It wasn’t a surprise when Betsy DeVos observed teachers “waiting to be told what they have to do.” If there was anything surprising it was that she bothered to comment on it. It marked her as an outsider. Everyone knows that the only voice that has no seat at the seat at the education policy table is the one in the classroom. Teachers spend their professional lives looking down the barrel of uninformed experimentation, and everyone agrees that this is as it should be.
Attempting to have voice in the age of privatization? Of course, it is an exercise in futility. As my friends tell me, there’s no reason to engage in better conversation when there is no conversation to be had. (That’s near to a cold, hard fact.) But, I have a flaw or two myself… and one of them is that I will throw myself bloody against a wall. So here goes.
You need to show me is the argument that teachers need to meet a bar to weigh in on their profession and the familiar subtext (or, not so sub(tle) text), is that, in a discussion of education, the teacher is to be acted upon much like the children.
It stands to reason. We are predominately female. Our work, like most female work, is largely unseen and often misunderstood. In the Norman Rockwell past (which never really existed), we were idealized as professional mommies and missionaries. We deserved apples, then. We were encouraged (or outright required) to have no husband and no children. Even when my mother entered the field, women were not allowed to be pregnant in the classroom… which is why my mother (the sole breadwinner of our family) had to avoid gaining weight and wore a girdle into her 8th month with my youngest sister. Sounds terrible, but what was she to do? She had five mouths to feed (if you count two adults) with her $3,000 a year salary. (That’s $24k in today’s dollars.) Later, when teachers were finally unionized and could make actionable demands for better pay, it was time to demonize them as mere factory workers and dumb slackers. School marms don’t go on strike for better pay. No more apples for you. Now, as history seeks repeats itself in so many places, we are dismissed as merely human capital to be moved and used by better (mostly male) minds. Our job is to do the job without comment. Let the adults do the talking.
The problem with agreeing to this quiet use and going tail between legs to the kiddie table is that (you may have noticed) the adult table is full to the brim with brazen mansplaining inexpertise. And, teachers with expertise must struggle to be heard at all in a stonewall and shut down culture that unapologetically rewards privilege over merit.
If there’s any silver lining to this age of the aggressively uninformed, it is that Main Street is bracingly and ever more aware that position is not expertise. Influence is not respect. Ambition is not authority, and club membership is not merit. I think the good day has arrived when privilege is so glaring that show me is the only rational response.
Whoever you are, I have rightsized you. I don’t owe more respect to a grifter in a high place than to a grifter in a low place. I am a respecter of hard work and the real deal. Period. Nothing less than that. It’s no antidote to privilege and power, but there is a value to deconstructing a mythology of betterness. We can resist. (It’s the small silver lining)
Are you capable?
Is some part of you… capable of reflecting? In order to gain entry into a discussion of my profession, I need to demonstrate some small fraction of capacity to look inward… a little bit of remaining humanity that hasn’t yet been layered over by unionism, excuses and sloth. I must find a way to confess. I’ll bite. But, first I have to reflect on some bias.
It is everything that is wrong with corporate education reform in a capsule: when a toxic class of betterers think it is their job to reform, manage, decide for and comment on the character of the rest. Every single Tom, Dick, Harry and Peter is qualified to weigh in on the teacher but the teacher. (There’s some intersection of sexism and classism right there, George.)
What better conversation can you have with the directors of the Good if you are simply the class to be acted upon? The dangling of better conversation that occurs upon such confessionals (as undoubtedly they are expected to be) lasts only so long as it takes to get to the inevitable pivot. You can never expect to articulate and address the conditions or the issues you see. You can never move the dial even an inch. Your job is to be moved or swarmed or stonewalled. You are only a foil.
Are you passionate?
When I am asked if some part of me is capable of reflection, I am well aware that it flows out of the explicit belief among reformers that teachers need to face themselves. I hope I won’t sound too irritated when I say that, in my opinion, this belief is prime hubris on the hoof. By that I mean some entitled ignorance about who is who and what is what in the conversation around my profession. Twenty six years of experience in the classroom is a study in self reflection. Feel free to get in front of five classrooms of twenty five 12 year olds and see how long you last without it. I’ll cut to the chase. 12 year olds take no prisoners. The painful need to address your work, your preparation, your miscalculation, your need to rework is daily. If you are to survive, you must reflect…. year after year, day after day, and in the middle of every day. If you don’t have the capacity to check in with yourself, you’ll find yourself treating every class like it is the same class and every child like the next one. You won’t know the quality of anything you’ve done; you won’t know how deal with the child in front of you, and you won’t know how to manage your own responses when dealing with them. This is one of the reasons why teaching is a passion, but also why some people can’t take the heat. And so that we’re clear: expertise is not a stint for your resume. It’s a hard won product of time, self reflection, and craft.
This is what belief in kids looks like.
I have earned the right to weigh in on my profession whether that right is recognized or not. I have experience in three distinct school settings: private 6-12, two NYC public schools.. one a 7-9 and the other a 6-8 middle school (people with no experience don’t know that 7-9 and 6-8 is a very different school culture) and a 6-8 suburban/urban public middle school. I’ve taught 6th grade through 9th grade, English and Social Studies. I’ve taught through waves of reform initiatives including whole language, multiple intelligence, constructivism, balanced literacy, interdisciplinary learning, differentiation, project based learning, inquiry based learning, standards based education, data driven instruction, blended learning, et al. I’ve taught through NCLB and RTTT. I try to be well read in my field although I’m sure I could read more. Among those I’ve remembered to list: Piaget, Dewey, Gardner, Freire, Skinner, Bloom, Maslow, Rogers, Vygotsky, Sizer, Ravitch, Hirsch, Erikson, Burgess, Calkins, Atwell, Corbett and Connors, Goldstein, Csikszentmihalyi, Pink, Lemov, Duckworth, Dillard, Dweck, Gates (Henry Louis Jr, not Bill).. etc.
I have taught wealthy, middle class, and poor kids. I’ve taught white, black, hispanic, and asian kids. I’ve taught the children of diplomats, mobsters, and jazz musicians, as well as the children of drug addicts and drug dealers. I’ve taught the undocumented and the children of school board members. I’ve been the general ed teacher to ELLs, kids with Aspergers, ADHD, autism, cerebral palsy, dyslexia, school phobia, anxiety, depression, selective mutism, fetal alcohol syndrome, emotionally disability, oppositional defiant disorder, and other health impairment. I’ve taught gifted and talented, heterogeneously grouped, inclusion, and kids with one on one aides. I’ve taught foster kids and homeless ones. I’ve brought kids to my mother’s home for summer vacation and gone on home visits. I’ve taken kids on outdoor ed. I’ve taught teenage mothers, and I’ve called child services. I’ve stood up to boys much larger than me, and defended a female student against her physically abusive boyfriend. I’ve stopped fights and been stalked. I once caught a right hook. I’ve given professional development and presented to our school board and area principals. I am certified for administration. I run a Summer Academy of approximately 200 kids in need of academic support. Last year, I was invited to apply for the position of English Chair although I declined. ≈
This is what belief in kids looks like. It is not the smug tweet, a hashtag or a hired swarm. It does not look like a digital pledge not to have a #beliefgap. It’s not think tank cowboys or the right alma maters on your boy shorts. It is not a self interested stint in the classroom or a photo op with small brown faces used primarily to sell you on your personal page. It is years of commitment and the accretion of experience into an informed whole. It is service.
Have I met the requirements for better conversation? Maybe not. I have not reflected upon or confessed the flaws of the traditional public school. My bad. But what am I to do?
The position of teacher in the revolution is prone.
Most but not all of the reformers I have encountered have done few of the things needed to be considered experts in the field. They conflate their two or three years in a classroom or their position as taxpayers or business people (who “understands how to run a business” and so could run a school or a nation of schools) or their commitment to social justice with actually understanding how schools work or what impacts kids and classrooms. I do not mean to cast aspersions on people in reform who have committed their lives to the work of helping children.
I have nothing but respect for the real deal.. even when I disagree.
But.. it is also true that children are not served by many of you. They are not served by a revolving door of stint teachers who use their short period of teaching as a vehicle for personal advancement. They are not benefited by a mass exodus into “still in education” policy and advocacy positions. We need policy wonks and advocates, but we don’t need them to use our children for their outsized and impatient ambition. We need child advocates who know the difference between advocacy and pimping ideology in the government houses. We don’t need privilege undermining the value of expertise and real work of teachers. It has a dampening effect. Using the classroom as a stepping stone discourages talent from viewing the profession of teaching as an end in itself. It erodes the social value of craft and virtuosity (which takes years) and rewards opportunism (which doesn’t.)
The day must come when the way we view the work shifts toward merit rather than away from it. We can only improve preparation and sustain the pool of highly qualified teachers if we invest in the stature of teaching as a profession and when policymakers know to value experience and the expert practitioner (who is also always a beginner and a learner). Perhaps, increasing the visibility of teachers who remain in the classroom will help insure that the next generation of teachers will have a greater role in their profession. I hope so.
disclaimer: I have removed identifying information about the tweeters that I engaged with because my point is not about them as individuals but as representatives of the disturbing trends they illustrate.