A breed of exceptional professionals stands out in schools. They announce their presence. Those around them witness them working for a greater good with a zeal that can be inspiring or troubling, depending on perspective. Educators of this breed can’t be convinced that they’re doing anything but the most important work anyone could be doing. They’re also convinced they’re the only ones doing this work right. These educators are True Believers.
Who are True Believers? These are teachers and administrators who genuinely buy generic educational rhetoric. They live by motivational posters and inspirational quotes. They believe wholeheartedly that schools are the most important change agent in any young person’s life. They believe every student can perform at grade level and can do this well. They refuse to believe any student can’t do this. Their conviction defines them.
True Believers readily subscribe to the latest in educational panaceas. They insist that macro-level policies will improve outcomes for all students, if followed with fidelity. They find a policy or a program or a methodology and dive into it, convinced this will be the answer to some issue of underperformance. They love throwing technology at any deficit while maintaining how the “old-fashioned” way of doing anything retains its merit. All along, they know they know better than anyone else does.
Often, True Believers find their work in schools to be more than a job. They invest the whole of their being into what they do. They never really stop working, filling their evenings and weekends with school business. This is admirable in many respects, except that True Believers tend to not let anyone around them forget how dedicated they are. The True Believer frequently comes off as condescending and even self-righteous. They have a mission. Anyone who isn’t on board is in the way.
Teachers might start as True Believers. Those fresh recruits with glowing eyes hit the field ready to serve students and to be that change agent. The realities of the field smash many of these new teachers back into the surf like a salty, frigid wave. Others make it past the breakers and end up thriving in the chop. The survivors remain for their reasons, chiefly their belief in a mission. Importantly, many stick around long enough to become administrators.
Actually, a disproportionate number of administrators are True Believers. The True Believer tends to be ambitious, so aspiring to administration makes sense. Administration can appear to be the most efficient avenue for implementing change. A True Believer isn’t likely to see administration at the building level as being akin to middle management. Instead, a True Believer will see it as a genuine leadership opportunity. When thwarted by the practical frustrations of managing schools, True Believers sometimes make their way to district level administrative positions.
The trouble with True Believers really begins when they wield power. Prior to that, they’re merely insufferable. When they have the opportunity to take the rhetoric to which they subscribe and subject everyone else to it, they can unwittingly do some damage. They become inflexible and insistent. They adopt a “no excuses” model and attach this to everything. They see success as the end goal of education and they define success by narrow, quantifiable measures. The worst is that they see their brand of “no excuses” or “zero tolerance” or whatever as the recipe for fixing all issues. They expect to fix these issues within the span of a school year, even though no one else has figured out how to fix them in 60 or 70 years. Plus, they’re fully prepared to blame teachers when everything falls apart. Their version of leadership ends up being divisive and leads to low morale.
The lofty expectations of True Believers undermine their goals. They want all students to achieve at high levels. However, they use the least helpful means of targeting students who struggle to do this. The students they attack most often are students with IEPs. Like it or not, these tend to be the lowest performing and worst behaved students. True Believers have a nasty panache for suspending these students and pressing for their failure. Administrators sometimes fear taking any action against students with IEPs, but True Believers frequently show contempt and disregard for the protections these students receive. They want to extend “no excuses” policies in the face of federal law, thinking of themselves as truth-seekers in the process. In doing so, they reveal how silly the concept of “no excuses” really is.
No one can talk with True Believers about the possibility of anything being beyond the control of a school. Suggesting something is outside the scope of what a school can handle is seen as an attack on their faith. Because of this, they end up supporting legislative mandates that heap unrealistic responsibilities on school staff. This makes True Believers unwitting enemies of other school employees. They also set themselves up for bitterness. When their schools continue to underperform, they become incensed, ready to blame the faithless around them for the failures of students. Worse than this is when they misinterpret anomalies in data as evidence of their coveted policies finally working. It reinforces their beliefs even when the slightest examination would prove their policies didn’t in fact affect the results. Again, they can’t be convinced otherwise.
True Believers are more than vain and annoying. They’re indeed dangerous. They’re least harmful in the classroom, but even at this level they can be exhausting as colleagues. As building administrators, they force their unrealistic visions and end up marginalizing the students who most need their support. When they get the opportunity to be policy makers, their insistence and commitment to canned rhetoric lead to their investment in ideas that undermine what teachers are trying to do. Even if their policies have little effect, they still can inflict their will as ratings officers. Think about working under someone who will never believe he or she could be wrong about anything. Dealing with the True Believer in power can end up being the most tiring part of working in a school.