Speak Truth to Power
Written by Jim Knight.

There are people still in darkness

And they just can’t see the light

If you don’t say it’s wrong then that says it’s right

 

None of us are free, one of us are chained.

None of us are free.

Solomon Burke

“Speak truth to power” is my good friend Jean Clark’s favorite phrase.  When we do the work of reaching out to students, doing our best to ensure all students are learning, we have to, according to Jean, “speak truth to power.”

I think Jean has in mind the same thing as the late, great, soul singer Solomon Burke when he sings that none of us are free when one of is chained.  (You can see Solomon Burke sing the song with the Blind Boys of Alabama here). To speak truth to power is to speak out when we see oppression in its many and varied manifestations.  To speak truth to power is to speak up when we hear racist or sexist comments, when we hear people dismissing children by holding low expectations for students who hold amazing potential, or whenever we hear others being objectified, dehumanized, or stereotyped.

When we speak truth to power, we often have to be the voice for others who have lost the ability to speak for themselves, because institutions or individuals have misused their power to diminish others. Speaking truth to power, I believe, is not just about standing up to those who are above us in an organization.  When we speak truth to power, we should also stand up for what is right when we see oppression rise up in more subtle ways.

When we see someone being bullied, it is easy to recognize that we must act, but when we stand up against an organizational culture, it is much harder to step outside the culture and say what needs to be said. Too often, organizational culture trivializes those actions that are most important for moving forward, such as a deep belief in the moral purpose of teaching, a commitment to personal learning and growth, or articulation of the importance of being empathetic towards our students or their parents.

I had lunch not so long ago with a wonderful instructional leader, an unabashed Radical Learner, and during our meal together, I learned that she had just finished her PhD and that she passionately loved continuing studying about leadership, organizational change, and instruction.  She related that when her colleagues kind of gave her a blank stare as if to say they had no idea why someone would be so committed to learning, my friend held up her hand in the universal sign for loser, and said, “Yeah, I know, I’m a loser.”

Such is the power of culture.  We don’t want to suggest we are better than others, and we don’t want to stand out from a given culture in which we live or work, so we tend to acquiesce or put ourselves down.  But the truth is that my friend is anything but a loser—just the opposite, her personal learning makes her a better leader, a person much better able to make a difference.

And this is when speaking up is especially important.  Learning, personal growth, and commitment to students, these values need to be celebrated, not downplayed.  School culture can be as oppressive as any power-tripping egomaniac. Speaking truth to power, then, is not just about addressing oppressive leaders.  Speaking truth to power is about creating the kind of classroom culture that is best for everyone—students, educators, and parents.

As Susan Scott has explained, culture is shaped one conversation at a time.  When we speak truth to power, we speak up to create cultures where learning, humanity, and respect are celebrated, not trivialized.

And we need to take Solomon Burke’s words to heart:  “If you don’t say it’s wrong, then that says it’s right.”

8 Comments

  1. David Coffey

    We often talk about tall poppies – those bright, energetic teachers that end up getting mowed down by the current educational system that expects conformity. This post reminds me of that and the need to protect those teachers. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Jim Knight

      David, that desire to protect those people you call the tall poppies, is my main goal for writing this blog. We need to celebrate teachers who are passionate about their own and their students’ learning–not beat them down.

      Reply
  2. Jenny

    Great post! A question: why do we live in a culture that considers people who are avid, life-long learners (even after they’ve met the minimum requirements for success) losers? Why do we live in a culture that despises if someone does it better or dares to stand out? What has informed this, I wonder….?

    Reply
    • Jim Knight

      My thoughts exactly Jen. Part of speaking truth to power is having to fight for those who really do make a difference–the Radical Learners.

      Reply
  3. Mia

    What a powerful reflection for me! Why do we sit silently and listen to such negative conversations? Whether the conversation is about children, adults, parents, or peers in our presents. How many times have we had that sinking pit in our stomach and such despair because of a conversation? Thanks for all your insight. This series has been really convicting to me.

    Reply
  4. Jim Knight

    Thanks Mia. Of course, the last thing I want to do is lead you to feel guilty for not speaking up :). We all do what we can, as best we can, in each moment.

    Reply
  5. Jenny

    David’s comments about conformity were really fascinating to me. I believe I’ve been inspired to write a blog post of my own ; )

    Reply
  6. Laurie

    Jim, thank you. We can’t be reminded too often about how important it is to do what’s right, when it’s right to do so. Not the least of the reasons, for those of us who work in schools every day, is remembering that our children are watching us, and that they will remember what they saw us say and do (or not say and do). Let’s be the people we want them to become.

    Reply

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