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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Who Speaks for Teachers?: Embattled Educators Must Unite Around a Common Vision

Anthony Cody

Science Coach and mentor, Oakland, California

This is the second post in a two-part entry. Read part one.

One of my colleagues on the Teacher Leaders Network recently mused, "Have we abdicated our ability to speak for ourselves and to react? It's why I think policy makers may not listen to us. We have long relied on our unions to speak for us."

From my perspective, if we do not want the unions to speak for us, then we have to speak up for ourselves. If we do not like the way others represent us, we must better represent ourselves.

A Profession Under Pressure

I would take as a given that teaching is a profession. But it is a profession under attack on several fronts. We are under attack politically and ideologically from conservatives who have blamed us for the achievement gap, for the "soft bigotry of low expectations." This was the neocon framing behind No Child Left Behind, which said that educational inequity was due not to any social or economic factors but to the government "monopoly" on public schools.

The remedy was to show those schools to be failures so the government could dismantle them. The casualties are the millions of teachers and students at these schools who now find themselves facing high-stakes tests that have become central to their work.

We are under attack as a skilled workforce. The constant crises in our schools and the miserable conditions in many of them, compounded by chronic underfunding and low pay, have resulted in a high level of turnover and an artificial shortage of teachers.

In reality, there is no shortage of teachers. If everyone with a teaching credential actually wanted to teach, we would have at least twice as many teachers as we need. Some use this artificial shortage to justify lowering entry requirements to the profession, allowing "emergency" programs to get people teaching after six-week boot camps.

Educational leaders such as Paul Vallas, in New Orleans, say that it is just fine to rotate teachers through a school system in two-year stints. After all, the schools give the teachers high-quality curriculum tools to use, so their lack of experience doesn't matter. Because the profession is not sustaining itself as a learning community, and expertise is not invested in experienced colleagues within a school, scripted curriculum becomes the source of expertise. Teachers then become passive implementers, mere technicians delivering rehearsed lines, administering prepared assessments, and measuring rote learning.

Playing the Union Card

I think it is a distraction to blame the unions, which are a big target for people who wish to disempower teachers, and who often blame unions for protecting "bad teachers." But in practice, I think these people greatly exaggerate this problem.

I worked for two years as a coach in my school district's Peer Assistance and Review program, in which I dealt with the termination process. If the union successfully defended someone, it was usually because district administrators had messed up in the steps they were supposed to take to complete the process. Administrators are governing barely functional sites, and in that beleaguered state, they find it difficult to accomplish this task. You could blame the union, but I think that misses the point. These sites are not functioning well, and it is not the fault of one or two crummy teachers in the mix.

If you really want to improve teaching, start empowering teachers to build strong and vibrant learning communities at their schools. Give them the time and resources to collaborate with one another. Give them several weeks together in the summer to prepare for the school year. Support them administratively so they feel that the school is handling discipline issues well, which allows them to focus on teaching. Engage the community so that parents are behind the school and support their children in the hard work we ask them to do.

These are some of the things that would make all teachers at a school more effective, and educators unwilling to step up would stick out like sore thumbs. I do not see unions standing in the way of any of these changes. In fact, I see unions supporting most of them.

Steps to Success

So, how do we begin? Here are some steps to take to begin to empower educators:

  • Take back the moral high ground by asserting our accountability to our students and communities.
  • Engage our students in an ongoing process to define meaningful learning so that our schools continually reflect their interests in every sense of the word.
  • Engage with our communities so they grasp their role in defining meaningful outcomes for their students.
  • Redefine authentic assessments so they are aligned with the values of our students and communities.
  • Make authentic assessment visible to the students, parents, and community so they know what high-quality learning looks like, and so they can help us get there.
  • Build powerful learning communities at our schools so we can develop and share highly effective instructional and assessment practices.
  • Reshape our schools so they are aligned with the aspirations of their communities and the realities of the world into which students are moving.
  • Create nurturing induction and apprenticeship programs so we bring novice teachers into communities of skilled practice, allowing them to integrate those practices into their classrooms.
  • Integrate research and reflection practices into our professional lives so we share lessons beyond our classrooms and school sites.
  • Learn to advocate for -- and take charge of -- professional development that empowers and equips us to reach these goals.
  • Become powerful advocates for our profession and our students in the policy arena.

But it all starts when we organize with our fellow teachers around a common vision. Our job now is to define that vision -- and start organizing.

What do you think about this issue? Please share your thoughts.

Anthony Cody

Science Coach and mentor, Oakland, California
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Comments (18)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Ms. Siegel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

" allowing "emergency" programs to get people teaching after six-week boot camps. "

" say that it is just fine to rotate teachers through a school system in two-year stints."

I am goig to assume that you are making a slightly veiled reference to Teach For America in this article. However, I think you do the program a disservice by lumping it in with what is wrong with our schools and our profession. As a TFA 1st year corps member, I only had the 6 weeks of summer boot camp when class started in the fall. Yet, I was not unprepared to teach and I did not rely on the scripted curriculum my district chooses to buy. Instead with the help of my program director (TFA) and with support of my Professional Learning Community meetings I have worked to go beyond the script and provide my students with rich educational experience.
I think that new teachers (both from TFA and those in tradional programs) need extra help in our first few years to keep us in the classroom. So many teachers leave before five years, before they have really learned to teach well.

What is really needed is less of a reliance on the "program" that will fix our kids and more adminstrative support and perhaps a few more resources from time to time.

Peggy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree fully with your analysis and your suggestions to empower educators.

AnthonyCody's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for your comment. This is a bit sensitive, because I appreciate the effort and good will of the Teach For America interns, and have worked with quite a few at my school and in my district. Almost all of them were talented and enthusiastic, and were an asset to the schools under the circumstances these schools were in But those circumstances are not good, and I do not believe we set ourselves up to solve the problems at these schools by relying on programs that are predicated on a short term commitment to the profession.

There is a lot of research that shows that teachers become far more effective after their first two or three years of teaching. There are so many things that only classroom experience and the guidance of supportive mentors will teach you. I am in a District that relies on dozens of TFA interns every year to fill classrooms that might otherwise be vacant. But very few of these teachers stay beyond their two-year commitment, and we must invest a huge amount of energy supporting them. And the profession struggles, because when you have a few new teachers on a staff, the experienced teachers can take them under their wings, and give them the support they need. But when the numbers reverse, and the majority is new, the experienced teachers get overwhelmed, and tend to withdraw, or only support a few teachers, and many of the new teachers end up without the support they need.

I agree with you that ALL new teachers need more mentoring and support - this is certainly not unique to TFA. I am working to build a team of science teacher mentors in my district for just this reason. But I am disturbed when I see policy being made that assumes we are stuck with the conditions that lead to such high turnover. Often it seems that assumption leads to some other decisions, such as reliance on scripted curriculum, that downplay the importance of the skill that experienced teachers bring to the table.

I mentioned Paul Vallas because he said the following in an interview with John Merrow a few months back.

"But if you have Teach for America teachers who stay here two years,
and many incidentally like to stay here for three years or more, and
you know as long as you're replacing those teachers with a, kind of
another generation or another class of Teach for America teachers
who come in with that same talent, the same abilities, the same
enthusiasm, you know I think you can, I sincerely believe that the
program can continue to be a very positive and beneficial program.
And the reason for that is, not only are these extraordinarily talented
young men and women, but we, but we're equipping them with some
of the best curriculum and structural models in the country. So these
teachers come in, and when the one Teach for America class leaves
the new Teach for America class comes in and they're all using the
same standardized curriculum structure models."


(Bold Initiatives in New Orleans).

This approach disturbs me, because I believe we will only see real growth in these schools when they stabilize and when the teachers there are able to develop and grow. I think that is antithetical to relying on teachers who leave after two years and use "standardized curriculum structure modules" to teach.

Amber Galvin, Atlanta, GA's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a great issue you bring up. I completely agree. Many of our problems begin with the federal and state mandates that come down the line. Who is making these decisions? Are they teachers? Have they taught in the last ten years? If not, have they spent ANY time in a classroom recently? Most of the time the answers are no, yet we are responsible for implementing their programs and following their guidelines. How does that make sense? If we as teachers want changes, we need to speak up for ourselves. We are the ones on the "frontline" in classrooms. We need to have a voice in the changes that come our way!

K.L.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with the Anthony Cody's article and his steps for becoming a more successful profession, however I see the greatest need as teachers becoming political. So many educators work tirelessly in the other areas Cody mentioned, that we do not have or take the time to gain the skills and knowledge to be effective politically.

Personally, I recognize the need for my becoming an advocate for the profession regarding politics and policy, but do not have confidence in my abilities to do so. I am a professional, a teacher, a life-long learner, but perceive politics as out of my league. I don't feel that teacher experience in the ramifications of poor policy is enough- I am concerned that I must know all of the history, the background knowledge, and understand how government operates, before I am able jump in.

So much in education depends on (under)funding and policy that I do not believe that a ground up approach (one classroom, one building, one district at a time) will ever really get us to where we need to go. I think that it will take educators, with or without unions, putting pressure on politicians and advocating for students and schools, to really make a lasting difference.
Where do we start learning to be political?

AnthonyCody's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

KL asks: "Where do we start learning to be political?"

First of all, I agree that much in education is determined by state and federal policies. But I also believe those policies can be affected by local organizing.

You have already started by becoming informed. You do not need to be completely knowledgeable about every policy detail in order to speak out. You have some precious expertise rooted in your own experience as a teacher. That is a valuable gift that you offer. Your influence will be greater, however, as you become informed as to how your own experience and persepective intersects with education policy. You can have more impact when you frame your experiences in ways that shed light on better educational policies.

The next thing to do is to start getting active. Here are a few ideas.

You local teachers' union might be a place to start. Many locals have political action committees that organize to affect policy at the state and national level.

There is a presidential election coming up. How about organizing local educators to support your candidate, and making sure education issues are on the front burner?

If you want to have a direct impact, you could create your own blog, and develop your writing so as to influence others. Or author letters to the editor or longer op-ed pieces on hot topics that come up. Perhaps my next blog will focus here and offer some tips. Check back in this space in a week or two for some ideas!

Josh Cooper's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think it is time for our government to begin consulting teachers when it comes to decisions concerning educaion. Not administrators or even former teachers, we need to have a voice that will speak for those who are in the classroom fighting today's battle.

Dallan Rupp's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I found the article by Cody very interesting and I agree that teachers need to be more political. I especially agree with the paragraph that states:

If you really want to improve teaching, start empowering teachers to build strong and vibrant learning communities at their schools. Give them the time and resources to collaborate with one another. Give them several weeks together in the summer to prepare for the school year. Support them administratively so they feel that the school is handling discipline issues well, which allows them to focus on teaching. Engage the community so that parents are behind the school and support their children in the hard work we ask them to do.

It sounds like my school. I don't understand having a training day here and a training day there. You go to them but the next day its gone from your mind. We even have a training day at the end of year so that we can have all summer to forget about it. Administrative support and parent support are also big issues.

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