Education Opinion

Why Are We Careless About the Experience of Teachers?

By Deborah Meier — December 11, 2008 3 min read
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Dear Diane,

Columnists who write about education can display amazing chutzpah. How about this headline in the Boston Globe: “How Obama can fix education”? Of course, it’s also the editors of our “finest” newspapers who are to blame for this view of education as an appliance.

Or David Brooks, where we enter an Orwellian world in which the only serious “reformers” are those who offend teachers and their unions—and assume the worst about both. Thus Linda Darling-Hammond, after a lifetime of serious work at really cutting-edge, break-the-mold school reform in New York state and California, becomes a hack because her work is always respectful of teachers, students, and families! I guess Brooks would see me in that category, too, as though one can change the world by fundamentally disrespecting those who do its work. (I note that Brooks’ piece was followed by more of the same in other media outlets.)

I just got back from a 24-hour visit to Chicago for Tim Black’s 90th birthday. Tim goes back to my youth in Chicago and inspired my work as a political activist and high school teacher. Obama sent a moving letter about his influence on him, as well. It was a room full of black and white Chicago leaders, many quite “ordinary” in some senses, but all quite extraordinary. More about him another time. But what a contrast between his patient and steady efforts to change the world he lived in, in the very language he used in talking to others versus the way David Brooks describes the world. At 40 and at 90, Tim Black has always spoken with incredible care for how his words could affect his listeners. He echoes our reader Diane Seneschal’s comments about the “discriminating” use of words. Of course, he did a lot of listening, too. I doubt if Brooks has spent much time hearing the voices of the teachers in our schools whose opinions he dismisses.

In contrast, Tim took to heart the idea that taking seriously our interests, as naïve young people, was the best way to prepare the stage for broadening our view. (Note: Ed Jones’ comment to my recent letter.)

Too many have bought into the idea—which the current crisis may undermine—that those who are fired (the losers) must be stupid, lazy, or incompetent and do not need or deserve protection. The ugly talk in The New York Post about the “rubber room” at Tweed where teachers threatened with disciplinary action (still innocent, mind you) spend day after day doing nothing under the watchful eyes of security police sent chills down my spine. A Teacher of the Year was quoted a few weeks ago saying, in response to a reporter’s question about tenure, that she’d never have survived as a teacher without it. It precedes unions, by the way. It’s a protection against unfairness by “bosses.” I have close and personal experience at how easy it is for supervisors to get rid of a tenured teacher they don’t get along with—if they are determined.

Consider how easy the average big-time columnists have found it to blame working people and unions for both our school problems and the auto industry’s (with its “unreasonably” high wages and benefits). In contrast, consider how we’re reminded to forgive and forget the mistakes in judgment and action of the financiers and economic experts who failed us on an even grander scale. The Dec. 5 issue of Commonweal magazine has a piece by William Pfaff noting that it wasn’t inevitable that we were kept in the dark. A lot of the deniers are now advising from the very top, because (as Obama noted in a recent press conference) who else has the experience to get us out—but those got us in?

So why are we so careless about throwing out the “experience” of teachers?


P.S. There’s a great book I missed in 2004 by a man who died right before it was published: Kenneth Sirotnik’s “Holding Accountability Accountable”. His own short introductory chapter and his final concluding one should be must-reads for us all.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.