About Cari Zall

Cari Zall has been a Social Sciences educator for over 12 years, in both brick & mortar and online environments. She currently works as the Curriculum and Instructional Support Manager for an online high school dropout recovery program, and is the Assignment Editor and a writer for The Educator’s Room, an online education magazine. Cari is certified in Gamification and has worked on several projects incorporating Gamification into online and traditional education environments. Her areas of expertise include Gamification and Student Resilience & Motivation; Conflict Resolution & Collaboration, and social justice education. Prior to her teaching career, Cari worked for 15 years in civil litigation and as a human rights activist in Northern Ireland and Washington, DC. She holds a BA in Conflict Analysis & Resolution, an Masters in Teaching, and an MA in Political Science. Cari is a James Madison Fellow, and is the author of the book, How to Finish the Test When Your Pencil Breaks: A Teacher Faces Layoff, Unemployment and a Career Shift. You can finder her on twitter at @teachacari.

Last week, my fellow TER writer, Jessica Classen, wrote about being kinder to our students in the classroom. It reminded me of some research that came out a few years ago about how the levels of depression and anxiety rise in societies that have higher levels of coercion. I have been thinking a lot about how we manage to cultivate — with kindness — a love of learning in an education system rife with coercion. As teachers, we are also working within a career field that has only become more and more rife with coercion towards us as professionals, and as a result, teachers are facing higher levels of depression, anxiety, and physical problems like heart, breathing, and other limitations at younger ages.

The research I’d been thinking of was a 2013 paper by Bruce Levine called “How Societies with Little Coercion Have Little Mental Illness.” Levine is a psychologist who has written prolifically about the rampant rise of depression and anxiety in American culture, along with the over-medicated approaches to addressing challenging children. In that 2013 article, he defines coercion as “the use of physical, legal, chemical, psychological, financial, and other forces to gain compliance,” and that it is “intrinsic to our society’s employment, schooling, and parenting” culture.  He even argues that, as noted by several non-western societies (including some Native American communities), even democracy as practiced in the US is coercive in the sense that many people end up feeling resentful and hurt by the process. If you know your education history, you know that when Horace Mann got together with Sears and Harper of the University of Chicago and others, they designed the modern version of compulsory education as we know it now in order to be able to scientifically manage the growing population of young people. In the century since public schools were designed, policy makers have tried over and over again to come up with ways to further perfect a system where students’ behavior can be predicted and accounted for. All of their tweaking and managing and meddling has resulted in more and more coercion of students, teachers, and every other stakeholder involved in K-12 education.

A 2013 Gallup poll found that “the longer students stay in school, the less engaged they become, and by high school, only 40% reported being engaged. ”  John Taylor Gatto, the great proponent of non-coercive education, notes that “what’s gotten in the way of education in the United States is a theory of social engineering that says there is ONE RIGHT WAY to proceed with growing up.” Back to Levine, the end result of a child feeling “coerced by standard schooling to pay attention to that which is boring for them, to do homework for which they see no value, and to stay inside a building that feels sterile and suffocating” is often depression, anxiety, or worse.  The increased pressures of high stakes testing added to that already compulsory education culture has only made it more difficult for students and teachers alike. And when students act out in resistance to so much coercion in their lives, the system deals with the discomfort that causes by medicating them, removing them from diverse classrooms, or labeling them as “oppositional defiant,” or “unwilling to learn.”

So how do we cope – both with the struggles our students face, and with the coercive nature of our profession?

Choice. The first, most impactful thing you can do is begin to give your students – and yourself – more choice. Kids so rarely have agency over their lives, especially in school. One reason teachers have difficulty giving their students choice is because they themselves feel coerced and without options. So the first step is to give yourself options as a teacher. Remember you are an expert in your field, you are a professional, and you know how to imbue a love of the subject you teach into your students. Don’t let policymakers or administrators decide for you what kind of teacher you are.  Even if your curriculum is entirely scripted, you still have spaces to create choice for your students in what you ask of them. Think about ways to add creativity or give your students multiple options for how to accomplish a task or demonstrate a skill. Save time at the end of a unit for them to explore what they are interested in. There are multiple ways to insert choice into even the most coerced curriculum, and one of your greatest joys as a teacher may be finding those little ways to subvert the system and imbue your students with the magic of having a say in their own lives.

Fun. The second most important thing you can do for yourself and your students is find the fun in your classroom again. If you feel like all the requirements and demands on you have slowly strangled the fun out of teaching, then it is up to you to grab it back. Students now often don’t have the energy-expending and important breaks and recesses that schools used to provide, and children as young as 6 and 7 years old find themselves having to sit properly in desks for up to 7 hours a day. This is not how children learn. And it’s energy draining for the teacher too. Think about gamifying some of your classroom and teaching.  The common core can be drudgery, or it could be an opportunity for fun and games.  Instead of forcing yourself to make lesson plan after lesson plan that complies with a coercive curriculum, perhaps switching up your thinking and instead focusing on what elements of that curriculum you can turn into fun will not only energize your students, but will give you a breath of fresh air too. We’re teachers because we love learning, and to us, learning is fun. So there can be no higher value in what we teach than showing our students how fun it is to learn, even if they are learning how to pass a test that someone else thinks is important.

We are as subject to the coercive nature of the education system as our students are. But we have one advantage: we are adults. We have the power to choose how we let that coerciveness affect our students. When we look back, we’re not going to fondly remember how many of our students “met” or “exceeded” average test scores. We’re going to look back and delight in how much fun we had subverting a system that meant to turn our students into well-behaved automatons. Instead, we will delight that they learned to think for themselves, make choices, and love learning.


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