Here’s a story: Teachers and spouses are milling around after a statewide Educator Recognition banquet. It’s been a wonderful evening, celebrating dozens of teachers and administrators who have been named Teacher/Principal/Superintendent of the Year, Milken Award winners, National Board Certified Teachers, etc. A former TOY’s husband comments: Why did all the teachers cross the stage tonight with their heads down? Why were they so anxious to get back to their seats? If this were a real estate sales banquet, they’d be raising those plaques over their heads and grinning. If they were athletes, they’d be pumping their trophies in the air.
A long-time school superintendent asks me: If teachers are so outraged about an excess of testing--if testing mandates have destroyed their curriculum and forced changes to what they know to be effective practice--why aren’t they marching in the streets? Why are they so compliant with the destruction of their professional judgment and responsibilities?
Compiling the results of a teacher leadership survey, more than a quarter of the 100 teachers surveyed, in answer to the question “What does a teacher leader do?” reply with some variation of: A teacher leader leads his colleagues by quiet example. A teacher leader doesn’t promote herself.
What is it about teachers?
Is this an example of the infamous crab pot theory-- anyone trying to escape from the daily grind of classroom teaching is pulled back into the quagmire of a flat, non-prestigious profession? Is it the egalitarian ethos in education, that elevation of fairness over highlighting exceptional practice?
Or are teachers by nature democratic, even self-effacing? Does spending 180 days a year trying to civilize children and build functional learning communities suck the self-promotion impulse out of veteran teachers?
My friend Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach--a compelling speaker and insightful author--wrote this in a wonderful piece on “unselfish self-promotion:" We are taught that arrogance is associated with pride and that we should err on the side of humility. But is marketing our own ideas and work prideful if we really believe what we have to offer is useful, transformational, or helpful?
In general, cooperation and respect for others’ viewpoints are good things. If a working group or initiative is dominated by a handful of speakers--and we’ve all been there--you don’t get collaboration, or even leadership. We also live in a bully culture, one that rewards the loudest voice.
But--distinction is how we make sense of our world. We need educators who will step up and say “My 20 years’ experience in the classroom--and the quality of my ideas and practice--make me an expert. Listen to me. I have confidence. I am a valuable resource.”
Confidence, by the way, does not equate to “oversized ego.” Nussbaum-Beach points out that women are especially prone to fretting over this: For women there’s also the concern about potentially hurting other people’s feelings. Women are hesitant to self-promote or talk about their achievements because they don’t want to dismiss or alienate less successful people.
When the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards began issuing certificates for teachers who achieved National Board Certification, lots of teachers put those certificates in a drawer. The intention was to give NBCTs a beautiful, tangible marker of their accomplishment, but teachers were reluctant to hang them in their classrooms--or display them in the school trophy case--saying “I don’t need a piece of paper to tell me I’m an excellent teacher.”
Pointing out that architects, accountants and attorneys proudly display board certifications on their office walls didn’t change these teachers’ minds. Odd, since the certificate was earned at great personal expense, effort and intellectual challenge.
Good teachers are not self-effacing. A timid, self-effacing person meeting 35 8th graders at 7:20 every morning is in trouble. So why aren’t accomplished teachers at the forefront of the discourse on their own issues?
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.