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Education Opinion

“If You Would Take a Bullet for a Child...”

By Nancy Flanagan — January 02, 2013 5 min read
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Roseanne Eckert posted this comment on one of the many ed-reform Facebook pages. Eckert, who is an attorney and parent, not a teacher, gave permission for use.

WARNING: Unpopular comment coming! I have seen many teachers bask in the glow of the extraordinary bravery displayed by the teachers at Sandy Hook. I have seen comments that suggest that all teachers would take a bullet for their kids. This is in direct contrast to the many comments that I have seen from teachers who state that they know that [mandated state standardized tests] and Common Core are bad for kids but they have to go along because they don’t want to lose their jobs. If you would take a bullet for a child, then why would you keep them from recess and PE or impose homework that consists of mind-numbing drill sheets for your paycheck?

I think Eckert’s asking a good and valid question here--and ought to note that her “unpopular” comment led to a thoughtful discussion, led by Eckert herself, on that Facebook page. It’s a question asked repeatedly, without the terrible frame of violence: Why don’t teachers stand up for what’s right for kids? Why do they let clueless, aggressive “reformers” capture the bully pulpit on ed policy? Why are they so spineless?

Some thoughts:

#1) Lots of people do things they’d rather not do, for money: Waitresses accept repeated abuse from customers, secretaries cover for feckless bosses, miners go to work in leveled-off mountaintops. It would be nice to think that public servants continue to perform with integrity and excellence, even though they’re routinely painted as substandard trough-feeders, but teaching--in addition to being a calling and a sacred privilege--is also a job.

And not all teachers are paragons of virtue, although I would speculate that an overwhelming majority of teachers would do exactly the right thing in life-threatening emergencies. The distinction here is between saving a child’s life in a crisis moment, or enforced chipping away slowly at the ideals that make learning and life worthwhile: curiosity, motivation, a sense of worth and purpose. A worksheet or missed recess never killed any child, after all. It’s a matter of balancing priorities.

#2) It’s also a matter of putting your livelihood where your mouth and values are. I don’t know a single teacher who has rolled over 100%, complacently following the party line on the Race to Standardize Everything. I don’t know a single teacher who fetishizes data or puts their mandated and paced, standards-linked goals on the board in the happy delusion that their students will learn more. Most teachers are carrying on small, covert rebellions and holding hushed conversations in the lounge, or the produce section of the grocery store, with parents like Eckert.

Teachers do what they’re told to do for a more important reason than losing gainful employment. They do it because they may never be able to teach again, a fate far worse than being fired from a single job. The goal is to change the system, not to elevate your personal viewpoints.

#3) There is value in a more modulated response to ill-advised reforms, as well. It’s very difficult for individual teachers to refute national---er, “Common"--standards or the idea of accountability. Veteran teachers who do so end up appearing defensive or prone to nostalgic longing for a mythical time when public education worked well for everyone. Teachers are smart to equivocate. Reflexively rejecting reforms--without evidence--is as bad as advocating for reforms without proof that they work.

That’s the reason why in-and-out “teaching fellows” and non-unionized charters are so popular: denigrating the wisdom of practice is one fervent cornerstone of the current “reform” movement. A teacher who speaks out, as an experienced professional, and loses her job is one less warrior, not one more.

#4) In professional work, choices guided by practice-based wisdom and evidence are honored. “Best practice” is shared, rather than directed. But teaching--for reasons too numerous to list here--has never been considered a genuine profession. So a teacher who speaks truth to power about what we’re doing to kids, or refuses to keep them in at recess or spend endless hours in test prep is easily positioned as an outlier. Or uppity. Even by his own colleagues. This is possibly the greatest lesson we can draw from Finland: Teachers must be carefully selected, rigorously trained--then trusted to make good professional decisions.

#5) Where does this requirement that teachers lay their integrity and occupation on the line come from? Cui bono? Last fall, there was a movement in various social media venues to push teachers toward a national strike, a One Great Protest over the sorry state of education policy and reform. It was led by a small group of parents and teacher educators.

While I empathize with the frustration and impatience, any national movement must be driven by a very broad base of goals and participants; a half-baked national teachers’ protest might serve parents who are angry about what’s happened to their children without accruing any power for teachers who want to make decisions about their own work. Teachers can’t protest effectively unless administrators, school boards, parents and community leaders join forces in a unified movement.

#6) So--ultimately, this question is about strength in numbers. Why is ALEC is pumping out “parent trigger” legislation (where the parent “input” ends once the public school is “disrupted”)? When teachers, school leaders and public schools are divided from the people they serve--students, parents and community members--"reformers” win. When the wisdom of good practice--the things parents and educators really want for kids--meets the bulwark of policy, it had better be a tsunami. A single, vocal and articulate teacher (or parent--or administrator) can only be a beacon, not a pathway.

Thanks to Roseanne Eckert. What are your ideas about things teachers can do to save the lives of children?

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land 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.