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I don’t believe that schools are broken. I know that sounds so non-innovative or whatever, but I don’t care. I see amazing things that happen at my school on a regular basis. I watch what my kids have learned and I’m blown away. I see value in celebrating the small stories of the great things that happen.

That being said, I see broken parts inside the system. I hate the excessive testing. I hate the lack of funding and the crappy teacher pay. I hate the packets that kids fill out and the punitive style of grading. I see systemic racism that we still haven’t tackled and it makes me mad.

In other words, I believe that all systems are flawed, just as the world is flawed and humanity  is flawed. This viewpoint shapes how I approach my approach as a public school teacher. But it has me thinking about the approaches you can take when you see problems in the system:

Option 1: Advocate Against the System

If you truly believe that the system is broken and actually believe that the system is harmful or toxic, then you advocate against the system. You speak out loudly about how it is awful and broken and all of that. This isn’t how I view it. I see the system as flawed but not entirely broken. And because of this, I find myself wanting to celebrate the great work that teachers are doing.

Option 2: Create an Alternative Outside the System

I love what they have done in places like the Anastasis Academy in Colorado. They basically said, “Let’s start from scratch and make something new that is meaningful and fits the values we have.” What I love about this is that people like Michelle Baldwin and Kelly Tenkely are open about what is working at their school without ever resorting to bashing the work of the people who are still in the public school system.

Option 3: Create an Alternative Inside the System

Here the idea is to create a separate space that is wildly different inside of the system. When I think of this, I consider places like Kent Innovation High, where it is a public school in a public school district. It’s an amazing space that uses a project-based learning framework while doing things radically different. And yet, they still have to follow many of the policies that are a part of the system.

Option 4: Change the System from the Inside

This is the space I inhabit right now. I push for inquiry-based, project-based learning inside of a system that does not necessarily support it. Instead of yelling about how awful things are, I find myself wanting to come up with creative alternatives within the system. I’m at a place in my career where I still want to advocate against injustice but I also want to advocate in favor of solutions. I want to figure out what works and help others who are in the system implement these ideas.

Final Thoughts

Although I tend to get annoyed by people in the first option (especially when it feels like an attack on teachers and when it feels like people are benefitting financially from creating a cottage industry of teacher-bashing), I am glad that there are people pursuing all four options. I’m glad that there are people boldly pointing out the problems in the system. I’m glad that there are people going out on their own and making things that can’t exist inside the system. I’m glad that we are creating new systems within the same school system and I’m glad that we have people who are repurposing the box rather than simply building a new one.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


  • Hello John Spencer, my name is Anthony Esposito. I am currently attending the University of South Alabama and am pursing a degree in physical education. In one of my classes we are tasked with commenting on different teachers blogs, this week I picked yours. Educational careers have been in my family for years, I have seen from the perspective of teachers, students and administrators. I have to agree with you when you say that you believe the public school system is flawed. It is without a doubt flawed, the important thing about it though is to come up with useful alternatives like you have. I agree mostly with the fourth option you proposed. To change the system from the inside. It is important not to " lose your head", when your speaking your mind or trying to make a change. I am glad that there are teachers out there that know there is a problem and are trying to fix it. I look forward to reading more of your posts!

  • Blake says:

    I am looking at your four types of people and I think that at some point we all fall into one of those categories. I was born and raised in the Central Valley of California and have now been teaching here for four years. Before teaching I worked for 7 years for an IT company and I always heard the same complaints. Teachers are in no better place than a manager. The difference is a manager has the option to fire someone. As teachers, we are given a directive to train all students regardless of their place. It is not the system that is broken, but the homes and the society that we come from. Since I started teaching I have made it my goal to train students not just in math, but in all parts of their lives. They need to be thinkers. Striving for what they are best at. People who fall into category one and two are often blaming something that is not wrong. What happens when a teacher becomes burned out? Or unable to work? They keep going, thanks to tenure. As a manager if a person lost their passion for the job they were doing, we moved them to another job. Teachers don't get this same courtesy. How long do we keep teachers who are frustrated but won't move to a position to do anything? Its time to work inside the box and fix it. If you aren't fixing it, your probably just making it worse!

  • Dave says:

    I think of it kind of like a leaky boat. We can bail out water, and we have to bail out water — which would be the equivalent of pushing back against increased testing and other negative changes that threaten to sink the boat.

    But at some point, we have to look at the leak — the source where the problems are coming from. I believe the leak is bad legislation, and I believe the root of bad legislation is legislators swayed by people aiming to profit from that legislation. Lawrence Lessig came to similar conclusions, coming from the angle of intellectual property law, so I tend to align my work toward solutions with his.

  • Heather Studer says:

    As a manager, busines owner and teacher. As a manager I received a review from my boss and those that worked under me. As a business owner, my reviews are no income. As a teacher I am only reviewed by the principal. Maybe teacher’s should receive reviews from students and parents as well. Then maybe we could build a community of supoort for students. Great teachers would shine and bad would be flushed out. Reviews won’t be based on who is the principal’s best friend.

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