Teacher Voice: How Not to Be a Bobble-Head Doll
"Teacher voice" is one of the most ambiguous phrases in education reform—used differently by governors, chancellors, commission leaders, advocacy organizations, and school administrators.
Sometimes, "teacher voice" means that the convening group or individual actually wants meaningful input from educators. But more often than not, teachers are being asked to complete a project or support an agenda that needs little more than their reluctant signatures.
I offered a different definition of "teacher voice" at April's TEDxNYED conference. This is a phrase we can reclaim. Truly engaging with "teacher voice" means taking seriously the collective and individual expression of teachers' professional opinions based on their knowledge and classroom expertise. Anything else is just a "teacher nod." Like we’re all bobble-head dolls.
Also, as Teacher Leaders Network colleague Faye pointed out recently, "Perhaps we should be talking about 'teachers' voices' rather than 'teacher voice,' because we do not speak as a unified body. We are as diverse as any other group, and, on many subjects, we certainly do not come to consensus with ease."
Here are a few ways we can discover and refine our own "teacher voices." Some come from my experience, and others from my colleagues in the Center for Teaching Quality's Teacher Leaders Network:
Know why you're speaking up. Sandy, an 8th grade engineering and math teacher, says that Chip and Dan Heath's Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard helped him pinpoint his goals: "Potential teacher leaders can cultivate their identity by wrestling with three questions posed by the Heaths: 'Who am I? What kind of a situation am I in? What does someone like me do in this kind of situation?'"
Accentuate the positive. We should play to our strengths, argues Justin in Arkansas. "As teachers, we know how to be constructive, tapping into our students' strengths and interests and viewing deficits as opportunities for growth. We have a better chance of proposing system-shaking changes if we focus on the positive potential outcome rather than the negative current reality."
Own your expertise. Even when "teacher voice" is invited, we often let others be the experts in the room. But when we value and articulate our experiences in the classroom, our expertise can be as powerful as the perspectives of researchers, consultants, administrators, philanthropists, and other education types. The qualitative and quantitative data we have about our school communities qualifies us to speak up.
Find a balance between the emotional and rational. I've noticed that people really listen to teachers who know how to tell relevant, compelling stories with a clear demonstration of passion for the job. An effective story proves a point and includes vivid details.
In balancing the emotional and rational, we should also consider staying current with education research, matching it with our classroom stories. I am a coauthor of TEACHING 2030 (along with Barnett Berry of the Center for Teaching Quality and 11 teacher colleagues), and our work there exemplifies this balance. Great data and analysis are readily accessible; now we have to act on them.
And of course, we must make clear why we are telling our stories and sharing data: We must tell people what we hope they will do.
Keep students in mind. Critics often shame us for discussing matters like salaries and pensions. As professionals, we have no reason to feel ashamed of wanting to improve our economic standing. But some people don't "get it" yet. When talking with those individuals and groups, I've found that putting students at the center of the conversation can help.
For instance, most parents wouldn't want to send their children to a school where the teacher has a hard time getting materials for the classroom or works another job just to make ends meet. Critics who deride conversations about salaries as being "about the adults" have a harder time making their case when teachers frame the conversation around students' needs.
Accept that you will make mistakes and learn from them. Jane in California admires her colleagues who are "naturals" at public speaking, but she says, "For me, practice makes … better. My first interview with a reporter was a disaster! I said 'and' over and over again because I couldn't let there be any silence between questions. After a few more interviews, I have learned to use 'think time' to gather my thoughts and say what I need to say."
Seek opportunities to speak up—even small ones. Julie, a media specialist, notes: "I ask questions all the time, because I believe that if we can't explain why we are doing something, we shouldn't be doing it. ... I don't always get the answer I want to hear (ever heard 'because the district said so'?) ... but it's a start."
Music teacher Cathy finds inspiration in this quote from Kyle Chandler: "Opportunity does not knock, it presents itself when you beat down the door." She adds, "If we as teachers are not asking the challenging questions, or speaking up when we feel strongly about something, then we have no right to complain about the mess we are in right now. Do something! Do anything! But do it with confidence, compassion, and intelligence."
Linda in California advises, "When identifying entry points, it's helpful to go for an early win that is easily done, where the most change can be produced for the least effort. And then build up and out from there as others begin to own the plans and outcome. Change is possible, but takes deliberate identification of what kind of change and how to step toward it."
Don't just nod. We need to communicate assertively (but, of course, respectfully) with groups that seek to engage our "teacher voices." If they genuinely want to benefit from our expertise, we should be invited early in the conversation—not just to nod at the end.
Choose to use your voice. In our conversation within TLN, many of my colleagues pointed out that speaking up is an individual choice. It requires an investment of time and can sometimes be risky.
Here's how Cheryl, who teaches kindergarten, puts it: "When teachers close their doors, cover their ears, and shut their eyes, I totally get it. And I respect their choice. It's a deeply personal choice for me to speak up. I know how to do so articulately, with research to support my position, and with the utmost respect for the other person’s perspective. I just wish others would join me."
I'm always glad when my colleagues get invited to speak at prestigious panels or join important consortia on legislation or implementation. But more of us must choose to use our voices at the local and national level if we are to have significant input on the policies that affect our students and our profession.
As New Jersey teacher Jeanne says, "We have to ask two questions of ourselves. If not us, who? If not now, when? There is too much at stake—both for the profession and for our students—to remain silent any longer."
We can be our own advocates individually and collectively. Let's use our voices. Loud and clear.