Years ago, I became one of the many educators to leave the classroom. When I was accepted into a doctoral program for educational policy, I joked that I had spent five years teaching and would spend the next five years trying to figure out what had happened to me. Like so many other educators, I could do something else and so I did. I became a leaver.
Honestly, I was unsure of myself entering my Ph.D. program. It was not that I doubted my academic abilities. Even as a first-generation college student, I knew I was capable. What I was uncertain of was the program I was choosing and whether there was space for a traditionally prepared teacher in the world of education policy.
In hindsight, how absurd it seems that a teacher may question their fitness for the realm of education policy! Yet, there I was, doubting whether it was “appropriate” for someone like me to be there.
Teachers deserve better access to education decisionmaking. I do not mean that in the trite way people often say that “educators should be in charge of education.” I am not calling for more tokenism with a teacher or two appointed to a committee. I am not calling for a footbridge linking classroom and policy but rather an entire highway system that facilitates the connection between the actual work of teaching and education policies.
Nothing about the conditions of my work as a classroom teacher allowed me the time or space to engage with education policy. This needs to change. Nothing in my teacher-preparation program was geared toward engaging with policy. This, too, needs to change. Teachers should not have to leave the classroom to feel like they can interact with policy. It should be part and parcel of the work of teaching.
When applying to doctoral programs, I noticed that most of the students on the policy track came from a very different background, with my fellow teachers far more likely to pursue a degree in curriculum and instruction. Many of the policy-focused doctoral students had gone straight from undergrad to public policy or economics master’s programs; they weren’t entering academia from the field of education. Some came from well-known political families or were the children of state- or district-level school administrators.
In contrast, I came from a family where college was rarely discussed. Despite graduating in the top 10 percent of a very large senior class, I had initially planned on working at a Denny’s until a friend persuaded me to enroll in community college.
As a teacher, I cared deeply about my students. I cared about their success, their well-being, and how to best serve them. But I had become frustrated with working in an atmosphere that often crippled my attempts to do what was needed.
When I was still in the classroom, policy seemed to be something done to me. It felt personal. What was expected of me one day seemed to change the next with a new churn of policy, and, often, policy requirements seemed at odds with each other.
By the time I got to graduate school, I was no longer interested in exploring how kids learn or how to best serve them in the classroom. I was interested in the organization built around teaching. I wanted to study the machinery in which I once had been a cog in the wheel.
As a teacher in an education policy program, I struggled to find my identity. After graduating with my Ph.D., I went back to the high school classroom for two years and faced the same issues I had before I originally left. Despite my policy training, despite my years of research, publications, or grants, every day as a teacher I was isolated and faced with meeting the immediate needs of the 25 or so “clients” in front of me, six classes a day, five days a week.
The isolation of teaching and the realities of trying to meet the needs of the learners in front of me offered little time to respond to the policy pressures I faced. Once again, I had to find a way to operationalize the policies I was asked to enact in the classroom and reconcile them with the very real, very diverse needs of the young people before me.
Meanwhile, like so many educators, I struggled to meet the needs of my own family in a pandemic. Teachers are not meant to be martyrs.
So, I am writing this now to say that when teachers speak out, they are not waving at you. They are drowning in front of you. Teachers need more power. They are the street-level bureaucrats carrying out the work on the ground. If policies are going to be successfully implemented in a practical context, then teachers need to be given the time and the space to reconcile the requirements with their own practice.
Policymakers need to recognize that policy does not operate in a vacuum. Policymakers need to make sure the bureaucrats on the ground have the time and resources to carry out new education objectives in a real-life context.
Teacher educator programs need to better prepare teachers for the onslaught of policy that they will face from all levels of governance. Teaching is a political process, and teachers enter the field unprepared for that reality.
Researchers need to recognize the need for more pragmatic research and advocacy on what happens when “the rubber meets the road.”
In short, teachers don’t need a seat at the table. Teachers need everyone, themselves included, to realize that they own the table.
A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 2023 edition of Education Week as Teachers Are Not Meant to Be Martyrs