Dissent & Control

nigeria-protest

I stole that title from a truly phenomenal high school social studies teacher.  On the books, Ben taught AP Government.  But we all know that wasn’t exactly what was going on in his classroom. Dissent & Control was the title of the senior research project in Ben’s class.  The essential question was how we balance, as a country, the need to control opinions & behaviors with the right to dissent, protest, and disagree.

Managing Ben, quite frankly, could be tough.  He has the heart of an activist.  During the Occupy Movement, he sometimes spent his afternoons and evenings across the Bay at the encampment in downtown Oakland.  I didn’t ask too many questions, just encouraged him to make sure he was available and present for his students – which he always was.  But often when we proposed changes, Ben voiced concerns.  On our Instructional Leadership Team, sometimes Ben was the lone vote for dissent.

Ben didn’t believe the AP curriculum was adequate.  When our charter management organization entered into a grant agreement to boost AP scores using a common curriculum, it created tension.  As a small charter management organization, our principal team was usually at the table when binding decisions on curriculum were made.  Some members of the team expressed concern that I would allow a hold-out.  I myself had moments of doubt – wondering whether it would be in the best interest of the school and students to either force a strict adherence to the AP curriculum or move him from teaching seniors.

Yet, in many ways, Ben was one of the most essential members of our faculty.  If we truly aspire to teach critical thinking as a habit of mind, then Ben represented the best of what is possible.  He taught kids to question, inquire, push for clarification, and then probe even deeper.  He equipped students with a set of analytical skills and tools that would serve them throughout their lives.  That’s not just my interpretation of Ben’s impact – it’s all the things I heard students say about their experiences in his classroom.

As a teacher leader, Ben invited us to see another perspective, consider alternative explanations, and to never forget that social justice is how we live our lives and not just our curriculum. Over time, I would sometimes play out different scenarios in my mind in anticipation of how I might respond when Ben voiced his dissent.  It was an intellectual practice that continually strengthened my own decision-making process.

As administrators, we make decisions on a regular basis that balance individual student needs with the health of a school community or larger organization.  We weigh the financial health of a public institution with the needs of our students – needs that always outpace our ability to address them.  I wonder if I’m not being vocal enough when decisions are made that I perceive as harmful or unfair.  At other times, I wonder if we are ceding too much decision-making to the data – as if numbers bore the whole truth or didn’t play favorites.

I often find myself walking that delicate balance between dissent and control in my own personal political life.  I’m feeling a pull towards dissent that I really have never experienced as acutely as I am experiencing now.  Some mornings I wake up feeling like I will have let my family, community, and country down if I don’t do something or say something.  I know I need to speak out – but I also wonder how much noise to make.

I’m sure Ben wondered too.  I know there were plenty of moments when he felt a surge of genuine concern or anger about a decision that was being made.  He wasn’t afraid to vocalize his perspective.  I’m sure Ben probably felt, at times, that his job might be on the line.  And quite frankly, he would have been right.  But to his credit, and I hope to mine, we persisted together.

In the end, I think it made both of us better.

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