The art of being an unreasonable educator

Many educators I speak to daily are very reasonable people. They have dreams about how education should be, but still show up for work every day in a system that is slow, if not hostile to change. They compromise with people to gain small victories, play by the rules and work miracles in sub-standard conditions. They bide their time hoping that someday their work will pay off, if not in systemic change, at least in the lives of future citizens of the world.

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” – George Bernard Shaw

Reasonableness as a roadblock to change
Who hasn’t heard something like this — “I totally believe in technology and project-based learning. But my board is really conservative, test scores are down, and my principal doesn’t like that kind of airy-fairy nonsense. Besides, five years ago we tried it and half the teachers used “project time” as a smoke break. So I was thinking that after testing is over I would have the kids do a project where the kids use vocabulary words and write a letter to the troops overseas. Maybe I could have them make a PowerPoint or do something with technology. I can probably squeeze the whole thing into 3 days. That way I can say it’s got language arts skills, 21st century skills, it won’t take too much time, and the board will love the troops angle. ”

Reasonable compromise or watered-down status quo with technology tacked on?

The problem is that by being reasonable, educators pre-compromise themselves out of strong, defendable positions. Project-based learning is a strong position to come from. There is research on how to do it, why to do it, and lots of examples of success. But by compromising even before you get to the negotiation, you lose out. You have lost your ability to create conditions of success, and you have lost your negotiating power.

Most likely when you get to the actual planning, the people you thought would be impressed by your reasonableness stun you by not appreciating it at all. They want MORE compromise. In your eyes, they are unreasonable. You’ve already compromised (in your head) and now there’s no more to give. How come they get to be unreasonable when you’ve worked so hard before the meeting even started? It’s not fair!

You must practice the art of being unreasonable.

The art of being unreasonable

  • Dream big.
  • Come to the negotiation with a plan that meets all your needs and only your needs, with justification for them. You can compromise later from a place of power.
  • Don’t play fair. Kids lives are at stake. For example, take kids into a meeting and have them present. It’s hard to say no to cute 8 year olds. (This is not about doing illegal or unethical things!)
  • Acknowledge other people’s fears but label them as fears, not roadblocks or reasons to change the plan. Invite them to participate as your plan unfolds, so they can see that their fears are unfounded.
  • Just because you understand other people’s arguments doesn’t mean you have to accept or act on them. That’s what reasonable people do. The other side isn’t accepting your arguments; you don’t have to accept theirs. Remember, you are unreasonable!
  • Find others who believe in the same things you do and create a personal support system.
  • Don’t be a martyr. If your plan is getting crushed and it’s just not going to happen, walk away. Come back with a bigger and better one.

Be unreasonable, not a pain
I know. You are saying, “I work with unreasonable people all the time! It’s not pleasant! They think they know everything, everyone resents it and figures out sneaky little ways to sabotage the plan. I want to be seen as fair, so that everyone will want to work with me, not against me.”

Everyone wants to be liked. Educators are probably the nicest people of all. Would it be so bad if people thought of you as a rebel, a dreamer, or a force of nature instead of just “nice”? Add a few new adjectives to your personal profile. You might be surprised that not only will people still like you, they will respect you more. Allow your unreasonableness to come from a place of righteous power and promoting student welfare, not anger or self-promotion. Anyway, nobody likes a pushover.

“You see things; and you say Why? But I dream things that never were; and I say Why not?” — George Bernard Shaw

Go ahead, you have my permission, be unreasonable.


10 Replies to “The art of being an unreasonable educator”

  1. Sylvia, I am reminded of Karl Fisch’s words during a group discussion about how how “the system” inhibits change.

    He said “We are the system”.

  2. Fun post, Sylvia—-and one that I’ve mastered in my career! Unreasonable is definitely an adjective in my personal profile already.

    I find that walking in your confident footsteps is actually a dozen times harder today than ever before primarily because we’re in a “data driven” school culture now. The first thing that I’m asked most of the time when laying out my plans for any forward-thinking project is “Do you have any numbers to back up your plan? What does the research say?”

    Automatically, my knowledge of my students and the content-specific pedagogy for my subject is cheapened. What I know isn’t as important as what I can prove. That’s frustrating.

    But that’s also why I love educators who blog! By writing about our work, we give one another ammunition to use to convince those who don’t automatically “trust” us. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down with my seemingly unreasonable plan and used blog entries from Konrad, Brian Crosby, Darren K, KJ, and company as my “proof.”

    Anyone else using bloggers to build a case for revolutionary practice?


  3. Sylvia,

    I love this post!

    Ironically, even the most outspoken of us sometimes need this reminder–to stick to our guns and to fight for what we believe works and is important, because it is about kids.

    Interestingly, I recall this coming up in the panel discussions at Educon–can’t remember if it was something you or Joyce Valenza said, but since then, several times, when I’ve hesitated, I’ve pushed myself forward because of it.

    Karl Fisch is right, that we are the system. If we as educators don’t ask the questions, don’t avoid turning our classrooms into test drills, and don’t ever try something out of the box, then how will change ever happen?

    I think we have to ask why not? rather than answer why.

    Now, my next wish–is that we tell this not only to one another in the blogosphere, but “outside” the blogosphere at every opportunity. Sometimes just hearing that we have permission is something that we pay forwards.

    Thanks again.

  4. Sylvia,
    I agree – being seen as a force of nature is often challenging, but it certainly is rewarding!! I often find myself looked at cross-eyed or being asked how I have time for my student to do what they do, but when I look at the benefits and growth in my students and their skills I respond the only way I feel I can: how can I justify not taking the time?


  5. This post topic sounds familiar to many of us who have thought and acted as you describe. I used to advise my colleagues to choose the issue over which they will go to the mat, because someone will take them there. We agreed with the sentiments of your blog title to empower students. Many of yesterday’s rebels appear targets of today’s rebels! I’m new to your blog, and I’m curious. Will you please direct me to where I may read how your self “unreasonable” behavior patterns yielded empowered students? I’d like to read those stories.

  6. Carolyn,
    Actually I said it on the Educon panel. A couple of people picked it up in the live blogging and it came out all wrong. Like we should be mean or something. So I figured I better explain myself.

    It’s funny, someone else wrote a glowing review of “me” on the Educon panel and it was all about what Joyce said! Guess we look alike.

    There are quite a few stories and videos of student empowerment on the Generation YES website –

  7. These are seven wonderful things to tell young teachers. Teachers should stand up and fight for what they believe in. Often, teachers give up too easily on projects and some students. Teachers should always keep an open mind. I am the first one to admit that I do not know everything or the correct way to do everything. I really like the dream big idea. Students learn in different ways, therefore, we need to come up with new, different ways to teach. I have to come up with ways to keep students creative and learn how to teach themselves. Good luck to everyone else with there dreams.

  8. It’s not correct IMO to say “we are the system”. The system consists of “the Department” (bosses who propagate curriculum documents and other forms of BS), teachers (implementors, who do the real work) and the students. Each has their own culture (and subcultures) and ways of doing things, the coexistence is often fragile.

    I wrote an article about this in the context of disadvantaged schools some years ago. reality

  9. Hi Bill,
    I think it is correct to acknowledge that we are part of the system. Saying “we are the system” is not a complete analysis, but simply a shortcut way to say that finger-pointing isn’t the answer to problems.

  10. yes and no – you can point a finger at a systemic blockage point without succumbing to victim mentality (I agree the latter is a real problem) – but I can give real examples, everyday, where “the system” which is not my system is preventing stuff happening and all I can do at least in the short term is expose it but not change it

    being unreasonable, I think it’s one of those slogans which does require further analysis

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