Monday, April 21, 2014

Why Are Teachers So Quiet?

Some recent comments on this blog took teachers to task. A parent activist noted her own work against the current reformy regime and then added "and teachers as a profession and individually refused/refuse to step up and do their share of push back - paychecks were/are more important than the principles at stake and our children's wellbeing."

Recently, Susan Ohanian, a respected voice in education who was ringing the public ed fire alarm years before most folks even smelled smoke, expressed frustration that a White House petition calling for the removal of high stakes testing from current ed policies was sitting and languishing. All these vocal teachers raging about the state of education, and the petition barely creaked its way to 5000 signatures (yes, I signed).

The Bad Ass Teachers are excited about having 44,000 members. It's unclear how many of those are actually teachers; it's also unclear how many of those actually take part in BAT actions. There's no question that the group makes a noise and is vastly preferable to the silence within the teaching world just a year ago, but one has to wonder, given the state of education these days, why there are only 44,000 BATs.

Why are teachers so quiet? I can think of a couple of explanations.

Some are worried about their paychecks. Teachers have mortgage payments and children who like to eat food and wear clothes and all the other sorts of responsibilities that folks have in the real world, and in many corners of the country, they can lose all that on an administrator's whim. Not everybody has the stamina to risk raising their family in a car on a matter of principle.

The fear of losing a job isn't just about the paycheck. Keeping your job also means keeping your relationship with your students, staying to do as much for them as you are able. In some areas, sure, you could stand on the front steps of the school and refuse to administer the PARCC-- but the only result will be that you'll be replaced by somebody who will administer the test. It's not just that taking a big stand is scary-- in some settings it's also ineffective. This is a difficult calculation to make; I wouldn't want to have to make it, and I'm glad that I don't have to. Which brings us to another factor.

For all the reading and writing I do about the public ed issues of the day, I personally don't have it bad at all. I work in a decent district for good bosses. If I were not paying much attention to what's going on in the rest of education world, I might conclude, based on my own immediate experience, that things were bad, but not all that bad. Many teachers have reached that conclusion.

Teachers are generally Good Boys and Girls. This one drives me crazy, but I remember my own slow change from well-behaved good boy to cranky PITA. Teachers believe in rules. Teachers believe that when the Person In Charge says "Jump," you should jump (and not say "how high" because that's just being sassy). If our administrators or union chiefs tell us to follow these instructions, we follow just as obediently as we would expect our students to follow us. Teachers do not want to Get In Trouble.

Teachers are disproportionately conflict-averse. Everyone who's ever worked with a union knows this-- for every one teacher who will holler and fight and rant in a strategy meeting, there are ten who will quietly see you after the meeting to say that they understand why everyone is so upset, but couldn't we just be nicer about the whole business? These teachers are certain that any time somebody gets too angry, somebody is going to Get In Trouble.

Teachers don't know where to make the noise. One of the things that has changed under the new status quo is that the old lines of trust are gone. Maybe you can trust your administration; maybe you can't. The Democratic party always supported teachers; now in some parts of the country, they are teachers' biggest foes. The national unions have sold us out; can you trust your state group? And within that group, are there individuals that you trust and others that you cannot?

Teachers can no longer automatically assume that someone in a particular position or wearing a particular label automatically deserves trust. I have limited sympathy with this problem, but I remind myself that people grow up at their own speed in their own time. But we are living in a 1984 world where the person that you thought would be your big savior turns out to be your biggest enemy, and if you are going to be a grown-up, you are going to have to see people as what they are-- and what they aren't.  Simply joining a group isn't an answer, and simply trusting someone who seems to have An Answer isn't the way, either.

Most likely you are going to have to sift through stuff, bits and pieces at a time. It's always a mistake to accept or reject someone's point of view 100%-- you have to look and examine and think and decide for yourself. Some people (and some are teachers) just hate to decide for themselves, but there is no other way to live in difficult and interesting times. Some teachers remain reluctant to do so.

Anthony Cody put out the call for reluctant warriors earlier this month (and I added my own thoughts), but I don't expect millions of teachers to get noisy overnight. Those of us who have already become noisy in our own ways can help the process by spreading the word and explaining the situation repeatedly and clearly, and particularly by building relationships of trust with folks we have contact with. It is not easy to make teachers noisy, but I am pretty sure that this is a marathon, not a sprint, so we need to just keep plugging away.

1 comment:

  1. Another reason, on top of those above, is the huge amount of study time required to do one's own homework researching the issues, connecting the dots, putting together sensible written responses, and figuring out to whom they should be sent for maximum effective impact. I've been working on this for the last few weeks in the time I have until my subbing connections get established--poring through government info, reading blogs of various persuasions, filtering out interpretations I feel are irrelevant or invalid, trying to get a peek at my children's curriculum, and so on; if I was working full time and then had to fit that work into afternoons and evenings along with with driving my kids around, doing housework and errands, and taking care of other family & community responsibilities, I don't think I'd be able to. And letting others with more time make up my mind for me so I can sign their petitions and march in their parades doesn't seem like very good policy.