“When I speak the truth in meetings about what is happening in public education, I am met with silence from my fellow teachers. It is the silence that is so maddening. I realize not everybody is as bold as me, but still—shouldn’t the people working in this profession care about this profession? Beyond the four walls of their own classrooms? Am I crazy or what?”
(Teacher in Michigan)
Evidently, this teacher (who chose not to be identified) struck a nerve—as her post drew 50+ comments, all of them thoughtful and passionate, about the problem of teachers whose heads are firmly planted in the sand when it comes to the policies, issues and critical questions shaping the work of teaching.
I use word “profession” intentionally here. I have seen teaching labeled a semi-profession or truncated profession—professional work, controlled by outside forces and institutions. In Dan Lortie’s seminal Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study, he compares teaching to being a factory foreman—a position in a defined hierarchy, with great authority over workers below, but subject to policy-making and administration above.
However—if teachers are ever going to establish themselves as fully professional, they will need to develop an authentic, very public voice and vehicles to advocate for their professional interests and control over their own work.
So what did the teachers in Michigan believe were the core reasons for apparent teacher apathy, compliance and unwillingness to speak out against destructive policies and practices? Here’s a boiled-down summary of comments:
Fear: This one came up immediately and was threaded through the discussion. I was marked down in my evaluation last year because I spoke the truth. It was called “negative communication.” I’ve got two kids to support and a mortgage. This is exactly what the deformers want to happen. First, they attacked our union, then took away our seniority rights.
“It could never happen here” syndrome: It is not fear in my school—it’s disbelief. Teachers truly don’t think this is happening. They think I’m a conspiracy theorist. I work in a well-run district, where good administrators squeeze every last dime, so everyone here thinks the bad stuff is happening elsewhere.
Lack of information or misinformation: In order to advocate, to understand why better-informed folks sound “radical,” teachers need genuine facts. Information. And sorting through the information and editorial content out there takes time and skill. Lots of teachers rely on what they hear in the lounge, and there’s no single source of concrete, trusted intelligence about the wider world of public education.
Teachers are too busy or distracted: I’m too busy to lead or speak up, because all my time is eaten up following someone else’s goals.
Teachers are, by nature, consensus-builders, people who want to get along and be liked: I don’t want to seem radical. Let’s not bash our colleagues! They do not believe a word I say. I am shunned. Our biggest complainer about everything that is happening in public education goes around telling people I am a radical. When I have suggested ways she could actually do things to try to improve the situation, she has refused.
Teachers are not political: We are an easy profession to bull doze, and the reformers know it. Teachers tend to be rule followers, and don’t like confrontation. There are also dark undercurrents of racism (“those troubled districts”) and sexism (“I’m just here for the kids”) at work—mention those and people really do think you’re a radical.
Teachers too young and inexperienced to see danger ahead: Teachers coming through the ranks are being indoctrinated to work in charters and to accept teaching to the test. The adulation of Teach For America—with all their shiny young Ivy League faces—doesn’t help. When going for my masters I saw this often. It symbolized in a class where the text was “Writing On Demand,” a book designed to help teachers prepare students for writing on standardized tests. The modal level of teacher experience is one year, so we are gradually losing the wisdom of experience in practice.
Teachers are used to outsourcing all policy issues to their unions: It used to be that we trusted the unions to lobby for the right things. Our only concern was working with sketchy administrators. Now, it feels like there in nobody representing professional teachers in Lansing.
Pervasive anti-teacher attitude in media and policy-making: Politicians in both parties have painted us into a corner. When we raise a legitimate concern about education policy (student standardized test results used to evaluate a teacher’s effectiveness, for example) , the public, which knows little of all the work we’ve done and the expertise we’ve developed in the field, considers us to be “whiners.”
And finally, this: It is maddening and I have reached a point where I am not caring! Fire my *ss! I am trying to do what is right and advocate for teachers and our kids!
Was there any reason for optimism? Several people mentioned allies in the fight to honor the teacher voice in the policy process: Parents. Retired teachers, with nothing to lose and valuable perspective. Social media groups of like-minded educators. School leaders who might speak out, if their colleagues supported them—a couple mentioned strong, vocal superintendents or principals.
“The good news is that once teachers know what’s going on they are a very difficult group of people to deal with. We are smart, well read, know how to research, write and make a strong argument, and are relentless.” (Michigan teacher)
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.