Opinion
Equity & Diversity Opinion

Sometimes Calling Teachers ‘Valued Professionals’ Just Feels Empty

June 01, 2017 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

By Monica Washington

Recently I asked my AP English Language students to write an argumentative essay about individuality and conformity in U.S. schools. They’re teenagers, so I expected some pushback about school, but I wasn’t at all prepared for the number of compositions focused on oppressive school culture. One student, Anna, wrote, “Public schools are no more than glorified prisons with pretty decorations in place of barbed wire. The tension created by overbearing and outrageous regulations, curriculum and conformity pull on students until they have been stripped of all individuality and feel nothing but exhaustion.”

Her scathing account of public school haunted me. I expected that Anna would find school freeing, even enlightening. And I wondered: How is it that a well-rounded, popular and academically strong student equates school with prison? Is this just hyperbole?

Looking for answers, I shared Anna’s words with some colleagues, but I got no love there either.

“Are you sure she is speaking about students and not teachers?” one asked.

“Wow. This is exactly how I feel as a teacher,” another told me.

Then this one: “I thought only teachers felt that heaviness.”

It’s one of the ironies of our profession, I suppose. Educators continually find themselves confronted with mounting contradictions, particularly if they teach in oppressive school cultures. For example,

we are often told that we are “valued professionals” who “change the lives of our students every day.” But we are also micromanaged to immobility, not trusted to make the simplest decisions that affect students’ learning and well-being. When students have to work in classrooms in silence because the teacher knows that the loud and messy learning is often seen as ill-managed instruction, the walls close in. That is the box in which many teachers teach and students frequently are expected to excel.

Here’s another irony that plagues us. Choose any school’s mission statement randomly, and it is likely to contain some language about valuing diversity. Yet, students often report that they do not feel their individuality is respected. They point to recent news reports of students who are suspended for having unconventional hairstyles and untraditional hair colors. When school officials require teachers to regulate every element of student diversity, students are bound to feel a disdain toward school.

The real irony is that what is said to support teachers is often belied by administrators and policymakers who are unable to walk their talk. On their lips, the word “professional” often feels not only empty, but like a word laced in condescension and mistrust. The differences between what we tell teachers and students we value and what we show them we value in fact squashes individuality and extinguishes the love of learning.

Education is a hard business, but in some places—schools not based on fear that teachers will mess up or students will stand out—school is a beautiful place. The leaders in those schools get it right by maintaining open communication with teachers to find out what students really need. They get it right by understanding that great learning can be messy. They get it right by listening to students and teachers about what is working and what is not working.

Monica Washington is the 2014 Texas Teacher of the Year. She teaches English in Texarkana Texas.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Teacher-Leader Voices 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.

Events

English-Language Learners Webinar Helping English-Learners Through Improved Parent Outreach: Strategies That Work
Communicating with families is key to helping students thrive – and that’s become even more apparent during a pandemic that’s upended student well-being and forced constant logistical changes in schools. Educators should pay particular attention
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.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
Addressing Unfinished Learning in Math: Providing Tutoring at Scale
Most states as well as the federal government have landed on tutoring as a key strategy to address unfinished learning from the pandemic. Take math, for example. Studies have found that students lost more ground
Content provided by Yup Math Tutoring
Classroom Technology Webinar Building Better Blended Learning in K-12 Schools
The pandemic and the increasing use of technology in K-12 education it prompted has added renewed energy to the blended learning movement as most students are now learning in school buildings (and will likely continue

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Equity & Diversity Opinion No, Love Won’t Fix Institutional Racism in Education
Racially just books are under attack in schools. Defending an anti-racist curriculum demands a deeper understanding of how power operates.
Altheria Caldera
4 min read
Photo of separated black and white chess pieces
Radachynskyi/iStock/Getty Images Plus<br/>
Equity & Diversity Spotlight Spotlight on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
This Spotlight will empower you to assess where the work still needs to be done to ensure your students and educators are represented and included.
Equity & Diversity Transgender Students and School Sports: Six Things to Know About a Raging Debate
States have considered a surge of legislation that would restrict transgender students from teams that align with their gender identity.
9 min read
Laur Kaufman, 13, of Harlingen, waves a flag at a rally against House Bill 25, a bill that would ban transgender girls from participating in girls school sports, outside the Capitol in Austin, Texas, on Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021.
Laur Kaufman, 13, of Harlingen, Texas, waves a flag at a rally at the state capitol in Austin against a bill that would restrict transgender students' access to single-sex sports teams.
Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via AP
Equity & Diversity Census Prompts Push for More Indigenous School Lessons
American Indians and Alaska Natives say census numbers prove that Indigenous history should get more attention in public school classrooms.
Tim Henderson, Stateline.org
7 min read
Tatanka Gibson of the Haliwa-Saponi/Nansemond Tribal Nations leads attendees in song and dance during a gathering marking Indigenous Peoples Day at Penn Treaty Park in Philadelphia, Monday, Oct. 11, 2021.
Tatanka Gibson of the Haliwa-Saponi/Nansemond Tribal Nations leads attendees in song and dance during a gathering marking Indigenous Peoples Day at Penn Treaty Park in Philadelphia.
Matt Rourke/AP