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Shutting Teachers Up

Many years ago, before the internet, while there was still such a thing as local print journalism comprised of actual reporters writing stories about what was going on around town, a friendly newspaper editor asked me to write a monthly column about education. There had been a local education column in this paper prior to this, but the teacher who wrote it got into some hot water for writing about the misbehavior of students. He referred to his students using a few teachers-lounge terms--out of control, bouncing off the walls--and poof! He was history, yanked back by his district after irate parents complained. 

The editor gave me a quick primer in editorial writing--600 to 800 words, short paragraphs, don't mention locals by name unless it's laudatory--and said the purpose of these guest editorial columns was opening conversations on broader education issues. They wanted to get letters to the editor. They wanted pieces about how education was changing, and whether teachers thought those changes were useful or disastrous. One topic she suggested--and this tells you how long ago this was--was the efficacy of corporal punishment.

We'll throw a disclaimer on the end of your column, she said, explaining that you don't speak for your school district, only yourself. She didn't have to tell me not to write about thinly disguised individual students or my evil principal. I knew better. Important to know: I was not compensated for these pieces.

I wrote eight columns, several of which stirred up very interesting dialogue. The most controversial was about giving students extra time to turn in late assignments, without penalty. Most of the angry letters came from teachers, actually, who felt that in the "real world" one would be punished for not meeting a deadline. The grateful letters came from parents who noted that what's most important is that assignments are worthwhile and produce actual learning, and the "real world" is hardly rule-bound and rigid. Or real, for that matter.

Shortly after that column, I got a "cease and desist" missive from the superintendent. Formally composed, the letter explained that a disclaimer would not convince newspaper readers that I wasn't representing the district in my viewpoints (none of which had been even remotely political or policy-oriented, beyond the small-potatoes grading issue). Therefore, he was directing me, as my buck-stops-here supervisor, to stop writing pieces for the newspaper.

And so I did, muttering about the First Amendment.

I've been externally compelled to stop writing or speaking about particular ed-issues a handful of times--by employers (both public schools and non-profits) and by my state union (a painful experience). Education Week Teacher allows me to express my unvarnished perspectives--but I realize that the folks who need most to speak right now about the effects of education policy on daily practice often face serious constraints, especially if they want to remain gainfully employed as teachers and school leaders.

Any number of thoughtful, intelligent, provocative voices in education operate behind pseudonyms, to give them the cover they need. But there's something about writing under your own authentic identity, having to own what you write and defend your words from criticism, that's quintessentially democratic, and a mark of honest journalism. 

When practitioners aren't allowed to openly share their critical perspectives, they lose the ability to speak their own truths and use first-hand experience as a lever for change. We're stuck with the financially supported opinions of--not to put too fine a point on it--flacks. Opinions generated in a handful of heavy-duty funders' inner offices. Or we're reading the work of quasi-journalists who get "content" fed to them from grant-funded institutions that depend on following a policy agenda to keep their doors open. A genuinely free editorial press is essential if we're going to solve problems in public education.

Worse, when public forums permit hiding behind a pseudonym, we get publicly elected education leaders trying to influence civic discourse and policy-making through ugly insults and tapping into racism. Why should teachers--mostly public employees--be prohibited from telling their stories honestly, when anonymous public officials get to spew hateful rhetoric, then spout corporate edu-platitudes and shake hands with the governor on the front page? 

Technology has led us to the point where anyone can publish and anyone can opine. Money makes it possible for the profiteers to have the loudest voices at the same time as public employees are worried about losing their modest jobs. It's no way to pursue bona fide excellence in public education. If that was ever our genuine aim... 

This is not about being "nice"--or declining to express strong (but informed) opinions out of some misguided sense of politeness or professional decorum. I understand why teachers write pieces about the anguish, bitterness and frustration of losing control over their core work. I understand the rash of "Why I'm Quitting" blogs. 

This is about intimidation--threatening to make life and work miserable for teachers who say what they really think about the way policy plays out in actual classrooms and kids' lives. I am grateful to regional news outlets that capture first-hand accounts of working in "turnaround" government-instituted structures. I am grateful to every reporter who does the legwork essential to uncover corruption and incompetence in charter school world.

But most of all, I'm grateful to honest-to-God teachers who keep sharing their stories, in spite of the threat of being silenced. You're doing important work, my friends. 

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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.

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