Friday, August 17, 2018

Standing Up

"I just want to teach."

Those words have been repeated by so many teachers, so many times. This time it was a friend of mine who appears to be on the verge of having a contract. The school district has been wrestling with the contract for two years, with board members offering useful observations like "We have the money, but we don't want to give it to them." Last spring, the board offered its "final" proposal and refused to get back to the bargaining table. The union met and voted to strike in the fall. The community has been largely supportive of the teachers, who have mustered a huge presence at every board meeting. Finally, the board replaced their negotiating team, and a tentative agreement is now before both parties. Next week will tell whether the board will actually sign, of if the strike is still on.

It has been an ugly, depressing, contentious mess, and it was in reflecting on that mess that my friend said, "I just want to teach."

Without even thinking about it, I immediately replied, "That's just not an option any more." And I thought about it and realized that even in districts where contracts are settled, it's still true.

It's been true for a while. When I started, you could still hope to close the door to your room and just teach. Not that there weren't challenges; in those days, I usually compared teaching to a form of guerrilla warfare, where you had to be clever and alert enough to do parts of your job under the radar, because sometimes your administrators or your parents or your students would try to thwart your attempts to educate the young humans in your room. Sometimes they were resistant, sometimes oblivious, sometimes just not very supportive-- you had to keep your eyes on the work and press forward, but you could get most everything done if, instead of trying to fight anyone, you just closed the door to your room and forged ahead. You might have had opponents, but most of them didn't care enough to try to actually catch you doing your job.

The rise of the ed reform movement changed that. State departments that had previously practiced benign neglect started to practice active interference. When I started out, state presentations involved feeble attempts to get teacher buy-in to bad ideas; at the turn of the century, I realized they had become more coldly aggressive. From "We really hope to sell you on the value of this policy," we shifted to "This is going to happen, and you can get with the program or we are going to roll right over you."

Teachers have always fielded suggestions that they try dumb practices; under No Child Left Behind, we began to shift to demands, mandates, orders to employ educational malpractice.

Many teachers took quite a while to catch on. A building principal would announce a new bad idea, like test-centered schooling and senseless teacher evaluation systems, and teachers would roll their eyes and prepare to give the administrator a bad time, not understanding that his orders came from far up the food chain. Many teachers assumed they were suffering under local idiocy; it took a while to understand that this was state-and-national level foolishness.

At the same time, teachers felt the growing sense that they were being treated as the enemy. And if they didn't get it through deep reading of the situation, political leaders started to spell it out for them. (I remember a board member recounting in shocked tones being at the state capital and hearing the head of the government's education committee spit out angrily that they had already given "you people"-- meaning schools-- too much.) Then came policies that could easily have been entitled The Just Shut Up And Get These Kids Ready For The Big Standardized Test Act. To teachers' collective plea for assistance and support came replied like Teach for America and charter schools which said, essentially- "Help you?! We intend to replace you!" And it has come consistently from both parties.

After twenty years of ed reform, teachers have arrived at a point where they cannot shut the door and teach. Every teacher has to be an advocate for her profession, her school, and the institution of public education. Every policy and directive that descends from above has to be examined for its various effects, both on education and the profession, because teachers can no longer trust the People In Charge. The people who should be helping to smooth the road are building speed bumps and brick walls instead. To shut your door and teach is to the door to your room in a burning building; you may not feel the heat yet, but if you do nothing, you will surely feel it soon.

When we talk about reasons that so many fewer people pursue or stay with a teaching career, I'm not sure we discuss this point enough. You may want to Just Teach, but that will not be an option. You will have to fight constantly just to get to do your job. It's a huge disincentive-- "I would really like to do that job, but it looks like I won't really get to do the job I want to do."

Yes, every job has its crappy parts. But the problems of education and education reform and privatization of education and the general meddling of amateurs are smothering the work so that only the strong, the ones willing to fight, can see their way clear to get in there. And really, I can't imagine how tall that mountain looks when you are young, just starting out, and untenured.

Having said all that, I would argue that there are some positive side effects to the current condition of teaching. For one thing, it demands that you commit and become intentional about your work. When you say you "just want to teach," what do you mean, exactly? What are the important parts? What does the work mean to you? What is it that you are going to fight for? These are good questions to know the answers to. Focus. Keep your eyes on the real destination as long as you can.

Because teaching is still hugely important work, and the students are hugely important people, and both deserve to have warriors to defend them. Yes, it shouldn't be this hard, and yes, we are losing a whole generation of teacher might-have-beens because the education landscape has been turned into a dangerous, scary-looking place.

But none of that changes the mission-- to help students become their best selves, to help them understand what it means to be human in the world, to grow in all the best and most exciting ways. If I could say anything to people teetering on the brink of teaching or not, it would be that it will be a fight, and sometimes it will be a hard fight, and sometimes even a losing fight, and you can't give more than you have (and that matters-- you can't do what you can't do)--  but it will always be worth it. Yes, it's easier to stand up in a quiet room than in pounding surf, but we don't get to choose the times we live in or the fights that come to us. The work is worth it. The students are worth it.


  1. I agree. The time for closing your door and teaching, ignoring Ed Policy World, is long past. Good piece! It reminded me of something I wrote 7 years ago that still feels fresh:

  2. A thoughtful message which we all should read. ‘Those who can, do, and those who cannot teach.’ The statement suggests that teachers are dodging from the challenge of getting down and dirty, or worse it suggests that teachers are incompetent in many fields and teaching is the only field in which they will be employed. Many teachers do in fact seem to embody that idea of just wishing to teach, and, avoiding coming to grips with the problems which come with teaching; the power players who wish to control education and educators.
    Many businessmen because of the power they wield over their workers and the influence which politicians allow them, are prepared and willing to make rules which affect much of society. We have something, our numbers, to counter them, but we have to be prepared to use it, and there are few groups more capable of doing it. The decision is left to us to decide what kind of society we wish to live in. If we disregard our numbers and not channel it to use for the profession and those who cannot stand up, then we are permitting many unqualified, and sometimes selfish, people to make decisions about us and the society in which we all live. Yes it takes effort, and sometimes it takes some courage and time, but if we do not act then others will do it for us.
    There is no other way around the problems which confront teachers, but to get active in a union and when possible to take up leadership. Recently in the teacher strikes some teachers became leaders and organizers. Whenever we stand up people will listen. It is only necessary that we act and behave ethically, and fight for the betterment of our profession and for the society in which we live.
    Not to realize the power inherent in our numbers, and to go on accepting what is dished out to us seems like a betrayal of the things which we teach to our children; rights, courage, that ‘grit’ and perseverance is what each person needs to succeed. We need to continue working to set sensible rules between employer and employee; to establish that we are an active part of the community, to work for job conditions which provide respect, smaller classes, and increased autonomy. We, like no other group of people can have a great impact on the future, in helping to shape and sculpt the rules which govern us. That will not happen if we are unwilling to take up the fight for our dignity.