This week on the Truth for Teachers podcast: I’m talking to Dr. Robyn Jackson about what it means to quietly subvert the system and do what you know is best for your students especially when the directives tell you otherwise.

What happens when you’re asked to follow bad pedagogy or teach topics that seem irrelevant for kids? 

You can do exactly as you’re told … or you can quietly subvert the system, and find ways to do what’s best for kids.

Listen in as Dr. Robyn Jackson and I talk about ways that we’ve done this in our teaching practice, and how we’ve supported other teachers in doing the same.

We speak the quiet part out loud in this episode: the best teachers don’t just follow directives without question — they’re NOT doing everything they’re told, because a lot of what they’re told to do isn’t good for kids.

You don’t have to settle for just “getting through” boring curriculum and test prep. You can actively look for ways to get yourself excited about what/how you need to teach and make the learning meaningful for kids so they’re more engaged, too.

Podcast episode summary

  • “If we’re treating our teachers in a way that is killing their motivation, how on earth can we expect those same teachers to go in and motivate a room full of students?”
  • Subversive teaching doesn’t mean like you’re going rogue. It means you still have to teach the standards, but you have to make the standards meaningful. 
  • It takes courage. It is not an easy thing to do. You’ve got to weigh your options and decide when to take a stand, when to be quietly subversive, when to go along with it.
  • You don’t have to do this alone. Collaborate with colleagues or other teachers online and carve out your own path, find a way that works for you and your students.
  • You deserve to teach in a way that you know is effective and meaningful, and your students deserve to be learning in a way that you know is effective.

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Sponsored by JabuMind and AJ Juliani’s Online Learning Master Course

About this “side conversation” from my original interview with Robyn Jackson

I interviewed Dr. Robyn Jackson about student motivation and engagement for episode 191 this past March. Our conversation was over an hour long, and she talked about different will drivers: the 4 things that motivate us as adults and of course our students: mastery, belonging, purpose, and autonomy.

Each of us has a primary will driver — one that matters more to us than anything else — and Robin shared lots of ways we can tap into the thing that motivates us for our jobs, and easy ways to speak to each of these 4 will drivers so all the kids you teach have those motivations addressed.

We held that interview before the pandemic, and it was my intention to air this little side conversation that you’re about to hear as a separate episode now in fall of 2020. I knew it was good at the time but it was a bit off-topic, and EP191 is already long, so I wanted to highlight this part separately. At the time, of course, I had no idea about all the changes that were about to come.

I listened back through the convo just now to see if this was still going to be an appropriate time to air it, and I realized, what we’re saying in this convo about being quietly subversive and doing what’s best for kids is more important now than ever.

That’s because the folks in charge of telling you how to teach in a crisis don’t actually know how to teach in a crisis.

Truthfully none of us do, but you certainly know better than the folks who have never done it. Many of the decisions being made for schools right now are based on politicized views about the pandemic, or to placate parents, or to compensate for staffing and budget shortages. They’re based on micromanaging teachers and ensuring that they’re earning their salary. They’re based on trying to hold kids and teachers to the old expectations so kids can pass standardized tests as usual as if our entire world isn’t upside down right now.

The decisions being made are clearly not based on good pedagogy. No one who really understands pedagogy or neuroscience or best practices for learning would ever expect a teacher to instruct 15 kids online and 15 kids in the classroom simultaneously for 6 hours a day. And that’s just one of the many ridiculous scenarios happening right now.

So if we all know — and of course you know this already, I’m just affirming — if we, with the teaching experience, know that the decisions about student learning are not centered on what’s best for kids, then what are we supposed to do? HOW exactly are you expected to teach?

Here’s where being quietly subversive comes in, and finding a way to make the learning meaningful no matter what.

ANGELA: I feel like the instructional reason for disengagement is the one that really bugs teachers the most because I think they feel like, “I would love to hook kids in and there’s so many things that I could do, but I can’t because I’m so tied to this particular way of teaching that I’m being mandated to use.” Or, “We’re basically just doing test prep for five weeks out of the school year leading up to the test, so no wonder kids are disengaged.”

What should a teacher do if they’re in that position, where they feel like the lessons they’re supposed to teach are just naturally not engaging and it’s really hard to make those things authentically meaningful to kids?

ROBYN: So, I’m probably the wrong person to ask that question because I would say, “Forget what you’re being told, because you have to do what’s right for kids.”

But then you’re the right person to ask. That’s why I’m asking you, because that’s the right answer to me.

I was working with a group of teachers last week and they were feeling very similarly, and I know the feeling when I was a teacher, how a lot of times I was being told I had to teach a certain way.

I always bucked against that trend because at the end of the day, if you teach kids the way that I’m advocating where lessons are meaningful, where the teacher is engaged first, where people have passion about what they’re doing when they come into the classroom, you can still do that and tie it to the standards.

I think a lot of times what districts are starting to do is try to teach-proof teaching. They’re trying to take the teacher out of the equation. What we should be doing is empowering teachers by helping them understand the standards.

It is appalling to me how standards roll-outs are traditionally conducted in districts all over the country where they give you a list of standards. You’re expected to list those standards in your lesson plans, but nobody has ever engaged you in really understanding the standards. I think most standards-unpacking exercises are horrific and don’t really shed light on what the standard means.

And I’ve been in districts where I’ve said as much and then not been invited back so I have to be careful, but I really do feel like there is a very simple way to unpack a standard. And when you do it the way that I’m advocating, I believe that you will not only find the “why” of the standard, but you will also find a way to teach that standard in a way that feeds your own passion and also entices and engages your students and motivates them to learn and it becomes way more meaningful.

Not only that, you wouldn’t have just covered the standard: your kids will know it and they will know it six months from now. They’ll know it when the test comes.

So rather than this emphasis — this is what I consider to be very shortsighted emphasis — on test prep and alignment and scope and sequence and being on page 34 on day 35, I really feel like we should be investing in our teachers and empowering them to understand the standards, to understand why the standards are the standards and then giving them the resources, the training, the support to help them to be able to teach those standards in meaningful ways.

One of the things that we say at MindSteps all the time is, “Unmotivated people can’t motivate anybody.” And if we’re treating our teachers in a way that is killing their motivation, how on earth can we expect those same teachers to go in and motivate a room full of students? It’s just ridiculous to me.

So if a teacher is dealing with this first classroom barrier to motivation, which is the instructional piece, then their job is to say, “Okay, if I don’t understand why I’m teaching this and I know that the way that I’m being asked to teach is not relevant for kids, I need to make a decision to do what’s best for my students. I need to unpack the standard, I need to understand why I’m teaching it and I need to make my own decisions because the way that I’m being told to do it isn’t working.”

Yeah, and the proof is in the pudding. 

This is a hard one and that’s why I said I’m probably not the right person to ask. That’s what I did as a teacher and I’m not sure if it’s right. I worked in circumstances where I may not have had some of the horror story administrators that I often hear teachers tell me about.

So you have to weigh your options, too, because at the end of the day, if you put me in a classroom, that’s what I’m going to do. And I honestly wouldn’t care who the administrator was or what they were saying because I would prove it. My kids would prove it, my test scores would prove it.

That doesn’t mean like going rogue. It means you still have to teach the standards, but you have to make the standards meaningful. I think it’s our job to say, “This curriculum that you’re handing me is not working for my kids.”

So how do you find a way to make that curriculum work and hold onto your job?

I remember being an English teacher, and we did a curriculum rollout and they gave us a curriculum that I thought was completely ridiculous. We were a huge district. They handed me a curriculum that was written by a teacher in a more affluent part of the district.

And one of the assignments I’ll never forget was a “Journal of Place.” Our kids were supposed to channel Thoreau —go out in the woods every day and record their thoughts for one week in a journal. It was a mandated project that all of our students had to do.

First of all, most of my students lived in apartments, and I had homeless kids. My students were not going to sit out in the woods. They didn’t even have access to a wooded area.

And I tried to say something to the district about it. The district slapped my hand, sent me back into the classroom, and said, “You will do this project.” 

So I had to figure out a way to still make that meaningful. Otherwise, I would say, “Well, the district’s making us do this stupid journaling assignment. So go do it and don’t really worry about it. Let’s focus on what is really important.” 

But instead, I wanted to make that assignment meaningful. So I went back and I looked at the language and the way the assignment was worded again, and I found a loophole that my kids didn’t have to be in the woods.

So for our warm-up for the next two weeks, we did our “Journal of Place” in our classroom, and we started noticing tweaks and changes in our own classroom environment. And our kids really got into it because they started noticing things. One student noticed that the majority of our students wore jeans to class every day. Another student noticed that the way that the kids chose to sit (we had open seating in my classroom) said a lot about the social hierarchy of the classroom.

We had these amazing discussions by doing that assignment, but if I had not gone through the trouble of trying to figure out how to make that assignment meaningful, it would have never happened and I wouldn’t have been motivated to teach it. My kids wouldn’t have been motivated to do it and we would have wasted that opportunity to have these meaningful discussions about how places change and how places impact us and what you can learn about people through places, which are things that we could immediately apply to the literature we were reading.

I think that’s sound advice Robyn, and I wrote in my book Fewer Things Better that I believe that the best teachers are quietly subverting the system. I believe that what you are doing is the same thing that I did.

You don’t have to make a big show of it. You don’t have to go in and protest and tell your principal, “I refuse.” You just quietly subvert the system. You figure out a way to do what’s best for your kids. You meet the standards, and you do your job the best way that you know how to.

It takes courage. It is not an easy thing to do. But it’s the right thing to do because otherwise — exactly as you said — you’re being told to do something that you know isn’t best for kids and then you’re perpetuating educational malpractice. The buck has to stop someplace. 

You’ve got to weigh your options and decide when to take a stand, when to be quietly subversive, when to go along with it. It’s a constant balancing act, but I’m just glad to hear you reinforce that because I think that teachers oftentimes think the best educators are following all the rules and doing exactly what they’re told, and that’s not the case.

No. I think that the system — the way that it’s being arranged right now — there needs to be a more quiet subversion of the system because we’re not serving kids. There’s a reason why kids are disengaged and unmotivated, and we have not confronted that yet.

So a lot of times teachers are being blamed, or they’re being expected to walk into a room full of unmotivated kids and to make magic happen, but we’re not giving them the tools that they could be using to do that.

I do believe — I honestly believe, and I’ve seen it, I’ve done it — I believe you can walk into a classroom of unmotivated, disengaged kids and I think you can get them motivated.

One of the things that I’ve been teaching for a while is something I figured out when I was working with a client that was at an alternative school. It was a middle and a high school. Every kid in there was overage and under-credited. They were in that school because they were not old enough to drop out.

You could not imagine a more unmotivated group of students. And at the time I was writing my book How to Motivate Reluctant Learners — that’s a whole story because that book manuscript got rejected not once, not twice, but three times before it was accepted, and a lot of it was because I was saying what I had been taught about motivation. I was just kind of regurgitating that. But those are nice platitudes. In reality, they often don’t work.

And so I was trying to figure it out and I had been reading the research, and the research kept saying over and over again, mastery, purpose, autonomy, belonging. And I started trying to figure out, “Okay, so what would that look like if we were in a classroom and we taught that way?”

What I realized is by looking at people — it’s not just that we need all four. All of us have what I call a “dominant will driver.” All four of those things will drive our will. But all of us have a dominant will driver.

I remember there was a young man in one of the classrooms in this alternative school. And I said, “You know what, let’s give him mastery, repurpose, belonging and autonomy.” And we were trying to do that, but I saw that he was only responding to one thing and that was belonging. 

And so I said, “Forget everything else. We’re just going to just feed him belonging.” And in a matter of days, he became a different kid. In a matter of days, he’s raising his hand instead of having his head on his desk. In a matter of days, he’s attempting the work, when before, every time you’d give an assignment, he would just throw it on the floor and refuse to do the work or trash the classroom so he gets sent to the office so he wouldn’t have to do the work. In a matter of days, instead of cussing out his teacher, he’s actually working with the teacher and asking the teacher for help.

And that’s the first time I saw the power of will drivers. And ever since then — that was over 10 years ago —I’ve seen it works for kids and for adults. 

When you’re faced with a child with whom you’ve done everything, they’re just not being motivated. People cannot resist when you’re feeding their dominant will driver. So if you can understand what a child’s dominant will driver is and you can feed it, you can help that child start to invest in your classroom when nothing else works.


I encourage you to listen to Robyn say more about motivation — student motivation and teacher motivation in episode 191.

And I want you to remember her words here about being quietly subversive — about figuring out how to make what you’re expected to do more meaningful for kids. Don’t just try to “make it through” teaching right now.

Figure out a methodology for teaching the standards that gets you excited enough to teach it really well, and hook kids in. Think outside the box that you and your students are being placed in, and get creative about how you can quietly subvert the system.

And you don’t have to do this alone. Collaborate with colleagues or other teachers online and carve out your own path, find a way that works for you and your students.

You deserve to teach in a way that you know is effective and meaningful. Your students deserve to be learning in a way that you know is effective and meaningful. Be continually looking for small ways to quietly subvert the system and do what’s best for kids. It’s not going to be easy, of course. But it’s going to be worth it.

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