Opinion
Education Opinion

Hard Lessons from the Sandbox

By Susan Graham — July 08, 2009 4 min read

The teacher is the single most important factor in raising student achievement.

“Yes!” we thought. “We knew it and now we are vindicated! We will get the respect that we so rightly deserve. They will let us do what we know how to do!”

The research was solid and data driven. It wasn’t just a touching story about that single super teacher. At last policymakers and pundits would acknowledge the importance of our contribution. Our expertise would be valued and our input sought.

We were thrilled!

We were naïve!

We never saw the spin coming: “Soooo,” said those who had needed a scapegoat for education failures, “that makes it all your fault! Because if the teacher is the single most important factor and you’re the teacher, then you must not know or you must not care. Otherwise, public education would be just wonderful!”

It is convenient to blame teachers for America’s education woes because it lets everyone else off the hook.

And when the work groups were put together recently to write new national standards for Math and Language Arts, only a single teacher was invited to the table. And a side table at that.

“Sooooo,” said those who have a product to sell. “The research on teacher impact proves the old adage. Students don’t fail. Teachers fail their students.”

Guess what else they said? “We once saw some effective teachers. We have designed a professional development product that captures every nuance of what they do. If the teacher is the single most important factor, you had better make sure you purchase our training program.”

“Our program comes complete with all materials, and one of our staff trainers will actually come to your school site to work with your teachers for two days straight. It’s expensive, yes, but you’ll get more bang for your buck than by just throwing the money away to pay your teachers more. And, if you’ll purchase our program for all of your teachers today, we’ll give you our special group discount.”

It is profitable to shame us into accepting the next Teacher Enhancement product to “fix” America’s teachers because it implies that if we just improved ourselves sufficiently, all the other contributing factors of poverty, dysfunctional communities, and inappropriate curriculum could be overcome.

So instead of using education stimulus funds to allow teachers time to work together, we will be herded into yet another round of contracted training for Differentiated Instruction, or Positive Classroom Management, or Reading First, or Phonics for All, or Everyday Math, or Eighth Grade Algebra Will Make Kids Smart, or AP Courses Will Insure All Students Graduate from College, or whatever the data-driven targeted area for improvement of the moment might be.

And what happens when teachers say things like “We’re mad as hell and we aren’t going to take it any more?”

“Sooo,” say those who do not wish to be challenged as the experts and the decision makers, “you know you are the critical factor, and if you walk out the little children will suffer. If you are willing to do that, then clearly you are heartless and uncaring and so thank goodness you’re gone. We’ll ask these fine public spirited young people who are willing to postpone the start of their serious careers for a couple of years to take up the slack. And just think, after they leave, they can advocate for public education from their positions of influence.”

It is efficient to use guilt as a method to make sure America’s teachers do not flex their economic power, their education, or their moral authority to become a serious voice in policy discussions.

And once again teacher dissent is written off as self serving.


Guilt, shame and blame
are effective ways to manage behavior. My parents used them and I turned out okay. My kids inform me that I was an expert at the “deeply disappointed sigh” and yet they are happy successful adults. When used with responsibility and sensitivity, guilt, shame and blame are useful tools that move us from self serving, not-so-noble little savages to self-managing members of society.

But good tools that shape us can also be become good weapons to arouse us when we confront power brokers willing to justify employing any tool available to promote their agenda.

We spend our days among children. Could it be that there are others out there who are banking on us being rather childlike? It may be true that All That You Really Needed to Know You Learned in Kindergarten. But maybe we need to remember that along with “playing fair, taking turns, and cleaning up your own mess,” there are some tougher lessons that we as teachers know and need to remember.

Not everyone plays fair.
There are people who will take your cookies if you let them.
Cleaning up other people’s messes will not make them your best friend.
Tattling rarely gains the high moral ground.
If you need to go to the bathroom, you’d better speak up and not wait to be asked.
Crying in the corner may get you pity, but it doesn’t make you line leader.

So why have teachers allowed themselves to be pushed around? I believe many of us have tolerated it because we believe it is necessary to protect the students. I think teachers are committed to playing by the rules. And while I also know there are some real bullies on our playground, we don’t do ourselves or our children any good by whining and allowing ourselves to be vilified and victimized.

It is true that Wisdom is not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sand pile at school.

But we had better learn to take our truth to the mountain. Because, my teacher friends, there are those who have no compunction about kicking sand in our eyes if it gets them what they want. When we deal with other stakeholders we need to remember, “….no matter how old you are, when you go out into the world it is best to hold hands and stick together.”

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.