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Do Teachers Lack Power and Self-Worth?

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My 85-year-old mother is an inveterate clipper of newspaper articles, especially from The New York Times, which she has had delivered to her home in Berkeley for the past 40 years. Now the Internet has allowed her to send me clippings by e-mail, although she still keeps the scissors ready and hands me a thick folder every time I visit. This week she sent a provocative quote from a New York Times Magazine profile of well-known financial guru Suze Orman.

The writer of the article explains why little of Orman's work involves schools:

She has been reluctant to work on school curricula involving personal finance because she says students can't learn empowerment from people who aren't empowered, and teachers, she says, are too underpaid ever to have any real self-worth. She told me, "When you are somebody scared to death of your own life, how can you teach kids to be powerful? It's not something in a book—it ain't going happen that way."

When I first read this I got ticked off. Orman has equated empowerment with personal wealth—perhaps not surprising, since she earns $80,000 every time she speaks publicly on that very subject. But then I started thinking a bit more about her proposition. Part of it makes sense. We can only teach what we actually embody.

One of the teachers I learned the most from was Warner Freeman, who taught middle school science for 33 years in Berkeley, until he retired nine years ago. He told me, "The subject your students are studying is you. They watch everything you do." He helped me understand that when I taught my students, I was showing them the way a man could behave in the world, the way he respected women, the way he dealt with conflict. All these things were part of teaching—way beyond how many protons there are in the nucleus of a carbon atom.

So Suze Orman is right in suggesting that we cannot teach empowerment unless we are empowered. But this got me thinking a bit more.

Are we actually even trying to teach our students to exert power over their own lives?

It seems as if students are being taught the exact opposite. Learn what is on the test, because it is on the test, and doing well on this test will prepare you for the next set of tests, and at some point you will finally finish all the tests and be ready—for what? Certainly not for acting in a powerful way in relationship to the world or those around you!

As teachers, what would it look like for us to be empowered? We would be challenged to figure out how to use the passions, skills, and creativity within us to construct powerful lessons for our students. We would be given time to collaborate as a staff, building on the expertise within our ranks. That’s not the way it is for most of us today. Instead we are handed scripts that dictate how to teach. We are sent to workshops led by consultants who are experts at presenting, but lack our intimate knowledge of our students and our communities.

I posed these questions to my colleagues in the Teacher Leaders Network Forum, and got some interesting replies. Two teachers described how they felt empowered, while another disagreed:

Ellen Berg, who teaches eighth graders at a charter school in Southern California, writes:

As a group, teachers are not empowered. Teaching is a profession rife with victim energy, and even Hollywood/society expects us to be victims. If we're not willing to martyr ourselves, then that must mean we're not good teachers.

However, I don't believe that all of us are disempowered, and I don't think it has anything to do with money. It is all about attitude, choices, and how we live our lives. I used to be disempowered, and now I'm not. The only thing that changed was me and my choice to take control of my own destiny.

I think if our children leave school with anything, they should leave with the sense that they have choices, and that they are in control of their lives. As people, we can't control what happens, but we can control how we react to situations and whether we learn from the horrible things in life.

How do we find our power as teachers? Not from packaged curriculum or a bunch of lessons on "How to Be Empowered." Deep learning comes from within. As your science teacher advised you, the kids are watching, and we can only teach what we truly know and own. The kids DO consider the messenger.

In my classroom, our mutual empowerment extends to letting go of the typical "controls" in K-12 education. The only boundaries on their writing are that they cannot attack each other and that anything they choose to include (yes, even profanity) should enhance the piece rather than be gratuitous. We talk about how we all know those words but that adding them just to shock readers is bad writing. And yes, someone always goes overboard, and it becomes a lesson for the class. Over time, during writing-critique groups, kids will say, "I'm not sure if I should include this," or tell each other that the language gets in their way as readers. In the end, great writing is produced, because the goal is to say something and say it well.

Other controls I let go of are due dates. My expectation is that you are always working when we are together, because our time is precious. If something is going to be later than the due date I gave them, I expect kids to come negotiate with me and make a plan for finishing. One of my kids—a brilliant artist and wonderful writer—found that illustrating his children's book was taking much longer than he'd anticipated. He just handed it in yesterday, about a month "late," and it's beautiful. If he didn't have that flexibility, the piece as a whole would have suffered, or he may never have chosen a piece that allowed him to take risks and stretch.

I have some "musts," but not many. Several that are pertinent to this discussion are: Take risks in your writing; take responsibility for your choices; and don't be afraid of hard things—that's where the learning happens. My kids become articulate, passionate readers and writers. What I mostly do is pay attention to what they need for where they are going and give them the support to get there.

Some teachers will say, "But you can do that in your (charter) school. My school would never let me." And I say, staying in your school is a choice, and sometimes because of our stage in life and other goals, it's the best choice. But it's still a choice. Even at my last placement in a pretty restrictive, traditional inner-city school in St. Louis, I pushed the boundaries. And my principal pretty much let me because she saw the results I got from kids. When it became too restrictive and prescribed, I left.

We can only teach what we know...so I say we start with ourselves.

Ken Bernstein, a high school history and government teacher in Maryland, agrees with Ellen. He writes:

I consider myself quite empowered. I teach by choice, knowing I could make more money doing other things. I am politically active, with personal connections with policy makers who respect what I say and write and think.

I work with my students so they can experience being empowered. I have one from last year who is now the student member of the Maryland State Board of Education, for example. In 2008, two of my students were on a panel with me talking about politically active youth that was broadcast nationally by C-Span.

Teachers are limited in their ability to exercise power, and there are those outside the profession who want to further disable us, who are not interested in hearing either our individual or our collective voices. Even so, I exercise an important influence every day in which I interact honestly with my students and challenge them to be the best they can, to take risks, to learn from their mistakes.

So whether or not we are "empowered" by her definition, we are already far more influential than Orman seems to understand.

High school journalism teacher Mary Tedrow has a different take. She writes:

I'm sorry but I agree entirely with Orman on this. You only have to read the journalism listserve I belong to in order to understand what is at stake. In journalism, we are literally teaching students to exercise their first amendment rights—the fundamental civil right to speak your mind and speak truth to power. This right is fundamental to the survival of a functioning democracy. There are teachers on that discussion list who have had to give up their careers, move to other cities or take other jobs as a result of their defense of this fundamental right within school buildings.

On that list, we also hear daily of the compromises teachers make, which usually include the phrase: "This is not the mountain I want to die on." To some administrators, it is scary and dangerous to let students write about what really goes on in a school. The person who pays the price when they do is generally the adviser. A functioning democracy doesn't exist in most public schools.

Orman's point is true. What financial security provides is the freedom to do what Ken says above. You can say what you want, knowing that you'll be OK if it comes down to whether or not you keep a job.

Most teachers don't have that freedom. Some don't worry about money or other job prospects, but most don't have that luxury.

So, what do you think? Are teachers empowered? Are we capable of teaching our students to be empowered? What does this look like?

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