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Opinion
Teaching Profession Commentary

Where Are the Teachers?

By Mary Beth Blegen — March 05, 2003 7 min read
As budgets and mandates collide, a vital voice is missing.

All across the country, state legislatures are beginning the hard work of solving budget shortfalls the likes of which many states have not seen in a very long time. Although legislators and governors may hold out the hope that K-12 budgets will remain the same, we know there will be changes.

The coming enforcement of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 asks more of states and says that schools won’t be able to hide behind generalized statistics; instead, they will have to show through increased testing that they are confronting the needs of all their students.

Education remains one of the most important and controversial domestic issues in the country.

My question for policymakers, governors, and professional educators is this: “Where are the teachers?” In this important year of determining just what schools will look like now and in the future, where are the teachers? As legislatures tug and cut, argue and confront, where are the teachers? In the discussions, in the decisions in the schools, and in both self and public perceptions, where are the teachers?

We know that good teachers can make a difference in a student’s life. Anecdotal evidence abounds about those students and those teachers. Research has told us that having a good teacher three years in a row can make a huge difference. But policymakers have not yet been able to put their collective finger on just what exactly makes a good teacher for all students. Despite countless “report cards” of teacher quality, and even federal studies on the subject, politicians can’t agree on what makes a quality teacher across the board.

Where are the teachers in determining what makes a quality teacher? If schools could help generate more and deeper discussion on that topic, the answers that would emerge from practitioners might easily dispel the confusion now faced by decisionmakers as they try to turn the issue into policy. But such discussions will arise only when administrators and teachers determine that their role in policy and practice is worth the questioning and searching.

Teachers do the business of education. But as a profession, we have not yet learned that the place where we can figure out what is best, and then show that success to the wider world, is in our own schools. Too often those outside the classroom do the research and come to the conclusions. Teachers can smile cynically at such research, but can also deny the responsibility we have to open our schools to scrutiny, which can show successes as well as flaws.

Too often those outside the classroom do the research and come to the conclusions.

We are beginning to know that to reach more students more effectively, we teachers must understand the significance of our work and gain the skills needed to look together with others at schools to determine what it will take to make changes. All of the rhetoric at federal, state, and district levels will make no difference for students unless teachers and administrators, working together make sense of where they want students to be.

We need to act on this knowledge. If we can effectively ask and answer the question, “Where are the teachers?”, perhaps we will have begun a discussion that has the possibility of looking through the pain of budget problems to the reality of kids and schools in 2003.

The first step for all involved in education is to realize that teachers do some of the most important work in the world. Giving only lip service to the importance of teaching isn’t enough for teachers or for policy. Few of the policymakers who make educational decisions could do this work. But teachers are both reluctant to shout to the world about that work, or to accept responsibility for what isn’t happening and what remains to be done in schools.

Teachers believe that the promised land of education is one of focused attention on teaching and learning. We want the public and politicians to trust us. We want to do what we say we do best, and that is to teach.

But teaching alone in a classroom isn’t enough anymore. Working independently in high school classrooms isolated from other teachers and the community at large promotes a culture of defensiveness and competition that is not conducive to taking on the challenges of dealing with all students, to say nothing of challenging educational policy.

The outside world looks in and asks why schools are not doing what “they should be doing.” People ask why putting new curriculum in place is so difficult. They can’t easily understand why skipping any concentration on instructional change, and looking solely at changes to make in curriculum and content, won’t necessarily reach more students.

They won’t understand until we teach them.

Talking together about instruction that works means that the curriculum truly can become relevant for more students. But to make that happen, teachers must learn how to articulate this need to talk with one another and with decisionmakers.

As the Teacher-in-Residence in U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley’s office, I saw the innards of education politics. For the first few months, I was angry because I couldn’t see that teachers were a significant factor in the discussions.

We are at a point in the history of schooling that requires our best explanation of the realities of teaching and learning.

Teachers won’t be the voice they must be until we decide that this is our moment: a point in the history of schooling that requires our best explanation of the realities of teaching and learning. If we perceive ourselves to be at the bottom of an educational hierarchy beyond our control, we will do what we too often have done in the past: shut the door and “teach,” while pointing fingers at others.

Taking the risk to meet the needs of more kids means working together to understand needed change, connecting with parents, and pushing aside barriers that have stopped teachers in the past. If we choose to sit back, our moment passes and others who have the perception of greater power, a louder voice, an ideological agenda, or more money seize their moment.

While in Washington, I sat in on countless meetings where the conversations centered on teaching and learning, but teachers were not present. During one particular discussion, with a group of college deans, presidents, professors, and others, I asked, “Do you consider teaching to be a true profession?”

Their answer was clear and unequivocal: “Of course teaching is a profession,” they said.

Then I followed up with a second question, one more important for all of us involved in the debate about how to make schools better for students: “Do you consider a 2nd grade teacher, a social studies teacher, or a vocational teacher to be your peer in education?”

Here, the answers were slower in coming.

Perhaps a more important audience for that question would be teachers themselves. “Do you consider yourself to be the peer of a college president, a dean, a mayor, governor, or legislator when it comes to making decisions about teaching and learning for students?” If the answer is no, or is slow in coming, how will we answer the larger question, “Where are the teachers?”

Teachers need to see themselves as the most important piece of the educational puzzle if they are to exert the influence they must in helping legislators, governors, and even school boards understand just what schools must be today to meet the needs of all our students. This holds true for every state, every city, every district— not just at the national level.

Teachers won't be the voice they must be until we decide that this is our moment.

In my own district of St. Paul, Minn., for example, we are working together to create small learning communities within the city’s seven urban high schools. Faced with the achievement gap, increasing diversity, and low graduation rates, our superintendent has issued an “educational blueprint” saying that all high school students will be in small learning communities by the fall of 2004. The goal is a more personalized, focused, and relevant education for all students, in preparation for a future beyond high school.

On paper, the work sounds so reasonable and manageable. In reality, it consists of continuous consultation: administrators and teachers making decisions together, working out the protocol of change together, and involving parents and students in a process that won’t be quick or easy.

Because the cultures of our schools don’t typically lend themselves to change, collaboration, and consensus, the work is agonizing and sometimes painful. Those same cultures resist the need to allow school walls to come down, letting ideas, people, and resources join our efforts.

We must locate teachers at the very center of our questioning in St. Paul and nationwideif the vision of a more personal, engaging school experience is to become a reality for more of our students.

The process of change begins with teachers. Without the focus they can bring to their larger communities, the ideas for productive school reform will once again fill dusty volumes on the shelves of strategists who never fully addressed the crucial question: “Where are the teachers?”

Mary Beth Blegen served from 1997 to 2000 as the first Teacher-in-Residence at the U.S. Department of Education, in the office of former Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley. She is currently the blueprint coordinator for the St. Paul public schools in Minnesota.

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