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Do 'Upper Crust' Teachers Ignore Our Most Critical Problems in Public Education?

It began as a Twitter exchange with Tim Fournier (aka @PepinoSuave), a teacher and administrator in my home state of Michigan. Tim challenged Michigan's "upper crust" teachers to pay more attention to issues of equity and poverty. Tim had some important things to say to teachers who dominate the conversation on social media, and was kind enough to provide some thoughtful and articulate answers to my questions about what some of the most recognized names in Michigan education are posting—and why.

Q: Your original tweet said: I may be off on this, but Michigan's teacher upper crust doesn't appear to be a significant voice in the struggle for educational equity.  I am curious about two things: which MI teachers you consider the "upper crust"--and why you don't feel that educational equity is a priority for them.

TF: Michigan's "Upper Crust" teachers are the winners of the zip code jackpot. By good fortune or good planning, they labor in the fields with the richest soils, the gentlest rains, and the best in government subsidies. Don't get me wrong, the location of their work does not detract from their talents, hard work, and good intentions. The majority are great at what they do, and, coupled with a stage set for success, they produce some of the best educational gains in the world.

I have a hunch that, for most of the Upper Crust, the plight of the teachers and families in the 'other' zip codes aren't a high priority for them. My hunch stems from their investment of time--Is their time invested in visiting the most troubled communities near them?  Is it invested in inviting colleagues and families from stressed districts to visit their classrooms? Is in invested in working with their education associations and legislators to advocate on their behalf? Letters written to editors and influential community members? How are they spending their time ensuring that their neighboring schools have resources that approach the lush fields of their home school districts?

I am a fortunate Michigan educator. I have had the opportunity to work in distinct zip codes: Detroit Public Schools, Forest Hills Public Schools, and the Grand Rapids Public Schools (as well as Mexican, Dominican, and Colombian schools).  I can vouch for the fact that my Upper Crust colleagues are busy.  They juggle the burdens of teaching a demanding clientele, administrative tasks, extracurriculars, and training.

But I am compelled to remind them: so do their colleagues in the 'other' schools. So do the Detroit Public School teachers. The Detroit teachers, in spite of extraordinary demands and blistering critique, took to the cold streets to demand equity for their students and families.

Where were the rest of us, their colleagues?

Q: Is it the responsibility of all award-winning / recognized teachers to speak out publicly for educational equity? Why or why not?

TF: From the Michigan Department of Education website:

"The Michigan Teacher of the Year (MTOY) is the spokesperson for Michigan's 100,000+ teachers."

Among the 100,000 Michigan teachers are those working in the communities with the least resources. Award-winning communities produce student outcomes that compete with the highest-performing countries in the world. Our impoverished communities are neck and neck with historically poor nations. Which communities are most in need of a spokesperson?

Q: What DO teacher leaders/recognized educators talk about, in social media and in the public? Why do you think they avoid contentious--or the most important--topics and issues?

TF: In my experience, teachers devote a lot of time on social media tinkering with the craft and the science of teaching. Many teachers find social media a good place to encourage other teachers. Teachers are hard-working on and off social media.

Teacher leaders also devote extraordinary social media space protesting hot topics like core curriculum, charter schooling, corporate-driven reforms, and standardized testing. In my opinion, the needs of public schooling's most underrepresented families are dwarfed by these issues. The same time and space could be dedicated to amplifying the voices of students of color and students of poverty. I question our priorities.

I imagine teachers avoid contentious issues for the same reasons I do: they don't want to appear arrogant, they don't want to appear disrespectful, and job security. 

Q: Who do you think has the greatest influence in re-shaping education policy and practice--teachers? Policy-makers? Administrators? Parents? The media?

TF: I don't know who has the greatest influence: politicians or policymakers. In some ways they are in the same boat, though; from their viewpoint far from the classroom, they instigate change based more on ideology than on educationally-sound rationale.

I think parents and teachers have the least influence. Both are 'where the rubber meets the road,' but are rarely part of the power conversations about education in this country.

Q: What else would you like to say about the issue of equity and public education? You have broad experience in both disadvantaged and well-heeled public school districts. What do you believe are the essential resources that make school districts well-run and productive? What's missing in schools struggling with inequities?

TF: I've learned a lot in my travels. The lesson that is confirmed wherever I teach is sobering:

Affluence makes even mediocre teaching look good and poverty can make masterful teaching appear mediocre. It takes many clock hours within classroom walls to decipher the difference. Few education change-makers and upper crust teachers dedicate that kind of time to our neglected classrooms.

The essential resource that is missing is our presence. Detroit's inhumane classroom conditions didn't occur overnight; they existed for at least a generation. Where were we?

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