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What Will it Take for Teachers to be Heard?

In this wonderful post from two weeks ago, Teacher of the Year Anthony Mullen vividly captured our collective frustration with the nature of much of the national dialogue regarding education reform in the 21st century. Anthony Mullen was able to send those at the table into embarrassed silence, but they did not then turn to him for guidance. Perhaps the reason we are so rarely asked for our views is that those in power do not wish to hear us. We are, after all, not hard to find. We even have organizations that regularly make our views known.

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So what must we do to actually influence policies that affect us and our students?

First, we need to engage in an active process to share and refine our views.
We need to become well-informed about education policy, research, and the implications of our own ground-level experiences. We need to actively debate these issues among ourselves and with our allies and partners on this journey - parents, students and members of our educational communities. We must arrive at some clear viewpoints on the issues we face.

Second, we need to continue to develop our vision of what education should be. We so often find ourselves in a place where we are reacting to one travesty after another, and in reaction we rarely stop long enough to develop what we believe a school should be. How can we structure a classroom so that all children are served well? How can we engage students in creative, critical thinking? How can we tap the divergent interests and imaginations of a random assortment of children from different races and backgrounds? We need to share these visions with one another, and with the public at large, because that is the real source for our inspiration. I am not here to fight standardized tests. I am here to celebrate real learning and all that nurtures it.

Third, we need organization! We have a new group gathered around the Teachers' Letters to Obama project, where we are discussing these issues. In California, we have a group called Accomplished California Teachers, that is working on some reports on educational policy, and gathering teachers for discussions and action. We have the Teacher Leaders Network that brings together teachers from around the country. There are excellent professional organizations such as the National Science Teachers Association, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and the National Council of Teachers of English and the National Council for History Education. And we have the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards that has created the process by which many of us have become certified as accomplished teachers. We need to be involved in such organizations and use them to advocate for classroom teachers and students. There are also more activist-oriented groups, like FairTest, which advocates for better assessment practices, and Rethinking Schools, which explores many of these issues through a great magazine.

But the most powerful form of organization we have by far is our unions. Two thirds of America's teachers belong to either the NEA or the AFT - about four million strong, the largest unions in the nation. Teachers are professionals, but we are also workers. Our work is directed and controlled by administrators, and overseen by distant policymakers who do not care much what we think. I believe that one of the main priorities of the "school reform" movement is the de-unionization of teaching. They are going at this by aggressively expanding charters, which have the power to completely re-write union contracts, eliminating protections for tenured teachers, and expanding hours and duties. They are also working hard to portray unions as defenders of the incompetent at the expense of our students.

But our unions are the most important organizations we have as a profession. Without our unions, elementary school teachers, mostly women, would still be paid significantly less than high school teachers, as they were at the turn of the century. Our unions are fundamentally democratic. We may not always agree with the leadership, but they are elected and we can get involved if we choose to.

Over the past decade a disastrous split has developed between those who advocate for teachers, and those who advocate for children. George W. Bush and the architects of NCLB took advantage of this wedge, and it is the fundamental problem we face as a profession. We MUST be solid advocates for children, as well as for our profession. We cannot be seen as being selfish about our own interests at the expense of children -- that has been the devastating critique embedded in NCLB and most of the current school reform efforts.

Our unions are in somewhat of a bind when it comes to defending those who are incompetent. They are legally obliged to represent and defend individuals, and advocate on their behalf. Union leaders have taken the stance that it is up to the administration to identify and follow procedures to help such teachers to improve, or to terminate them. However, in many districts, including my own, principals are often overwhelmed, and incapable of following through with a solid evaluation. As a result, incompetent teachers may stay on the job for years, harming hundreds of children. Traditionally union leaders have said, "That's not our problem." But if we want to behave as a profession, we have to make that our problem, otherwise we find ourselves in the situation we are in, accused of sheltering crummy teachers.

I think we need to work with our union leadership to expand ways that teachers take responsibility for our professional standards at a school. We need more peer observations. We need to make evaluations more meaningful -- connected to good teaching standards. The purpose should be for improving our practice, and we should connect the process to opportunities for professional growth. That could include collaborative projects at school, teacher research, coursework, or seminars. We should be creative and pro-active in proposing such changes, rather than sitting on our hands and waiting for the administration to come up with ways to improve teaching. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten issued a challenge to us to engage in this process on January 12. We need to look closely at the proposals she is making, and figure out how this can be implemented in constructive ways. I think we are losing the battle if we sit on the sidelines.

It is true that as a profession we are getting very little respect. In part that is because we have some real latent power in our unions, and there is a drive to diminish that power. Unions give us the power to act together, and that is the single greatest power we have. No matter how articulate and insightful we may be, the power of our insight is very weak compared to the strength we have when we act -- and even strike if necessary -- together.

We need to expand our dialogue around the issues we face so as to figure out how to tackle real problems like the creation of effective evaluation processes, authentic models of assessment, and stemming the problem of drop-outs and student alienation. And we need to work to strengthen our unions, and other organizations that speak for us. The only way we will get that seat at the table, and more importantly, influence over our destiny as professionals, is when we have clear solutions and the power to enact them.

What do you think? How can we get our voices heard as teachers? How should we get organized? And how should we relate to our unions?

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