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RHSU Classic: Teachers Should Just Say No to Cheap Talk & Lip Service

This month marks the 10th anniversary of Rick Hess Straight Up, making it a propitious time to revisit some favorites from the past decade. For each of the Top 20 which run this month, I've offered a quick reflection or thought as to why it remains a personal favorite. 

During the Race to the Top era, I was troubled by two ubiquitous (if contradictory) trends. The first was the tendency to yammer about "failing" teachers via mechanistic, industry-speak phrases like "human capital" and "value-added." The second was all the silly, juvenile, insincere plaudits tossed at teachers, by "reformers" and "anti-reformers" alike. It was all quite dizzying, especially when some bureaucrat or foundation talking head would rail against "broken" systems, "failing" schools, and "ineffective" teachers—and then try to seamlessly pivot to hailing teachers as "heroes." I finally had my fill and penned this column. Now, on to number 6, originally posted on July 7, 2014.

Teachers get lots of lip service, misty-eyed declarations of admiration, and cloying tributes. These blanket hugs are ritually offered up to 3-million-plus teachers, without qualifiers or challenges. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has insisted, "I believe that [teachers] are absolutely the unsung heroes of our society." Actor Matt Damon told a Save Our Schools rally, "I flew overnight ... and came down here because I really had to tell you all in person that I think you all are awesome." Or, as Michelle Collay put it in Everyday Teacher Leadership, "Teaching is not just another job. Choosing to work with children and youth on a daily basis is something elevated to superhuman status."

These platitudes are the junk food of speechmaking. They seem insincere, like the empty words of car salesmen (even when they're not). But there's a bigger problem. This isn't how we talk to professionals. It's how we talk to Cub Scouts or T-ball players, because we think they're cute and too fragile for tougher stuff.

You don't lard buckets of mushy sentiment on people you really respect. This verbal tic is the opposite of respect. In fact, it infantilizes teachers and crowds out respect. Real respect is earned. It carries an edge. It's not given away freely or casually. It's a conversation between equals. And we usually don't feel obliged to shower banal praise on our equals. 

All this happy talk is insincere, anyway. We know this, because nobody honestly believes all of America's 3-million-plus teachers are awesome or heroic.  As one decorated teacher told me, "I am so sick of all this teacher-heroism crap, already. I'm a professional, not a hero." Saying this isn't meant as an attack on teachers: After all, nobody thinks that every doctor, lawyer, professor, or cop is good or noble, either. Even the voluble Matt Damon doesn't think that every actor or screenwriter in Hollywood is "awesome." How do I know? Well, a few years ago, Damon slammed screenwriter Tony Gilroy, saying of Gilroy's Bourne Ultimatum script, "This is a career-ender. I mean, I could put this thing up on eBay, and it would be game over for that dude. It's terrible." Teachers are imperfect. Real respect starts by saying plainly, to their face, that some teachers are great and some aren't. That's how you can start to believe that people are sincere.

Teachers kind of know all this—but, disconcertingly, they've seemingly come to expect the clichés as their due. Indeed, some of the most vocal teachers have taken to answering even respectful concerns with vitriol and venom. This ensures that teachers will only get insincere pats on the head. When teachers start hearing the empty blah-blah, they need to know that everything that follows is probably unserious—and that the real decisions are going to be made after the lights are turned out and teachers are ordered off to bed.

Cage-busting teachers don't just get this, they do something about it. Like what? Start by taking a page from U.S. Army Captain Benjamin Summers, who took to the pages of The Washington Post in 2014 to flatly declare, "I have worn an Army uniform for the past eight years and deployed twice to Afghanistan. This doesn't make me a hero. Many veterans deserve high praise for their heroism, but others of us do not." Summers wasn't belittling or selling out his comrades—he was just talking straight. He closed, "Not every service member is a hero. The quicker we realize that, the quicker we [can] start. . . answer[ing] the difficult policy problems we face."

Peter Greene, a veteran English teacher and former union president in Pennsylvania, and author of the "Curmudgucation" blog, shows what this looks like in schooling: "Teachers know full well that bad teachers exist, probably better than anyone; after all, your kid was in Mr. McNumbnutt's class for a year, but I've been working next door to him for 10. While there are teachers who are going through a patch, need some guidance, or are struggling with a difficult assignment, some teachers, having had their chance to shape up, need to get out. Likewise, many reformsters have acknowledged that teachers need to be protected from capricious firing, that they should have job security necessary to actually do their job without fear of retribution for following their best professional judgment. If we can agree on those two points, everything else in the conversation is detail." When teachers talk like this, they'll find people a lot more inclined to talk to them and treat them like professionals.

The next time teachers hear someone launch into starry-eyed, infantilizing dreck, they should calmly call bull$&%*. They should tell Duncan, Damon, or whoever to store their empty words and to talk concretely and practically about how to promote excellence and address mediocrity. If they do, they just might be pleasantly surprised by the results.

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