Editor’s Note: Assistant Editor Andrew Ujifusa covers government and politics. This analysis is part of a special report exploring pressing trends in education. Read the full report: 10 Big Ideas in Education.
Marches. Walkouts. Running for office and campaigning. Using social media for help both inside and outside the classroom. The motivations for teachers to engage with the world in those ways vary. But one question runs throughout them: When teachers are looking for institutions to trust these days, are more and more of them coming up empty?
Government is the most obvious target for many teachers, including those relying more and more on each other as frustrations mount. Through last year’s teacher strikes and walkouts, the classroom workforce in several states showed just how angry it was with lawmakers’ decisions about teacher pay and spending on schools in general.
Further up the food chain but also distinct, the ongoing backlash to Betsy DeVos in much of the education community is still a force. The U.S. secretary of education was featured in several midterm campaign ads, and Arizona’s superintendent-elect, Kathy Hoffman, a former teacher, ran in part because of her antipathy to DeVos. For some, this skepticism goes back to the Obama administration.
Philanthropies and some nonprofit groups, too, have been a target for some teachers who see them as deep-pocketed but fickle and transient interlopers, doing things to teachers instead of with them.
Unions are a different animal. They remain politically influential, and it’s not clear that the Supreme Court’s Janus v. AFSCME decision last year to strike down “fair share” fees will cripple them the way some expect. Yet, it’s notable that in states like Arizona, Kentucky, and Oklahoma, grassroots groups of educators and not their unions (which don’t have collective bargaining power in those states) were the driving force behind protests and leaned on social media to help organize themselves.
Teacher Alberto Morejon is an example of how a disaffected educator built a coalition of his own—and fast. Scroll down for his Q&A.
Broadly speaking, teachers’ mistrust of various systems and institutions goes back decades, said Jonathan Zimmerman, an education historian at the University of Pennsylvania. But what’s grown in recent years, he noted, is the number of targets for educators’ mistrust, as more groups have gotten involved in education.
“The skepticism of authority is not new,” Zimmerman said. “But the skepticism of those authorities is new, because the political realm changed to allow them to exert a whole lot more power and prominence.”
Part of the mistrust may also be rooted in how frequently institutions with power over teachers’ work change course. An Education Week survey of educators from 2017 found that 84 percent of respondents said they agreed with the statement, “I get a handle on a new reform and then it changes.” And 58 percent said there had been either “too much” or “way too much” change in the education field during the two previous years.
How that change is presented to the general public can also contribute to an environment of distrust.
In a 2014 cover story, Time magazine used the phrase “Rotten Apples” to indicate how difficult it was to fire a “bad teacher.” But last year, a Time cover story put a heroic gloss on teachers who gave blood plasma and worked extra jobs to pay bills. To some educators, putting those two stories side by side was a microcosm of how news outlets could shift their coverage to fit a trendy political narrative, but not teachers’ experiences. And although the second narrative might have triggered more sympathy for educators, neither portrayal of educators cast them in a particularly attractive light, both for prospective teachers and the general public.
Ultimately, the mistrust is hard to quantify, and many teacher grievances don’t extend much beyond the boundaries of their buildings. But to the extent that institutions are distrusted by teachers, what’s taking their place or supplementing them?
Here’s part of the answer: It’s communities created and curated for and by teachers, whether they’re in-person conferences on classroom practices, online hashtag-driven chats, or Facebook-driven political activities. As younger teachers exert increasing influence over their profession, this sort of activism and professional development might solidify and become unremarkable.
Distrust may be in the air. But that doesn’t mean cynicism has taken over, said Zimmerman, particularly for those who are looking to carve out new political space in reaction to official (and unofficial) institutions.
“All this activity represents an act of faith, not in those actors but in democracy itself,” he said. “What’s going on right now is DIY.”
Q&A: How Teachers Can Build a Coalition
If the 2018 teacher walkouts mark teachers’ loss of trust in their institutions, Alberto Morejon is an example of how those disaffected educators can create alternative institutions of their own—and fast. After watching West Virginian teachers take to the streets and hearing fellow Oklahomans discuss the possibility of bringing the fight to their own state, the fourth-year teacher launched a Facebook group that quickly exploded in popularity. The group, which now has more than 75,000 members, offered teachers across the state a forum on which to mobilize their protests and to continue discussing the most pressing issues in their profession.
In your experience of building your group, how have you navigated building an environment of trust and community with your fellow educators? Is there anything you’ve butted up against or that has been a learning curve?
I try to just post information and let people form their own opinions. I think that’s why a lot of people respect the group. I post things in it that are factual. I don’t try to throw a ton of opinion in it. From the very beginning it’s been all about helping education, helping kids, and helping teachers.
I’ve probably said a hundred times: “I don’t vote on waves or colors; I vote on individuals.” That’s what I’ve been trying to preach in the group.
Leading up to the walkout, there was no discussion of, “Are you a Republican, a Democrat, an Independent, or whatever?” It was just one goal, and that goal was to help education. There was never bickering about political parties. And it really shows what you can do when you put your differences aside.
For you and for other activists, what do existing institutions—education leadership, teachers’ unions, policymakers in general—have to do to win your trust?
The big thing is that your only agenda should be whatever your mission is. If you’re an education union, then your mission should obviously be to help teachers and students. You shouldn’t have an agenda of pushing for a certain party.
For me, it’s accountability. What is your main goal? Is it to help teachers and students or is your goal to get more membership and money?
Most teachers in Oklahoma feel like we’ve gotten to the point where if we want something to get done, we have to take it into our own hands. If these organizations want to help, that’s great. But if they want their trust back, then they’ve got to truly prove they’re in it for the right reasons.
I don’t have anything against the [teachers’] unions in Oklahoma, but I don’t respect their leadership at the top. I do feel bad for a lot of the people who work really, really hard in those unions. They kind of get a bad name just because there are two or three people at the top of their organization who are just terrible leaders. You’re only as good as your leadership.
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A version of this article appeared in the January 09, 2019 edition of Education Week as The Erosion of Trust