There is no group on the planet I like more than teachers. But sometimes, I wish teachers would stop being so polite--so thoroughly restrained and moderate in their approach to conflict-- and start intelligently and zealously defending the profession they love.
Teaching is complex intellectual labor. It has widespread, measurable value to society. It efficiently undergirds the political economy (especially when adequately supported by public dollars), and improves the communal quality of life. Done right, it's difficult work-- as Lee Shulman once said, teaching is impossible.
So why would any teacher waffle when asked to clearly define what they need to be successful-- or shy away from overtly demanding control over their own working conditions? If my house is on fire, I want skilled (and adequately compensated) firefighters. I'm not about to insert my own Foley catheter, should the need arise--I want a well-trained nurse. For my children, I want self-confident teachers who can articulate their own values, goals and essential tools. Teachers who aren't afraid to get angry and speak up when they're maligned, misunderstood or mistreated.
Item: Education Writers Association brings outstanding teachers to New York and talks at them, instead of with them. Session Topics: Improving Professional Development, Teaching Teachers (Ed Schools and Alternative Pathways), Recruiting and Hiring, Strategic Management of Human Capital. Number of teacher speakers on panels: zero.
Item: The Wisconsin State Teacher of the Year speaks lucidly and forthrightly for her colleagues, making several good points about state budget negotiations and the impact of loss of public funding on small towns (and there are a lot of small towns in Wisconsin). Then she says: I am in no way a political person. Truthfully, all I really want to do is close my door and teach. Oh, I hope not. We need every smart and articulate teacher out there advocating. The issues are huge and go way beyond collective bargaining rights and health benefits.
Once, in conversation with a neighbor (a staunch Republican), about teachers, he noted that while he certainly appreciated and admired scores of wonderful things public schools and teachers had done for his four children, he thought the teachers' union was destroying growth and business prospects in Michigan. I reminded him that no union is an entity separate from its members.
He was unconvinced. He saw teachers as productive citizens and friends (including me), but public unions as forces of socialism, greed and mediocrity, a position that seemed kind of schizophrenic to me, given that all the teachers who caused his children to love school were part of a strong teachers' union. Our conversation went nowhere. He was absolutely unable to attach a human face to any aspect of teacher unionism or action--including high-road issues that his own kids had benefited from: class size, mentoring for new teachers, time set aside for shared professional learning.
If the only time that teachers get angry, en masse, is when their financial stability is threatened, the public may have difficulty seeing teachers as passionate experts, fighting for best practice and better policy. Deborah Meier, speaking about the human need for dignity, says:
Yes, "children first." But I believed then as now that young people should not be surrounded by fearful, timid, obedient adults. They needed to witness adulthood as something worthy of aspiring to.
Dignity implies the obligation to advocate--with conviction and courage--for what is right and necessary.
It's been a week of advocacy, conviction and courage. Can it continue, across the country? Will dignified and articulate teacher experts emerge?
*If you are younger than, say, 60 you may not recognize the lyrics to a truly dreadful song, "Johnny Get Angry," which references appallingly sexist values, brave men, cave men and maybe...Marlon Brando. How things have changed.