Saturday, June 21, 2014

What Happened To the Trust?

Rick Hess (one of my favorite bloggers that I frequently disagree with) recently reflected on his conversation with Randi Weingarten about tenure.

He had several smart observations, but I think one of the most useful ones was an acknowledgement throughout that the reform battles in general and the tenure conversation in particular are hampered by distrust on both sides. In a companion post to this one, I consider how we could move forward if we had the trust in place. In this post, I want to answer a different question:

Where did the trust go?

I'm asking not as an exercise in assigning blame. Knowing who got us here is not particularly useful knowledge in and of itself. But understanding how we got here is useful in figuring out if we can get out of here, and if so, how. So, what are some of the factors that led to a discussion deadlock on tenure (among other issues).


Both sides of this ongoing battle are made of a wide variety of people who possess a wide variety of viewpoints, styles, and agendas. There is a tremendous tendency to bundle all the people on The Other Side into one large homogenous group. That is exacerbated by the tendency of people not to be critical of their allies.

When I was the president of a striking teachers' union, the school board president and I got together for breakfast regularly. One of the reasons we did it was, basically, to reassure each other that our wackiest constituents did not speak for everybody.

"You can't really pick your friends," one of us said.

"Yes," replied the other. "Or get them to shut up, either."

That leads to seeing ALL of your opponents believing ALL of the things that you hear SOME of them saying. If you're not careful, you will write people off who you actually share common ground with. Bundling makes everything seem worse and amplifies the effect of each of the following.

Anti-Teacher Rhetoric

There has been mile upon mile of anti-teacher rhetoric from reformsters across the spectrum. We have heard over and over again that A) schools are a disastrous failure and B) it's the fault of teachers. Some of the post-Vergara rhetoric has simmered down, but during the trial, plenty of people made it loud and clear what the trial was about-- getting rid of all those terrible teachers. When you keep telling us that one of your goals is to get rid of us, we suspect that getting rid of job protections is, well, about getting rid of us.

Anti-Non-Teacher Rhetoric

Yes, there are lots of people who think they know how to do our job and who are pretty much wrong about everything. But "you've never been a teacher" should not be a reason to ignore you. It can explain why what you just said was stupid, but to do that, I'll have to listen to you first. Refusing to you just because you were never a teacher does not build bridges.

We-Think-You're-Stupid Baloney

Reformsters far too often try to hide behind transparently fake rhetoric. So "we need to pay teachers more" ends up meaning that we're going to pay teachers less. "We're going to give you more freedom to teach" ends up meaning "follow the script and do exactly as you're told." Charters are either private or public depending on whether you want to scarf up public money or keep secret what you've done with it. Words have meaning. When you indicate you don't think that's true, it's very hard to trust you.

A Freakishly Extreme Resistance To All Change

I am sure that, some days, reformsters feel that if they walked up to a teacher who was smacking himself in the head with a hammer and said, "Maybe you shouldn't smack yourself in the head with that hammer," the teacher would reply, "You aren't the boss of me!" and smack himself harder. Many of us hate change badly enough to shut down even an attempt to talk about it. Yes, we have our reasons (if you are of a Certain Age, this all seems like Great New Thing #4,215,449), but imagine that a student runs up to you with a drawing he just finished. "Look! Look! I made you a flower!" he cries, and you just turn away saying, "Hell, kid, I've seen flowers before."

A Refusal To Discuss Bad Teachers So Entrenched That Reasonable People Might Conclude We Refuse To Acknowledge Their Existence

This has bugged me my whole career. It's in our interest to help weed out the bad ones, but we have made it a matter of policy not to even entertain the suggestion. While I believe it's wrong to think teachers don't believe in bad teachers, and counter-intuitive to think so, we have refused to address the issue for so long that critics could be forgiven for concluding that we had joined the Flat Earth Society.

It works for both teachers and reformsters-- when you seem to say things that reasonable people can plainly see are just not so, you should expect people to distrust you. They may distrust your judgment or your honesty, but distrust they will.


Reformsters have to face up to the self-evident truth that some of their number want to do away with public education. Profit-generating private and charter schools, staffed with unqualified temps, all used to replace public schools and public school teachers send a clear message, and the only thing missing is a reformster Kruschev banging his shoe and declaring "We will bury you."

When people show by word and deed that they are out to destroy the work and the institution that you have dedicated your life to, by any means handy, you tend not to trust them. Certainly when someone who wants to take your job away announces that they'd like to make that process a little easier, you are not filled with a warm fuzzy trusty feeling.

Hess, for instance, puzzles over why teachers aren't more excited about charters. I suspect that it's because here on the ground, a new charter almost always means fewer resources for the public schools. Cyber-charters are bledding PE public schools dry. And in nearby Cleveland, charters staffed with TFA temps are being launched to replace public schools and public school teachers. It's not nearly as perplexing as Hess thinks. 

Look, I don't know if the trust thing is fixable. And this is just talking about the tenure issue. It is entirely possible that, on the larger picture, the gulf between the two sides is unbridgeable, that it is a very deep distance created by two entirely different value systems. I'm not convinced that reformsters want public education to accomplish what teachers want it to accomplish (and I'm quite convinced that some reformsters don't want it at all). I don't think they're all (or even mostly) evil and nefarious. I think some are. I think some are well-meaning and clueless. I think some are so well-insulated by money and power that they really don't know how much about anything (including not knowing how much they don't know). And I think some just have different goals for the public education system. I trust some of them, and others I don't trust a bit, and some others, I suppose, fall somewhere in between.

And at the end of the day, I'm nobody. Just one classroom teacher among millions. But if I were someone important, I would certainly agree to meet for breakfast to talk. It never hurts to talk about stuff. But it is going to take a whole mountain of talk to fix these issues of trust.

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