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Teachers Using What They Know

It happened again last week. I posted a comment on a Detroit Free Press article on the Common Core, and the first thing that popped up under my comment was this (and I'm paraphrasing): Pay no attention to anything Nancy Flanagan says. She's a teacher. Therefore, she's a Democrat and an MEA member. And therefore, her opinions are predetermined, controlled by others and invalid.

The irony? I was trying to inject a little nuance into a what had turned into a vicious battle resembling the Hatfields and the McCoys, if most of the combatants couldn't tell a Hatfield from a McCoy but were seriously interested in shooting somebody, anybody. Right now. Over academic standards. Fire, ready, aim.

The level of take-sides aggression over education policy has come to an interesting place. You can't tell the players without a scorecard, in spite of partisan affiliation, union membership or aversion, the spokesperson's genuine level of expertise and experience around the policy in question--or whether someone is paying for their "opinion."

There's also this: Teachers (contrary to popular opinion) are not monolithic. About a third of them identify as Republicans and vote that way in national elections. A whole lot of them, especially those who were raised with the idea that unions were for people who work in factories, find rough-and-tumble union politics distasteful.

We read all the time about teachers who claim to have "no time" to sift through, read and discuss the very policies that control their daily work. As a long-time practitioner, I recognize some validity in this claim. Teaching well is incredibly time-consuming and stressful. If you're paying dues, you may well decide to out-source your policy thinking to an advocacy group that has the time and expertise to deconstruct the ed-policy du jour and predict how it will impact your work, and your students.

However. Once you've lived with a decade of time-sucking, high-stakes, grade-by-grade standardized tests, or experienced the anxiety of having your employment options determined by student test data--it's probably time to stop saying "I'm not political" and personally jump into the fray, in whatever ways you deem useful and appropriate.

Talk to parents, neighbors and your own family. Read widely. Build networks. But make sure you're working from correct assumptions, and not worn-out talking points generated by hired guns (or the federal government).

That's what professionals do. They use their experience and hard-won expertise to illuminate their perspectives. They avoid pigeon-holing sources of opinion by political party or the famous face that represents a particular viewpoint. They engage in dialogue. They stay abreast of emerging issues, and read from both sides. Occasionally, they change their minds.

They are not intimidated. Even if they're public employees. And especially if they're public employees who aren't being paid or coached by an education non-profit to promote a viewpoint.

Here's another reason why teachers need to inject their rational, informed voices into the national conversation around public education: there's now an organization with a clear, distinct political agenda using simulated distaste for the educational Hatfields vs McCoys slug-fest--like the one I encountered at the Free Press--to press for "civil discussion." Full of their talking points, of course.

I recently had a conversation with a friend who lives in California. I mentioned the Vergara case, and how the intent of one poorly reasoned legal decision would be used in an attempt to take down the concept of tenure protections for teachers. Good, she said. That will improve the public schools, getting rid of bad teachers. Don't you think so?

I was stunned--but had the presence of mind not to launch into my own talking points, and to ask her about her thinking. She told a story about her child, and a series of academic misdiagnoses that kept him away from the instruction he needed. She traced their dissatisfaction with their public school system to one particular teacher, nearly two decades ago. She thought, overall, that her kids had been well-served by this district--but couldn't get over that one teacher, who had sent her son down the wrong path. Therefore, teachers don't deserve tenure.

Here's another irony: quite possibly, that same teacher was a godsend to other families.

This is why teachers need to share what they think. This means getting political, but not partisan. It means knowing who's funding and shaping op-eds and blogs, who's quietly carrying water for deep-pockets funders. It means using what you know.

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