Students at Skyview High School in Billings, Montana, might get out of their world history finals this year — if they can somehow get Taylor Swift to call their teacher.
A student named Ike Stoner came up with the deal — and the instructor, Colter Pierce, agreed to it. If Stoner could use the Internet to get Swift to give Pierce a call, then the students would be exempt from their exams.
This is a terrible idea.
It's not terrible because there is no room for fun in a classroom. I would argue that classrooms absent of any fun are a mistake. Years ago I attempted to have the word "fun" included in my school's mission statement. I take fun very seriously when it comes to education.
And it's not because I am opposed to cancelling an exam. Good teachers often have more than enough data to assess a student's learning by the end of a semester without having to administer an exam on the cusp of summer vacation.
And it's not because it's a poor use of class time or a ridiculous and silly idea or has nothing to do with history.
There's one word that explains my disapproval of Colter Pierce's decision: Optics.
The teaching profession is constantly under fire from all corners of the political spectrum. Teacher are told that they are paid too much. They don't work enough hours. They fail to educate students adequately for the global marketplace. They lack professionalism. They don't challenge students enough. They challenge students too much. They assign too much homework. They assign too little homework.
The list is endless.
The teaching profession is under constant assault.
Stunts like Pierce's are not the kind of images of teaching that we need in the public eye. These are exactly the kinds of images that make it more difficult for advocates to defend the professionalism and integrity of teachers.
And remember: I believe in fun. Ask my students and they will tell you that I am unorthodox in many, many ways. I make decisions not dissimilar to Pierce's decision. I make decision even more unorthodox and questionable on a daily basis. But the difference is clear:
When I do something unorthodox in my classroom, it's done within a community of students and parents who already know and respect me. It's presented to students who know that I care about them and parents who know that I care about their children. It's seen by people who know that I work tirelessly on behalf of kids.
Pierce's unorthodox decision was placed squarely in the realm of social media. He knew that the image of the contract with his students would be posted to Twitter, Facebook, and more. He agreed to interviews with a variety of media outlets. He knew that the sole purpose of this stunt was to get the attention of a celebrity via social media.
He presented an image of a teacher absent any context. He placed himself in the public eye in a way that could be misinterpreted and twisted and used to hurt teachers.
I suspect that Colter Pierce is an outstanding educator. I suspect that he is beloved by students, patents, and colleagues. I think we would probably be friends if we worked together. I would love to have him teach my children someday. I am certain that he does not need a final exam to accurately assess his students' performance.
But the optics of this stunt are not good. The cancelling of requirements or expectations based upon a celebrity's phone call does not happen in other professions. Attorneys and engineers and bankers and programmers and doctors and sales people do not engage in stunts like these in order to mitigate or eliminate work for themselves or others. I am sure that behind closed doors, even bankers and lawyers can get silly, but they know enough to keep the doors closed.
More importantly, their professions are not under constant fire by forces who want to redefine their work, reduce their salaries, expand their responsibilities, and question their judgment at every turn.
I'm not suggesting that teachers act like straight arrows. Colleagues and students who know me well will tell you that my decision making leans much closer to unorthodox than normal. Some might find my criticism of Colter Pierce to be somewhat hypocritical given the things that I have been known to do.
But I don't splash my less-than-conventional teaching style on social media. I am cognizant of the image that I project to people who do not know me. I am always thinking about my colleagues and the image of my profession when I speak to the media or write about my career.
It's simply a question of optics.
Have fun. Be unorthodox and unconventional. Be silly. Do things that no student has ever seen before. But do these things within a community of students and parents and fellow teachers who know you, understand you, and respect you. . Do these things with people who have context and know where your heart is.