Many years ago, through no effort (or fault) on my part, I became--temporarily--a Famous Teacher. What was most astonishing about this experience: a wide range of people (from broadcast media figures to the district Superintendent) suddenly paid attention to what I had to say about education. I was phoned and asked my opinion when critical education issues emerged in Michigan. I was offered positions on statewide task forces and columns in the local newspaper. I even shot a TV commercial supporting an education funding initiative, and flew around the state with the Governor on a promotion tour. Good times.
As any teacher who finds herself publicly distinguished knows, however--opportunities to “speak for teachers” are almost always accompanied by some questionable baggage. There’s the token teacher experience, where you’re the only classroom teacher in a roomful of legislators or business leaders, who are pontificating about your life’s work with lots of confidence and no first-hand information. There’s the command performance, where you get to meet someone vastly more famous, and are expected to listen deferentially, but keep your opinions to yourself. There’s the blue ribbon commission, where your name ends up on a policy brief, report or recommendation, with the publisher proudly noting that teachers were represented, even if the reports’ conclusions don’t ring true for you.
Tony Mullen, the National Teacher of the Year in 2009, wrote a strikingly honest blog about what it’s like to be that teacher:
I spent the last thirty minutes listening to a group of arrogant and condescending non educators disrespect my colleagues and profession. I listened to a group of disingenuous people whose own self-interests guide their policies rather than the interests of children. I listened to a cabal of people who sit on national education committees that will have a profound impact on classroom teaching practices. And I heard nothing of value.
Teaching, it’s often noted, is a flat profession, where highly skilled and creative veterans are given no more credibility than novices (especially if those new teachers can produce good test data). There are few leadership roles for teachers who wish to remain in the classroom--and even more relevant, almost no acknowledgement or distinction for teachers who truly excel.
When teachers are offered even very modest amounts of money, public recognition or an opportunity to be identified as a leader, they jump at the chance. When this happens early in an educator’s career, it’s easy for young, enthusiastic teachers to believe that their personal pedagogical merit is the reason they were chosen. This leadership entitlement is the foundational principle under Teach for America: corps members are set apart as leaders in training, rather than struggling rookies--although all early-career teachers flounder.
Of course, if you have some resources, you can offer young teachers “leadership” which includes controlled experiences in advocacy, high-level connections and forums, plus a stipend--three extremely desirable things that youthful teachers never get. And who better to “speak for teachers” than a fresh face, a teacher who hasn’t been through twenty years of policy churn, revolving-door curricula and wearying battles with egomaniacal administrators?
Put them in a room with some friendly people, and many young teachers would be glad to reconsider what they’d previously understood: wisdom about teaching and education policy. It wouldn’t be difficult at all to convince vulnerable young teachers that they should be the ones keeping their jobs when times are tough, for example.
In the end, it all comes down to money.
Who’s funding these “policy briefs” and providing carefully prepared speakers?
Who’s promising young teachers a spotlight and some extra cash?
Who’s decided which policy goals will be pursued, which lines of argument developed, which resonant stories told?
And who will truly benefit, when these teachers “speak out” on behalf of their funders’ political beliefs?
The first sign of privately-funded advocacy is the glittering sales pitch. Look for a lot of very public discussion, in the upcoming Education Nation, on how “good” teachers should be making $150,000, or how the highest paid anybody in a school should be the talented teacher. Because the people who want to call the shots believe that teachers can be bought and sold.
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.