Education Opinion

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?

By Susan Graham — February 13, 2008 4 min read
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Al Kamen wasn’t writing about education in his column in The Washington Post last Wednesday. The topic was climate change and its impact on fossil fuel and alternative energy policy. Interesting, if not riveting, but Kamen got my undivided attention with this quote from Energy Alert, a newsletter distributed to petroleum industry clients by their lobbying firm:

“Remember, if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

If you’re thanking your lucky stars that as a teacher you are immune from this kind predatory policy powerplay, wake up and smell the coffee or you just might be the bacon!

Every education decision begins as a policy decision. And every policy decision begins as a political decision. But when education is on the table, teachers too often discover they are not sitting with the stakeholders—they find they’ve been relegated to the little seats at the children’s table.

In fact, about the only time teachers get invited to the table with the big boys and girls is when they are guests of honor at awards ceremonies. After a chicken breast dinner, a beefy elected official or corporate sponsor will make a moving speech about how teachers make all other careers possible. Finally (and I do mean finally), the honored teachers will be announced, receive a plaque, and have a grip-and-grin photo op with the officials or corporate representative.

It warms a teacher’s heart to feel appreciated, and if you get recognized by the right group, it can warm a teacher’s pocket as well. But after the party’s over, the teachers will go back to their classrooms while the elected officials and corporate executives will sit around the table discussing what needs to be changed in public education and making decisions about how those changes can be achieved. When it comes to policy, teachers rarely get an invitation.

The truth is that Teachers of the Year, Disney Teachers, Milken Educators and all the other honored teachers are, to a certain extent, prize pigs—cleaned up, put on display, and then sent back to the farm.

Do not misunderstand me: I am not denigrating teacher awards. Mine hang prominently in my office. I am honored that the organizations that gave me those awards recognized my efforts. And while I was proud to represent my profession, I was embarrassed that I was singled out. Awards only ripple the surface of the deep pool of deserving educators, but they can serve a purpose by focusing public attention on the importance of education and putting a face on the contribution of the many thousands of dedicated teachers who touch the lives of children daily.

However, it is naive to assume that those who recognize teachers are completely altruistic. The presenter of the blue ribbon often gets the floor longer than the recipient -- and he usually has a more carefully crafted message.

I’d like to offer my fellow “recognized teacher” prize pigs and wanna-be prize pigs a few lessons learned from some of the giants of pig literature.

Learn to talk: Wilber lived to see another day because Charlotte pointed out that if a pig speaks up, he just might avoid the unfortunate and unintended outcome of being a blue ribbon winner on the path to being a blue ribbon special.

Overcome fear: Piglet , a timid little pig, regularly says, “Oh my!” but he faces his fear and summons up the courage to explore the 100 Acre Wood with Pooh.

Make new friends: Babe stayed off the menu and found acceptance and success by networking in a less than optimal environment and by building alliances with all the stakeholders -- the dogs, the sheep and the farmer.

Remember who you are: Napoleon forgot his porcine origins--walking upright, wearing clothes and moving into the farmer’s house (or centrally located office). He betrayed Old Major’s vision of Animalism and became what he abhorred—an animal who viewed himself “more equal than others.”

Stick together: Three Little Pigs who watched out for each other outsmarted the wolf at their door.

Some idealist teachers refuse awards on principle because they consider them demeaning and manipulative beauty contests. These little piggies stay home. Some teachers are disillusioned and hurt when they realize that their recognition served as a platform to promote the sponsor’s agenda. These little piggies cry we-we-we, (which, unfortunately, tends to be interpreted by others as as me-me-me). Some courageous teachers realize recognition for what it is, an opportunity to make a difference. These little piggies prefer to have roast beef and want a seat at the table.

Through Teacher Leaders Network, I have had the honor to sit at the table with blue ribbon teachers from all over the country. Because they are well informed, pragmatic, well spoken and gracious, they have parlayed their 15 minutes of fame into lasting policy influence at the local, state, and national level. They are not on the menu. Nor are they simply decorative centerpieces at the policy feast. They are finding seats at the table, and they are determined to be part of the conversation that takes place there.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.