In the Name of Accountability

At one point or another in your own preparation to be an educator you were probably asked to create an educational philosophy. I remember being asked to do this as an undergraduate in college. Being a student myself and having limited experience in the classroom my philosophy was based on what I thought a philosophy should be not necessarily my informed beliefs. I didn’t have all the pieces, but I’m sure the version of what I believed at the time was articulated in a way that was positive and centered on student learning.

After being in my own classroom tasked with teaching students and preparing them as learners, my philosophy changed and evolved. However, I don’t remember revisiting my philosophy statement and making the necessary changes in writing based on these new experiences.

Now I have garnered experiences with multiple colleagues, spectrums of learners, and my own drive to find and reflect on improved practices. Again, I have not revised my philosophy. Images of what learning should look like are vivid in my mind, and the speed at which I adjust to my students has indeed changed drastically. Have you revisited your philosophy? Have you reflected on what you know now that you didn’t know then?

I sometimes wonder when I see conversations on social media, or Twitter responses to different teaching practices what support teachers use to inform their daily decisions. Are they operating out of habit or based on a philosophy? I wonder if sometimes what we believe is not actually a belief but a repeated practice that “works” or “gets the job done.” We might repeat these practices in the name of accountability instead of in the name of a belief system based on actual evidence. Phrases like, “They just won’t do it unless I ______,” or statements like, “If they would just be more responsible ______ would happen.”

What if we changed the narrative?

Instead of demanding children be held accountable, what if we revisited what we really believe about students and how they learn and determined the steps to rise to this level?

For some children, writing an essay as an eight-year-old could be likened to running a marathon. I would never ask anyone to run twenty-six miles before they had trained and prepared for the task. I would also never ask a person who ran a marathon to go out and do it again the next day! Holding someone accountable doesn’t necessarily mean reaching your ultimate potential all day every day. It also doesn’t mean we can’t lift up a child and build their stamina, confidence, and motivation while working toward a next step.

As I worked with a fresh little group of about 20 seven and eight-year-olds in a before school writing club, I was reminded that when students enter a new environment expectations are still unknown. Fear is a bit elevated. What will she do if I make a mistake? What will she think? My initial lessons on character development and making writing choices had to be tabled because I was inundated with “So I can write about whatever I want?” Writers sat and stared saying, “I don’t know what my beginning is going be?” Saying to them, “Then start in the middle” was a foreign idea that went against every belief they had as a writer. We paused and I relieved some worry and released the reigns they assumed were in place.

It rekindled this idea that I need to revise my beliefs about what writers can, should, or might do. I need to put them in writing for my students to see. I also want to explore what my students believe. As eight-year-old writers, what do they believe is appropriate? What is their understanding of their potential? Do they realize it is in their hands, within their reach, attached to their own beliefs about learning? Are my students so focused on pleasing adults they, in turn, stifle the exploratory thinking associated with authentic growth?

Do we really understand our learners if we never listen to the answer to such a simple question: What do you believe?