Find your next job fast at the Jan. 28 Virtual Career Fair. Register now.
Opinion Blog

Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

Education Opinion

RHSU Classic: Teachers Should Just Say No to Cheap Talk & Lip Service

By Rick Hess — February 21, 2020 1 min read

This month marks the 10th anniversary of Rick Hess Straight Up, making it a propitious time to revisit some favorites from the past decade. For each of the Top 20 which run this month, I’ve offered a quick reflection or thought as to why it remains a personal favorite.

During the Race to the Top era, I was troubled by two ubiquitous (if contradictory) trends. The first was the tendency to yammer about “failing” teachers via mechanistic, industry-speak phrases like “human capital” and “value-added.” The second was all the silly, juvenile, insincere plaudits tossed at teachers, by “reformers” and “anti-reformers” alike. It was all quite dizzying, especially when some bureaucrat or foundation talking head would rail against “broken” systems, “failing” schools, and “ineffective” teachers—and then try to seamlessly pivot to hailing teachers as “heroes.” I finally had my fill and penned this column. Now, on to number 6, originally posted on July 7, 2014.

Teachers get lots of lip service, misty-eyed declarations of admiration, and cloying tributes. These blanket hugs are ritually offered up to 3-million-plus teachers, without qualifiers or challenges. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has insisted, "I believe that [teachers] are absolutely the unsung heroes of our society." Actor Matt Damon told a Save Our Schools rally, "I flew overnight ... and came down here because I really had to tell you all in person that I think you all are awesome." Or, as Michelle Collay put it in Everyday Teacher Leadership, "Teaching is not just another job. Choosing to work with children and youth on a daily basis is something elevated to superhuman status." These platitudes are the junk food of speechmaking. They seem insincere, like the empty words of car salesmen (even when they're not). But there's a bigger problem. This isn't how we talk to professionals. It's how we talk to Cub Scouts or T-ball players, because we think they're cute and too fragile for tougher stuff. You don't lard buckets of mushy sentiment on people you really respect. This verbal tic is the opposite of respect. In fact, it infantilizes teachers and crowds out respect. Real respect is earned. It carries an edge. It's not given away freely or casually. It's a conversation between equals. And we usually don't feel obliged to shower banal praise on our equals. All this happy talk is insincere, anyway. We know this, because nobody honestly believes all of America's 3-million-plus teachers are awesome or heroic. As one decorated teacher told me, "I am so sick of all this teacher-heroism crap, already. I'm a professional, not a hero." Saying this isn't meant as an attack on teachers: After all, nobody thinks that every doctor, lawyer, professor, or cop is good or noble, either. Even the voluble Matt Damon doesn't think that every actor or screenwriter in Hollywood is "awesome." How do I know? Well, a few years ago, Damon slammed screenwriter Tony Gilroy, saying of Gilroy's Bourne Ultimatum script, "This is a career-ender. I mean, I could put this thing up on eBay, and it would be game over for that dude. It's terrible." Teachers are imperfect. Real respect starts by saying plainly, to their face, that some teachers are great and some aren't. That's how you can start to believe that people are sincere. Teachers kind of know all this—but, disconcertingly, they've seemingly come to expect the clichés as their due. Indeed, some of the most vocal teachers have taken to answering even respectful concerns with vitriol and venom. This ensures that teachers will only get insincere pats on the head. When teachers start hearing the empty blah-blah, they need to know that everything that follows is probably unserious—and that the real decisions are going to be made after the lights are turned out and teachers are ordered off to bed. Cage-busting teachers don't just get this, they do something about it. Like what? Start by taking a page from U.S. Army Captain Benjamin Summers, who took to the pages of The Washington Post in 2014 to flatly declare, "I have worn an Army uniform for the past eight years and deployed twice to Afghanistan. This doesn't make me a hero. Many veterans deserve high praise for their heroism, but others of us do not." Summers wasn't belittling or selling out his comrades—he was just talking straight. He closed, "Not every service member is a hero. The quicker we realize that, the quicker we [can] start. . . answer[ing] the difficult policy problems we face." Peter Greene, a veteran English teacher and former union president in Pennsylvania, and author of the "Curmudgucation" blog, shows what this looks like in schooling: "Teachers know full well that bad teachers exist, probably better than anyone; after all, your kid was in Mr. McNumbnutt's class for a year, but I've been working next door to him for 10. While there are teachers who are going through a patch, need some guidance, or are struggling with a difficult assignment, some teachers, having had their chance to shape up, need to get out. Likewise, many reformsters have acknowledged that teachers need to be protected from capricious firing, that they should have job security necessary to actually do their job without fear of retribution for following their best professional judgment. If we can agree on those two points, everything else in the conversation is detail." When teachers talk like this, they'll find people a lot more inclined to talk to them and treat them like professionals. The next time teachers hear someone launch into starry-eyed, infantilizing dreck, they should calmly call bull$&%*. They should tell Duncan, Damon, or whoever to store their empty words and to talk concretely and practically about how to promote excellence and address mediocrity. If they do, they just might be pleasantly surprised by the results.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Branding Matters. Learn From the Pros Why and How
Learn directly from the pros why K-12 branding and marketing matters, and how to do it effectively.
Content provided by EdWeek Top School Jobs
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
How to Make Learning More Interactive From Anywhere
Join experts from Samsung and Boxlight to learn how to make learning more interactive from anywhere.
Content provided by Samsung
Teaching Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table With Education Week: How Educators Can Respond to a Post-Truth Era
How do educators break through the noise of disinformation to teach lessons grounded in objective truth? Join to find out.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

BASE Program Site Director
Thornton, CO, US
Adams 12 Five Star Schools
Director of Information Technology
Montpelier, Vermont
Washington Central UUSD
Great Oaks AmeriCorps Fellow August 2021 - June 2022
New York City, New York (US)
Great Oaks Charter Schools
Director of Athletics
Farmington, Connecticut
Farmington Public Schools

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: January 13, 2021
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Obituary In Memory of Michele Molnar, EdWeek Market Brief Writer and Editor
EdWeek Market Brief Associate Editor Michele Molnar, who was instrumental in launching the publication, succumbed to cancer.
5 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: December 9, 2020
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of articles from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read