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Four Ways for Teachers to 'Engage'


David B. Cohen

Polls show most Americans have favorable views of their children's schools and teachers, so how do we explain the amount of negativity in the nation's broader educational discourse?

I think we're witnessing a collision of factors narrowing the storyline of American public education and educators. Economics, politics, and the media all have helped propel us toward what novelist Chimamanda Adichie calls "the danger of the single story." If American public schools and students are failing, as we hear repeatedly and without qualification, then America's teachers must be incompetent—even though we still approve of our local schools and teachers.

It's unfair, but as educators there are steps we can take to improve our profession and the public view of it. All of these suggestions involve deeper engagement, so let's think about that word for a moment.

An engaged couple enters a firm, lasting commitment. When gears are engaged, they're interlocked and interdependent—moving, driving, or producing. When our students are engaged in their learning, they feel safe, respected, and ready to tackle complex challenges because they care about the results. These are the characteristics I seek in advocating "engagement."

Here are four ways for teachers to engage more effectively to strengthen our profession and the general public's perception of teachers:

  1. Engage with students, parents, and the community. Let's improve our collaboration with the people closest to us and most invested in our shared success. Student engagement is our greatest responsibility and greatest joy at work. Most community members appreciate the work we're doing and understand the difficult circumstances we face; we need to step up our engagement to include more substantive, ongoing collaboration.
  2. Engage with your professional peers. We are millions; it's not enough to settle for collaboration within schools or districts. Join professional organizations and associations. Participate in unions at the local, state, or national level. Pursue your National Board Certification, and encourage other to do the same. Build up your professional learning networks, locally, nationally, even globally—perhaps with Twitter chats like #edchat and #teaching2030.
  3. Engage politically. Some teachers don't want to think about, worry about, or involve themselves with education politics. I understand the feelings behind that approach, but we cannot lay low while our schools, students, and colleagues are swatted around by deep budget cuts and ill-considered policies that hurt education. We help elevate our profession and our image by engaging politically to ensure better education policy.
  4. Engage positivity. We can work to meet the challenges without adopting the negative frame. Avoid generalizations that are damaging, and apply some critical thinking to those you read or hear. Read Kristina Rizga's article, "Everything You've Heard About Failing Schools is Wrong"—and never again use the label "failing schools."

Our professional progress will require a collective engagement unlike anything we've seen before. It's unfortunate we're confronting negativity in the public sphere right now, but we can mitigate the damage by committing to these positive changes in our approach.

David B. Cohen is associate director of Accomplished California Teachers, and a National Board-certified English teacher at Palo Alto High School (Palo Alto, Calif.).

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