The Summer Opportunity
It's time for the beginning of summer break. That means a time of opportunity for teachers, ranging from the personal to the professional. But the greater availability of teachers also means that summer is a time of opportunity for policy makers and education deep thinkers.
Even policymakers and edubiz advocates who want to involve teachers in the Ed Conversation (yes, I think there are such people) can find it challenging to do so during the school year, because those of us who teach are busy doing our jobs. Simple ways of connecting and conversing that work in the private and government sectors ("I'll just pop in to your office for an hour or so tomorrow afternoon to go over the details") do not translate at all to the teaching world ("I think I can take five minutes out of lunch to run those forms up to the office"). Lobbyists and thinky tank types take long working lunches while first grade teachers go seven hours without peeing because they don't have the time. Legislators hold hearings about education, but no teachers are there because they are working (and if they do take a personal day to be there, they may wait in vain an entire day to speak).
Much has been made of the Media Matter study showing that only 9% of evening cable shows about education included educators as guests. I have no doubt that the 9% reflects a common belief that teachers are not worthy experts when it comes to speaking about education. But I also wonder how much the 9% is influenced by the need to tape segments during the day, or the need for a guest to be in a studio at a late hour on a school night. I've had that conversation and had to tell a booker that, no, I can't even do a quick fifteen minute phone segment because at that time I will be helping fourteen-year-olds tell the difference between adjective and adverb clauses.
This has always been the disadvantage for teachers with legislators and policy makers. While a teacher is busy doing her job in a classroom, a lobbyist is being paid to be available to talk to Important People on any day at any time. Perhaps this is part of why so many policy makers don't seem to love us-- they hear, "I don't have time to talk to you because I'm doing more important things, like collecting lunch money from seven-year-olds." It's possible that teachers are accidentally triggering legislators' sad memories of withholding parents who were always "too busy."
But summer is different. Summer offers opportunity for communicating across the gap between teachers and the creators and pushers of policy.
Teachers can (and should) channel time and effort into contacting their elected representatives. Tell them what you think about the various assaults of testing and evaluation and charter takeovers and the rest of the mess of reformsterism. Do it on a regular basis. If it's hard to get everything you want to say into one email or letter, write twelve. Call them up. Make sure that policy makers have every opportunity to hear your voice.
Teachers can (and should) take the time to read up on issues and learn about the policy discussions going on. I am still astonished at the number of teachers who just don't know much about what's happening, who know that something's going on that is making their job harder, but they don't know what's being done, by whom it's being done, or where it's being done. The days when teachers could ignore policy and politics and stay happily cocooned in their classrooms are gone. If we're going to advocate for our students, we have to understand the forces arrayed against them and us.
Meanwhile, reformy advocates could reach out to teachers. Not carefully vetted, pre-selected, chosen for their willingness to agree with policymakers teachers, but actual working teachers who aren't necessarily fans. Read the blogs. You don't have to agree with them, and you don't have to like them. But when people are being honestly and sincerely critical of you, the very least you can learn from them is how your work is coming across. Communication is not just about what you said; it's about what they heard. Reformsters have the opportunity to get a very clear picture of what public school advocates hear them saying. All that's necessary is some listening.
Folks can even reach out across the gulf. As my esteemed colleague Jennifer Berkshire has noted, some public ed advocates and some reformy folks do share some things-- a passion about education, a frustration with large lumpen bureaucracy, even an inability to shut up about the topics. It is always a mistake to assume that the people who disagree with you do so because they are greedy, stupid, or evil. In this day and age, it is child's play to reach across the divide with a tweet or an email. During the summer, teachers have the time for that sort of thing. People who are sincerely interested in doing something about US education should take advantage of a chance to contact real experts in the field.
Every summer of my career, I've made it my business to try to Learn Stuff. It is a great opportunity, a real privilege that I have as a teacher. Now more than ever, it's an opportunity that all of us should be taking advantage of.