations, and that his mindset is unsustainable. In the midst of a pandemic-induced teacher shortage, these are all valid responses.

But as someone who knows him well, I can tell you that he doesn’t experience it as pressure. Instead, his stance is one that treats each day as an opportunity. These opportunities are small, but they’re stackable. Over time, they can lead to change.

How is today’s lesson helping to unlock my students’ potential? How will what I teach today contribute to a better, more humane world? How will my pedagogy undermine systems that perpetuate injustices like sexism, classism, and racism? When he says, “I lay it all on the line each day,” I believe it’s these types of questions that his subconscious is asking himself. His classroom — like all of ours — is a microcosm of society. He teaches as such.

Cornelis Minor captures this mindset well in his book We Got This.

A kid can’t be successful in my classroom if I have not created the opportunities for that child to be successful. Each decision that I make in the classroom is an opportunity created or denied. If I’m intentional about these choices, then my classroom can become a place where kids aren’t just incidentally powerful but powerful by design — in all the ways that we want them to grow.

When we consider school as it functions best, kids learn. When learning does not happen, it fails because there are things that get in the way. Lots of those things come from outside of the classroom, but a good number of them originate from within it. We can’t take on the world’s challenges without first acknowledging the structural boogeymen that live in our own classrooms. (pp. 36-77)

Mr. N will be the first to admit that he fails often at achieving his goal. But when a lesson bombs, he doesn’t kill himself. He does what he can and works hard to understand the result. Like a coach, he carefully studies what happened, looks inward, and devises a plan to make better decisions tomorrow on behalf of his students. His work, often flawed, is powered by the importance of the everyday.

It’s invigorating to work beside someone who goes all-in each day, motivated to weaken systems and structures that do us no good. Though things like grading, pacing calendars, and broken copy machines consume much of his attention each day, he has a boundless vision for his students that extends far beyond his classroom. This vision is a gift. I think this type of thinking alludes many of us in this profession because, despite doing right by students, we get lost in the grind of teaching and forget our why. By positing that he can improve society by way of his classroom, Mr. N discovers motivation of the highest order.

So while colleagues stand in awe of his persistence and students might be put off by his expectations, I see him as someone who simply knows who he is and what he’s about. Standing on the wrong side of history is not an option for him. His teaching is his testimony.

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