Professional Learning

Who Speaks for Teachers?: Embattled Educators Must Unite Around a Common Vision

May 22, 2008

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.

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