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

Anthony Cody

Science Coach and mentor, Oakland, California
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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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Anthony Cody

Science Coach and mentor, Oakland, California

Comments (18) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Brittany Bone's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

There is a large teacher turn-over rate in my school, and after being there one year I understand why. We teachers feel the constant pressure of extra paperwork, meeting the requirements of our School Improvement Plan as well as our Annual Yearly Progress Report. It is a very structured, stressful environment. The school itself is fairly large and new, and yet the turn-over rate of teachers is outrageous. As a result, the sense of community and stability is very weak. There is little time for collaboration concerning political issues. We cannot all share a common vision unless we are committed to our students, our school, our community and our fellow teachers throughout our state and country.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Thank you for your blog. I see on a daily basis how teachers are treated with disrespect by the district I teach in (urban). We have a new superintendent that is really ripping our district apart. Just today 28 different teachers were told that they no longer have a job at the school I teach at. After a year where policy after policy was changed, programs and budgets being cut teachers are told this with three weeks remaining in the school year. Why does it seem that the only people who are being held accountable for their loyalty and professionalism are the teachers? I have a friend from Sri Lanka who once told me that in his country teachers are looked at as being nobel.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In his blog, Cody states that schools need to take back the moral high ground and assert more accountability on the parents and community. I certainly agree with this statement. I feel that as educators we have a responsibility to our students, however we cannot let parents think that they have no responsibility in the matter. Educating children is a team effort. One group alone is never going to be able to make substantial gains in the field, no matter how hard standardize tests would like us to.

Jason's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with the main points of the article by Anthony Cody. We do need a common vision that we can follow, with out the teachers on the same page we will all go our separate ways. But who is going to step up and help unite such a diverse group of people. That vision needs to be concise that many groups of people can follow. I really believe if someone we could trust to do that could help transform education.
Thanks Anthony for bringing up a good issue.

Kim's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely agree. Teachers and the school community have a great impact on the students at that school. However, parents need to take more responsibility for their children. When something goes wrong at school, they are the first to blame the teacher. If we seriously all want to help these children succeed in life than we have to all come to together and support each other. If we all do this, I believe, the students will have a much better chance to succeed.

Shannon M. Griffin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I thoroughly enjoyed this two-part blog, because it touches upon some legitimate, historical grounds of public education's seemingly constant state of emergency. The patriarchal system of education, which has always been in place, is a formidable opponent in the game of educational change.

I would even venture to say, that in no other profession are there so many differences of opinion concerning how to best deliver its product (in our case, education). And I'm speaking of everything from block schedules to best practices, from teacher training to academic curriculum. We seem to never agree on ANY issues! I believe this is a huge reason for the lack of respect of educators, because we don't tend to act as professionals sometimes. So, you selected a very appropriate subtitle for this blog "Embattled Educators Must Unite Around a Common Vision".

Upon examination, you'll find that the educational system's "chain of command" (as you will) looks something like this: Congressional Legislators >> State Boards of Education >> School Superintendents >> Principals >> Teachers >> Students. From my point of view, those at the very top of the hierarchy are too far removed from those at the very bottom of the hierarchy. They have but an inkling of what's best for students, the consumers of public education.

This also brings to mind a teaching assignment I had several years ago at the so-called "worst" high school in the school district were I was. This school district is in Jackson, the capital city of Mississippi, and it is the largest school district in the state. Curriculum developers put much time, effort, and money into developing a district-wide curriculum. The purpose, they asserted, was to ensure that any student transferring to another school from within the district was guaranteed that he or she wouldn't miss out on anything, because every teacher, in every subject, would be on the "same page". I mean that figuratively and literally. Needless to say, I had an absolute disdain for this curriculum. Not only did it stifle my creativity as a teacher, but to know that people from "district office" would make spur of the moment visits to my classroom to ensure I was on the "right page" did nothing but increase my stress level. I couldn't even attempt to divert my teaching strategies, because I never knew when they would pop in. The district prepared our students' nine weeks exams and their final exams with the intent for them to mirror the state tests. Anthony, when you commented, "... scripted curriculum becomes the source of expertise. Teachers then become passive implementers, mere technicians delivering rehearsed lines, administering prepared assessments, and measuring rote learning." it characterized EXACTLY how I felt during that time. My self-efficacy had reached an all-time low. There was no other choice for me, but to leave this school and this school district.

It was at this point that I promised myself that NEVER again would I let those so far-removed from students "speak" for me. I've always had my own voice, but for a fleeting moment it got muffled in the organized chaos. I am now at a school where my voice is definitely heard - by my students, by the administrators, by my colleagues, by students' parents, by myself.

Kristen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Unfortunately, dressing more professionally will not solve the problem of teachers not being treated as professionals. In order for teachers to be perceived as we should be as educated, committed professionals, we must raise the standards to which we hold ourselves. We must move from an antecdotal community to a research based community. We must continue to pursue higher degrees and specializations. We must speak and write as the experts in the field of education. We should not let laymen (parents, politicians, or anyone else who feels they can do the job better than the professionals) to dictate how we run our classrooms and schools. We have the education, the skills, the training, and the experience. I wouldn't tell my surgeon how he should run his operating room. He shouldn't tell me how to run my classroom. Too often we bite our tongues, and allow others who aren't in the classrooms to degrade our profession. Why? We are doing a disservice to ourselves and our students by not standing up for the job we are doing. We must do three things to start to change the preception of teachers as low-class nonprofessionals. (1) Teachers need to speak in a united voice in defense of teaching to anyone who dares criticize, but is not brave enough to teach themselves. (2) Teachers must be involved actively in the legislative process that affects our abilities to teach in our classrooms. (3) Finally, teachers must continue to pursue advanced degrees, so we can truly be experts in our field.

Paula's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have to agree with Mr. Cody when he stated:
"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."

I could really relate to this last sentence, as, due to the budget cuts, our preparation time, prior to the new school year beginning, has been cut in my county. Much of the time spent before the children begin on the first day is spent in meetings that most teachers feel are not valuable. We would much rather have time to collaborate with our colleagues, plan effective lessons, create an inviting classroom, etc. These are things we feel we have very little time to do.

I also was very interested in what Mr. Cody had to say about teacher accountability, as well as parent and community accountability. I agree that it is important as professionals to be held accountable in our jobs, however, I feel very strongly that the parents, as well as the community, need to step up to the plate regarding our children's education, as well.

Kimberly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with what you are saying Kristen. I feel that the lack of respect in my district is caused by the public feeling that they have control because they pay the taxes that fund our schools. Funding is the issue that made our school district turn the decision making over to the public and now they feel it is their right to have control in our schools. Our district needed to draw new boundaries because some of our schools were overcrowded while others were nearly empty. The superintendent and school board decided on the new lines by looking at what was best for the students and the busing budget. Then they brought it to the public. They were so upset, that their child was going to have to "cross the river" or not go to the school that they had been going to, the district said to keep them happy we will redraw the lines. That is what happened one school had 38 students in a 4th grade class while a school 3 miles away had 22 students. Never the less, the public didn't approve the bond or levy anyway.

This is a good year for all teachers to get involved in the with the political aspect of education because we have a chance for a new start for the next four years! Make your voice be heard.

ghazalatariq's picture

I would like to share my views about the state of teachers here in Pakistan.Although teaching is considered as a very respectable job,still the teachers remain as one of the least paid workers in our society.We lack any organisation like teachers unions here.The teachers who take up government jobs usually are underpaid but enjoy certain perks like pension and gratuity funds.I work in a private school and although I get better paid,I feel insecure due to the school policy according to which they can lay you off after giving you a month's notice. We cannot develop a sense of belongingness to our workplace.How far are we to be blamed?

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