Classroom-level change is unsustainable. It must happen at the school level, at minimum.

In March of this year, I went into one of the schools where I normally “sub.” But it wouldn’t be an ordinary day. The clerk told me something that I did not expect that morning. One of the music teachers quit over the winter break, and did not return.

Do I want to possibly take over those classes for the rest of the year? Who knows, it could lead to a permanent position.

I said I would check it out. I spent a few days in those classrooms, asking questions to the students and trying to figure out what’s going on. At the end of the week, I said that I would try to take the classes and “teach” them for real.

As a music-certified teacher without a permanent music teacher job, I’ve been a substitute teacher in the Chicago Public Schools for about three years now. Mainly high schools. So, I had a general idea of what I was in for. The students didn’t have a teacher for two months now. They had several subs come and go, and one semi-permanent teacher — a previous music teacher at that school — who tried to take the classes for a few weeks. He ended up being unable to take the classes for the year, for whatever reason.

Just as I was beginning this new job, I was finishing up my second book, a book called “Authentic Motivation in Schools,” which is an exploration of the concept of motivation — as it relates to us in the education field — and a look at what we could do differently in schools and classrooms to rekindle the students’ drive, so to speak.

I am a teacher at heart, and experimental of mind. I was very excited to see how this would pan out. I inherited a general music class, a few guitar classes, and a few orchestra classes.

On the friday before I would begin, I told the students in each class that, beginning next week, I would be their “real” teacher. They heard me. Then, on monday, I hit the ground running.

Kind of a big mistake. My excitement and eagerness to teach these classes for real had me jumping too quickly into serious business. You see, the students had gotten very used to being on their phones and computers during these classes, socializing with their friends, and generally doing anything else they needed to get done. Plus, we didn’t know each other well. Generally I believe that the students are more capable than we typically give them credit, but this time, I overestimated their ability to overcome the barriers that were already in place. It was not going to be easy to “actually teach” them. It was going to be quite difficult.

We spent the first day or two getting to know each other, but it was not enough. I also spent some effort shaping the classroom rules and curriculum with them, not simply for them, as I’ve read other progressive teachers doing — and as I suggest in my book on motivation.

Over the next three and a half months, I would use different strategies for activating their motivation. I gave the students autonomy to do projects, pick topics, form their own groups, and collectively set deadlines. I generally did not assign homework, because from K through 12, homework is extremely overrated if not purely counterproductive. I gave students time in class to work on their projects and songs, while I “instructed” in doses, rather than the entire length of the class (which is the typical approach). Because grades are degrading and demotivational, I minimized how often I would grade assignments, despite the general school policy that teachers should record two grades per week.

If I could estimate how many other teachers teach this way, in the large school of ~3,000 students(!), I would guess nearly none of them. That would be a pretty accurate guess because I spent the last several years deliberately looking out for these types of practices, but rarely seeing them or hearing educators talk about it.

After several weeks of trying to take my own advice, and struggling, I heard the voice of my educator friend, Trixie, echo in my mind:

“Teachers are set up to fail.”

For goodness sake, I couldn’t even teach the instrumental classes properly because so many instruments were unusable. The other music teachers seemed reluctant to help with anything, or perhaps they were just too tired or preoccupied. The huge school, which is way too large for teenagers to develop a sense of community, responsibility, and personal ownership — had apparently developed a sort of culture of students skipping class and leaving their lunch room to “visit” friends in other classes, like mine.

I had to buy my own box fan for the classroom in which I had 4 out of 5 classes, because it was consistently too hot in that room, and the air was stale as old bread. No windows or airflow in this room. Pretty uncomfortable, and I’m not sure how the teachers who shared this room were okay with it. The box fan was 20 dollars, and helped some.

My problems went on, but I believe I’ve made my point. As much as I tried to do things differently, it was not going to work out as well as I had hoped. I only had each set of students for 50 minutes a day, in an environment that was not prepared for them. I will certainly not pretend that I personally did a wonderful job, all I could, but I’m not going to place all the blame on myself. I do believe I was relatively successful in teaching some students.

A primary goal became to simply continue respecting the students, despite some of their disrespect to me. I’m sure many of them noticed and appreciated this; a few students in particular seemed to hate me at the beginning, but, didn’t seem to hate me by the end. And my other major goal was to ignite an enthusiasm for music. The last thing I wanted to do, I told myself, was make them dislike music. And, yes, I would help some of them improve their skills and knowledge.

Some of them still saw me as the “sub,” which, you see, is not a “teacher”

By the end of the year, I would still agree with virtually everything I wrote in my book. But if I were to do it over, I would place even more emphasis on the necessity for entire schools, not just teachers, to change their paradigm. My book was indeed about reforming the system, not just individual beliefs and teacher practices. But I did not realize quite so much how limited one teacher is in re-influencing the students.

They are caught in a system that is systematically de-motivational and disregarding of them personally. If I give them more autonomy in my classroom, for example — but other teachers do not in theirs —the students will seem to “take advantage” of the freedom I give them. They will talk to their friends more. They will wait until the last minute to work on their project, because they have learned not to enjoy and value the process of learning, but moreso to simply turn in whatever will meet the minimum requirements by the deadline. They will get lost more easily, because they are so used to following the teacher’s instructions.

If I refuse to raise my voice and write up students for stepping out of line — because I believe this kind of discipline is more the problem than the solution — while the other teachers and administration in the building rely on punishment and “consequences” to get the students “behaving” and “working” — my students come to reflexively believe that they can “get away with” more in my classroom. Because, they have been trained to believe that you primarily act, or don’t act, based on whether the person in charge will reward or punish you. If they are trained in the entire school to think this way, and that’s in addition to their homes and communities outside school — I would have to be nothing less than a wizard to magically change their habits in my own classroom. Even if some teacher could do this, it is not a real solution because it is not widely possible. It is far too high an expectation of individual teachers. It is not sustainable.

As I went through the year, I read an occasional online article by educators who were writing about their experiences to transform the classroom, teachers like Arthur Chiaravalli, Jen Doucette, John Spencer, and others. These teachers were trying to go gradeless or simply grade less — and attempting other strategies to increase student autonomy and authentic learning. I realized that we were certainly in different situations — and that I would’ve been more effective if I’d been with my students from the very beginning of the year, like these teachers had — and if other factors were correct from the beginning, like the students all having access to working instruments. But, even when these teachers reported some success, where I had less, I still felt an unfortunate sense of futility for these educators who were attempting to transform their classrooms. I would sometimes read that they were alone in their school in doing these different things, and sometimes, were looked down upon, or simply widely misunderstood.

I think individual educators should keep up the fight to make their own classrooms a much better place for the students, but I also believe that will not be nearly enough. I fear these brave, innovative teachers are going to burn out, like I began to feel in only a short amount of time.

We have to change the entire school system, but we must act locally. From that point, I believe change has to take place in the entire school. Individual classroom transformation — though it will certainly be appreciated by some students, here and there — is not sustainable. We have to find a way to get our message to more and more teachers, parents, and students out there. We have to work with the entire school, and if that is not so possible, due to administration, or some other reasons, well, maybe we’ll just have to find a different school.

We need a new conception of what school should look like, and we need different kinds of classrooms that are much more about the students’ own needs and interests. I don’t believe teachers working on their own will be enough to accomplish this. The entire school, at minimum, must change its approach to a learner-centered approach. Or else, I think, most teachers who try to do the right thing will simply quit. The ones who do stay, will have unnecessarily difficult lives.

By the way, I didn’t even apply for the job. They probably didn’t want me, anyway.

Enjoy your summer. I know I will.

I post on several different topics here, including politics and poetry. If you liked this post, and only want education content, you may prefer subscribing directly to my education blog, Teacher As Guide, instead of following me on Medium.

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