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Teaching And Politics

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Each of the four features in this issue is about a teacher. Three of them are depicted mainly in political roles; one is portrayed in the classic role of teacher as mentor. The contrast is stark and provocative.

Robert Chase was elected president of the National Education Association, the nation's largest labor union, in July 1996 on a platform committed to changing the course and image of the union. In a bold speech last February, he challenged his members to put "school quality front and center at the bargaining table" and to work with management to reform schools. He called for a new kind of unionism, acknowledging that the NEA had become known as "an obdurate and powerful protector of the status quo."

As if to prove Chase correct, members in several NEA affiliates across the country attacked his plan to change the organization, saying he had betrayed them and was threatening gains the union had made for teachers over the years. Chase doesn't come across as a brawler, but he obviously isn't afraid of a fight if that's what it takes to move forward with his controversial plan to reinvent the union. If he succeeds, public education could be significantly altered; if he doesn't, he can return to the Connecticut classrooms where he taught for 25 years.

Sandra Feldman seems to relish the battle. She says she's been fighting all her life for things she believes in, and in her 11 years as head of New York City's United Federation of Teachers, she has confronted five schools chancellors and three mayors. Like Chase, Feldman is a reform advocate. She talks about putting children first and urges that schools that fail them be closed. Feldman succeeded the irreplaceable Albert Shanker as president of the American Federation of Teachers last spring, and, like him, she is committed to higher standards and the end of social promotion.

Donna Garner, a 56-year-old teacher from suburban Waco, Texas, has been in a political "war" of her own in recent years. In 1995, six months after a panel began drafting the state's curriculum standards, Garner was appointed to the group by the new administration of Governor George W. Bush. From the beginning, she clashed with many of her fellow educators.

Although the Texas standards have been hailed as among the best in the nation, Garner claims they are jargon-filled, abstract, and vague. She and a small group of other teachers felt so strongly that they drafted an alternative to the English and language arts standards. Last summer, the state board of education approved the official panel's proposed standards, dealing Garner a stinging defeat. Still, she has not given up her fight.

What a difference between these three articles and Greg Michie's story about his work with five 8th grade Mexican-American girls at Seward Elementary School on the southwest side of Chicago. Far from the worlds of politics, school reform, and standards, Michie was a struggling young teacher in 1991, trying to engage his students, most of them first- or second-generation Mexican immigrants. Hoping to establish some common ground, Michie asked his class to read and discuss The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros, about a Mexican-American girl growing up in Chicago.

Because so many of his students had difficulty with English, Michie decided to make an audio version of the 25 stories in Cisneros' autobiographical novel. He recruited five female students to read the book aloud on tape. In describing these girls and their experiences producing the tape, Michie has written a moving story that shows what teaching and schools should be about.

No doubt Robert Chase, Sandra Feldman, and Donna Garner are fighting for what they believe is right. No doubt these battles are terribly important in forging the kind of public education system America needs. But the desired result of all the tumult is something simple and straightforward: caring teachers who are willing--and free--to do what it takes to reach their students. The girls who participated in Michie's project learned a lot that was not in the formal curriculum; their lives were probably changed as a result. Imagine that happening in all or most of the courses kids sit through. What more could we want from schools?

--Ronald A. Wolk

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