Blogging and tweeting about education policy has led me to interact with a lot of people across a very broad ideological spectrum. I have found that across the ideological spectrum, the gulf between teachers and non-teachers in the world of education policy is especially wide. Teachers are eternally frustrated that they are left out of meaningful policy discussions. Policy folks are frustrated that often when they seek input they only get apathy, anger, and negativity in return…and still get accused of not listening even when they are under the impression that they tried to.
We simply don’t speak the same language.
The term compassion fatigue is often used in conversations about teachers (and nurses and other caregivers). Teachers also suffer from BS fatigue and plan old physical fatigue too. A nearby city explodes in anger over racial injustice. More of my most talented colleagues resign. A talented and hardworking student is deported back to the country where the people who committed the political assignation of her father have threatened her own life. A project which I have been working on for three years, with enormous potential to benefit students, is denied approval at the last minute. All of those events occurred in same day recently and it is still wasn’t the most frustrating or heartbreaking day I have had as teacher. As teachers tend to gaping wounds like these, we are subjected to being called selfish and self-interested and incompetent. We are called perpetuators of racism by those that choose to be blind to the fact that they are too.
And we scream, cry, and entertain our spouses with nonsensical monologues of rage. Then we quietly pack the left over anger and frustration up into neat little packages. We will do something to process that later, perhaps. As a teacher, when we say we feel attacked, the response is one of gas lighting. “Oh no, of course we love and support teachers…no one is bashing you!” “Of course we don’t mean all teachers, just those bad ones.” (Because it is good practice to destroy the morale of the 95% or more of teachers that we know are excellent to weed out those terrible 5%).
The gulf between teachers and non-teachers is not so much about ideology, but about ideological purism. Our schools and classrooms and school are ground zero for “culture wars” as we must negotiate religion, classism, racism, sex education, LGBT issues, and peanut allergies (a far more political topic than many realize) to name a few things. Teachers function daily in a world of maddening contradictions, inconsistencies, and ambiguities. The work of teachers is simultaneously liberatory and oppressive. We work in mostly forced isolation yet are expected to be expert collaborators. We are expected to be nurturing yet are our emotion is dismissed as naïve. We are expected to the authoritative in our classrooms but acquiesce to any and all authority “above us.” We struggle daily with issues of equality and equity for both students and ourselves. In the public discourse, we are both championed for our self-sacrifice and accused of destructive self-interest. We are criticized for both being not intellectual enough (that bottom third myth is still out there) and for being too intellectual (all that time wasted in teacher education on theory).
All of this seems frustrating for those in the policy and reform worlds who apparently work with the currency of absolutes and black and whites. The discussion of teachers’ unions is an excellent example. The hyperbolic public discourse on teacher’s unions conveniently forgets that in five states, teachers are barred from collective bargaining by law. In almost half of the states, teachers are prohibited from striking. Add in right-to-work laws and it all adds up a solid one-third of states where teachers’ unions have very little to zero power. A large number of teachers are being entirely left out of the conversation when the conversation is only about unions. Teachers unions clearly are neither infallible saviors nor the root of everything wrong in public schools. Teaching is a world of moderation and balance. To everything there is a season. Every tool has potential to help students if used correctly. That also does sit well with some activists on the other end of the spectrum who want an end to testing and who brand technology and schools as unholy combination with no possible positive outcome.
Ironically, while teachers have no room for ideological purism in many aspects of our work, it is our lifeblood in others. In the world where teachers spend a majority of their time, fairness is of the utmost importance. There are no double standards. Morality and ethics are not abstract concepts to be thought of broadly, generally, or historically; they are daily, immediate concerns. Just a short time in a classroom will teach anyone the power of our innate human sense of fairness unclouded by adult egos. As a teacher, when you violate that sense of fairness, you are lucky to live to tell about it.
Needless to say, navigating the necessarily political, ego filled, and decidedly unfair world around teachers can be a challenge for us. Of course, it is usually the teacher who comes off looking poorly in the exchange. Our idealism is dismissed as impractical, forgetting that in the environment we work in most of the time, idealism is not only practical but also necessary. Fair is fair and right is right. I find that those that are the most scared of rooms full of children are those that cannot come to terms with that simple fact.
The other aspect of ideological purism that teacher cling to is the focus on the needs of students. It is simply inconceivable to me as a teacher that the needs of teachers and needs of students can be seen in opposition to teach other. Teacher working conditions are student learning conditions. Despite our best efforts, teachers that are beaten down cannot inspire students. Teachers who don’t feel valued are hard pressed to ensure students feel valued. Teachers who cannot model integrity cannot develop integrity in students. It puzzles me to no end that teachers, who sacrifice their health, family time, and more profitable careers for the sake of students, are attacked as selfish by those that have never sacrificed a thing in the name of other people’s children.
It puzzled Ella Flagg Young when she wrote her entire dissertation about it–in 1901. There is a summary of her biography and her dissertation here or the original work is rather short and readable and worth the time. In well over a hundred years of public schooling in this country, we have never succeeded in true teacher empowerment on any meaningful scale. Those who claim that education reform is about taking power and control away from the “status quo” educational leadership are missing an important history lesson—teachers have never been a part of that leadership. We have never really had a seat at the table much less control of it, regardless of the presence or absence of unions. Real education reform (i.e. improvement, not privatization) would be in service to just that—finally empowering teachers. Only when teachers are truly empowered can form of accountability for teachers be fair or meaningful. Current reform efforts are unfortunately about the opposite: dumbing down, scripting, automating, and controlling teachers behind deeper and deeper levels of bureaucracy.
Are teachers the problem or the solution? Do we contribute to inequity in our education system or help fight it? In many ways, we really can’t answer that question because teachers have never really been empowered enough to know what our impact is (or could be). With apologies to the ideological purists out there, the answer for now is E. all of the above are correct. It is part of the reality that teachers and students negotiate everyday.