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Do Perks for Teachers Compromise Their Integrity?

My first experience with getting a perk for being an exemplary teacher:

I was chosen as the Michigan Teacher of the Year, 1992-3. At the celebratory banquet, I received a computer. This was pretty exciting for me—I didn't own a computer at the time, and my experience was limited to the single Apple iiE used (or not) by all the teachers in my building. The computer was set up with a marquee banner scrolling across the screen with my name, title, the date—and the donor (Digital Corporation). Everyone who entered the banquet room walked past it.

All of this was most cool. At the end of the evening, as the Digital representative (who had been acknowledged and applauded during the program) was leaving, she unplugged the computer and tucked the cord into her tote bag. Wait, I said. Why are you taking the cord? Because it can be re-used with our new computers, she said, explaining that my computer was, essentially, outmoded and had been scrapped for newer, faster, more powerful models in the Digital office.

I was getting a used CPU and monitor. Without a cord. Or a printer, programs, warranty, or even a box.

I am not embarrassed to say that I was still thrilled to own a computer, although I was on a steep learning curve regarding what it took to become computer literate and connected to the WWW. That computer was my introduction not only to digital communication and learning, but also the way schools and teachers are regarded by the business community.

Since then, I have been the recipient of many perks—travel, meals, hotel stays, media items, and other branded swag, from T-shirts to phone chargers. When it comes to business-provided accoutrements, teachers are pikers, however. We work for cheap, in our "real" careers as well as our side hustles, and often return home from professional presentations with not much more than tote bags and tchotchkes.

I was long of the opinion that there are so few perks and recognitions for rank-and-file teachers (a better parking place? A $10 gift card to Starbucks?) that all award programs and honoraria are good and warranted. Teachers deserve appreciation and gifts. They earned them, through dedication and effort. Their creative work is important, and frequently underestimated and unacknowledged. And teachers—unlike real estate agents, say, or professional athletes—seldom get trophies, banquets or feature articles in the local newspaper.

A teacher can, however, sell her soul or her personal integrity for not very much in return—and here we must consider the way businesses (and now, non-profits and policymakers) see schools and teachers: as clients, customers, and recipients. Schools and teachers are the objects of commerce and policy, not co-creators or idea-generators or genuine partners. We get "gifts" from business, if we are producing what they need.

Imaginative teachers who develop new ways to use tech tools can enjoy a stint as on-the-ground spokesperson and social media star, benefitting a manufacturer. And the Gates Foundation supports any number of "grass roots" organizations that train teachers to reach out to policymakers—letting legislators claim that their policy innovations are "approved by teachers." But in the end, it's the business that controls the agenda, and the "teacher leader" or school that gets a temporary spotlight.

In an age when our most prominent politicians care more about branding and winning than caring for our neighbors, let alone schoolchildren, it's easy for teachers to get caught up in the flattering idea that their ideas and practices stand out and deserve public acclaim. Teaching is a profession devoid of glamour and cutting-edge trappings, after all. We're the kind of people who had to fight for a 27-minute lunch block, wherein we eat reheated leftovers over a paper towel, squeezing in a phone call and session with the copy machine.

So—yeah—traveling around the country to share the idea that your classroom, too, can be just like a Starbucks sounds tempting. Where I get off the ethics train here is promoting specific brands and programs, and teaching 8-year-olds about their personal brand and digital footprint.  When you're 8, your personal brand—Best on the monkey bars! Awesome speller! Reads chapter books!—ought to be known only in your family and in your classroom.

Award-winning teachers—if they have a conscience—have all had to wrestle with the gap between delicious recognition and compromising or losing the qualities that made you locally famous in the first place. A title, or an array of perks, doesn't make you smarter or more effective than your colleagues—and teaching, done right, is a collegial profession.

The novice "famous teacher" has another steep learning curve, around these questions: Who are the people and organizations that genuinely support public education, and the kids who rely on public ed to make their futures? And who are the people and organizations that have an alternate agenda, using schools and teachers to promote their own brands and ideas?

It can take a long time to figure that out. And in the process, you can lose your integrity.

I say this from personal experience. It's easy to bend your principles, when you're trying to please someone powerful. Someone with a high-profile brand, who's promising you a whole range of benefits and admiration that will never come your way in the classroom.

Beware. There's no such thing as free.

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