Friday, September 16, 2016

USED: How Teachers Can Be Heard

Maddie Fennell is a Teacher of the Year from Nebraska who hooked up as a Teaching Ambassador Fellow at the US Department of Education, and she wrote what seems like a perfectly innocuous piece at Ed Week called "Hello from the Other Side" listing a few key lessons from her time there.

Some of the insights are perfectly swell. Don't put education policy on a pedestal, because it's just the product of regular biased humans? I'm all over that one, and have been for some time. When you think you've covered something enough, say it five more times. She's talking about penetrating the bureaucratic fog (specifically with the message that using student test scores to evaluate teachers is harming the profession, so good on her), but I'm pretty sure everyone working in a classroom already knows the joys, usefulness, and special hell of repeating yourself many many times to get the message to sink in. And I have to give a bit of love to someone who writes the understated "Policy writing is not always backed by mountains of expertise."

Bur I do disagree with her on some points.

While I appreciate the insight that "too many decisions are made on a political timeline instead of a realistic one," I don't believe that I don't believe that Common Core would have worked any better "if the federal government and states had only given teachers the time and materials to really understand" it. And while I agree that we should not assume that all USED bureaucrats are evil, dim-witted trolls, I still feel comfortable mixing my "frustration with bureaucracy with the people in it" because bureaucratic muss and baloney is created by the human beings in the system. If a system sucks, it's because people let it (or make it) suck.

But then Fennell landed on a really raw nerve of mine.

There aren't enough career educator voices in government.

I thought I was going to cheer, and she noted that there are lots of great career teachers out there and lots of fine folks at USED who need to hear from teachers. But then, this...

Run an orphanage like a  champion

More career educators need to apply for fellowships, internships, and experiences that put them in dialogue with policymakers. Teacher leaders need to spend time lobbying and meeting with state legislators and policymakers, insisting that educators have a genuine place at the table. I met one teacher who volunteered as a summer intern (something you usually only see students do); she learned a lot about policy and she was a valued voice at the table.

Sigh. I know she means well, but here we are at the same old place. If teachers want to be heard, they have to travel to DC and prove that I'm worth being listened to, which seems sort of reasonable and practical except that, of course, no USED bureaucrats have ever had to prove themselves to me and just in general I have had a belly full of people who want to dictate policy and procedure and pedagogy and all manner of poop to me without ever proving that there's any reason I should be listening to them.

And dammit, why is it that I'm the one who needs to leave my work and my home and my place of business to go where it's convenient for the bureaucrats. Why am I the one who has to drop hat he's doing? Where's the Bureaucrat Ambassador Program where some USED functionary comes and works as a teacher aide in a classroom for a year?  Why is this whole business premised on the notion that teachers must carry their empty bowl of policy and influence up to Mr. Bureaucratic Bumble to ask meekly, "Please, sir, may I have some more?"

Why is the dismissal of teacher voices the default?

Yes, I know that Fennell's advice is practical, that it acknowledges how the world really works. But for a while this afternoon (and not for the first time or the last), the way the world works rather pissed me off.


  1. If teachers want to be heard, then more of them need to be involved in politics, including running for office. Nothing gets you heard more than running for office, including local offices. You will be invited to speak to many, many civic groups. You will be interviewed by the local press, and so on. Also, if elected, then a lot of people will hear you.

  2. Teachers are not going to be heard until they "break something". There are thousands of teachers who are not afraid to speak out and raise hell (like me).

  3. Basic problem is that typically teachers come to the job and stick with it because they care passionately about supporting kids every day. They do not spend their days bullshitting with other adults and lauding their own good qualities. They are the "magic behind the scenes" folk who don't want the spotlight (because if they did they'd be crap teachers--kids are center stage for every good teacher). They are the opposite personality type in general of the person drawn to politics.

    We certainly have a lot of furious teachers who've had it with the ridiculous situation in which we are expected to perform underfunded, understaffed, society-transforming miracles on a consistent basis. But would teachers get enough of that "working joy" that keeps you going with your students out of political careers????

    Flipping it: What kind of teachers would most politicians make? SNL is the only place I can imagine that landscape....

  4. Bureaucrat or teacher you're talking people. My point is that these "people" have experience and point of view that should be heard not herded.

    A goal should be a power structure that remains open to diverse views in creation and implementation of policy. There's both a legislative or policy making branch and an executive branch. But, in practice Bureaucrats in carrying out policy make policy by their decisions as to whether to implement policy with Brown v. Board of Education speed. They are the fourth branch of government you don't usually get taught about in school.