Educational change should be driven by democratic dialogue and exchange, but a critical voice most absent in the decision making process is educators. I’m not talking about teachers hired by teacher’s unions, textbook distributors, tutoring centers and testing companies.
Educational researchers, academia, educational philosophers and thinkers, teacher-educators, and teachers need to be weighing in- the ones who haven’t been bought out, that is. And when they are not invited, they need to crash the conversation. Teachers and administrators have the most to lose by speaking out, but we must choose this path despite the consequences we may face.
Unfortunately, the fear of retribution is only half of what keeps us from letting our voices be heard. Teachers and administrators have a lot of work to do if they are going to engage in a debate that goes deeper than being a proponent of public education because “we’re doing far better than you think we are” and “we need to fund poor schools equitably.”
Those two suppositions happen to be true, and incredible articulate minds have successfully made those arguments, including David Berliner, Jonathan Kozol, Diane Ravitch, Deb Meier, Heidi Hayes Jacobs, and many others. All we need to do is cite their work louder and more often. But beyond that, we would be increasingly at a loss for words. Tragically, our teacher’s colleges have graduated far too many of us without demanding that we develop rich understandings of fundamental assumptions and origins of our public education system, educational philosophies, educational research, and even the very purpose for education itself. Then after we graduated, we were far too busy teaching and surviving to read John Dewey or even professional journals, for that matter. If I asked my colleagues to spend an hour a day re-thinking their educational philosophy, they would either laugh at me or tell me to f— off- not because they don’t care but because they are overworked with nonsense, under appreciated for everything, and they are trying to inspire and educate kids between all the nonsense. I have such a deep respect for the teachers I have taught with over the years, it’s very difficult to ask someone to do more who already does too much.
So, my thinking was that the new teachers coming in would stir things up and start asking the right questions and modeling innovative teaching. Every time we got a new teacher on our site, I would get very excited. Finally, I thought, a young progressive educator who wants to save the world and do best practices and isn’t afraid of change and risk taking and educational conversations. I always secretly wished that at least one of the new teachers would approach me to be their informal mentor. I hoped at least one would would see what I do as compared to the many, and say, that’s what I want to do, that’s who I want to be like, as an educator.
Sadly, my hopes were almost always dashed. A few of the new teachers suffered from the hubris that they had it all figured out. They had endured their education coursework and their student teaching. They had observed all the flaws of others, and they were ready to show everyone how it should be done. Some were overwhelmed, but they wanted to hide their weaknesses out of fear of being labeled incompetent. Others were overwhelmed and didn’t make a secret of it, but they latched onto advice about setting up their power grade, how to submit a proper lesson plan, how to fit in politically, and how to discipline the kids. I offered that kind of help willingly and happily, but those were not the subjects that I yearned to share and discuss with young teachers. Still others saw me as someone to stay away from lest they be associated with a “troublemaker.”
The most interesting phenomenon was the group who truly resented me, almost as much as some administrators. I thought the young freshly educated were supposed to love change and questions and collaboration and idealism, but the opposite has been true all too often in the last decade or so. I was such an affront to their sensibilities about how they defined good teaching. And that definition had to be largely derived from or at least preserved by their teacher education program. So my question is, what the hell is going on in teacher education? Are they really teaching educators to be compliant teacher centered disciplinarians that must conform uncritically to whatever standards are spat out from billionaires and politicians?
The truth is these young teachers were right to be concerned with the survival tactics for grading and disciplining because those are the skills you need to make it in education and be deemed “a good teacher.” The rest, like what are we doing here and why are we doing it, is just not very important to anybody. And they were right to keep people like me at arm’s length because they would indeed have had a scarlet letter branded on them- because after entering grades and keeping kids quiet, the most important characteristic of a good teacher is to do what you’re told and pretend to like it. No matter what, don’t make waves, in and out of the classroom.
It pains me that the recent reactionary change agents in education have hijacked the word, reform. But in some ways, we as educators, deserve what we got, because we are not fully capable of advocating for a vision of what schools should look like and why. Teacher educators need to make that the number one priority in creating educators, not more classes in classroom management and how to write a lesson plan and teaching to the standards as ends in themselves. But we can’t afford to wait around for new teachers to shake things up.
The only solution is to ask yet even more of our experienced educators. We must become reflective and educated about our practice and the philosophy and research that should be driving that practice. And then we need to start speaking up. We cannot rely on anyone else to speak for us.
In order to engage in a debate with the corporate world or the religious right about how their vision is bad, we, as educators, need to know what our good vision is that would replace it and what it would look like. Our vision has be more far-reaching than equitable funding and keeping education public. Mainstream America, republicans, democrats, the overwhelming majority of parents, Alaskans, and Americans would not be buying into lame brained ideas like high-stakes testing, charter schools, and NCLB if we, as educators, had alternatives- thoughtful complex well developed alternatives. We look to doctors, not CEO’s, to tell us how to treat cancer and how to be healthy. People want to look to educators to guide us in how to solve education’s problems and to offer a vision for a healthy thriving democratic public school system that will meet the needs and tap into the potential of every child. Let us get ready to become the leaders we are being called to be, and the first step is a renewed commitment to be life long learners of the rich and vast field of education.