It's ok. The grizzly bear in teacher clothing above is not a real teacher. It's just the genius work of some photo editing done by some crafty internetters. In Betsy Devos's America, that poor grizzly would be doomed on two levels. One, because he is a grizzly and 2, because he looks like a teacher.
Last week, Ms. Devos decided to talk about more than grizzly bears. Unfortunately, it has me wishing that she would have just stuck to our furry Alaskan friends. She visited a public school, so she felt like it was her turn to share her genius ideas with all of us. Thanks Bets, we were all waiting. It appears that waiting is all that she thinks we do in this profession. In some of her first public comments on the job, she said that the teachers she visited, “were waiting to be told what to do.” She went on to say that mentality “is not going to bring success to an individual child.”
Here is where I want to get mean. It’s my tendency and it has been fostered by years of reading mean facebook posts and smart-assed responses. I want to come up with some creative and witty meme that shows a teacher waiting for our superwoman. That would be a caped Betsy Devos flying in with a Bible in one hand and a stack of vouchers in the other, shooting guns at public schools that have been overrun by grizzly bears dressed in urban attire.
But this post isn’t about that. It can’t be about that, as much as I want it to be. In fact, I don’t want to talk about the Secretary of Ed anymore. I was listening to “Pod Save America” a few weeks back and New York Mayor Bill De Blasio said something interesting about Donald Trump. He was talking about Trump’s ability to steal the news story and our conversation. The hosts asked him what we do to stop that, “you have to create a consistency that people can latch on to.” So as much as I want to vouch for mean-spirited Devos memes, hunger strikes, and mass hysteria, our time might be better used with some real action. Not just complaints.
In other words, resistance has to be about a platform, not just tossing tomatoes at the other side. Education, in my view, has been missing a clear platform for years. While people on the right have done a good job of fighting for choice and vouchers, the left has been basically silent on their own policy.
I’m not hoping to write a political platform, but I want to suggest some things for consideration.
We have to stop pretending
So much of our activism is spent on our own kids. Sometimes, these good intentions actually work against some other kids in our communities. I can’t judge any parent who chooses a school that they think is best for their child. However, I think we have to be honest about that choice and what it means. When we choose a school outside our neighborhood, we are basically saying that some school options “are not good enough for my child.” That belief, coupled with inaction on the behalf of the neighborhood school, leads to an activism that affirms bad schools as good enough for some children, but not good enough for our own children. If a school is not good enough for my child, I have to be willing to fight like hell to change that school because it is, logically, not good enough for any child. As a friend told me the other night, “everyone is a progressive until it comes to their own child.” There are some failing schools out there, but we have to make it our business to eliminate that.
2) The Next Step is Action
We have to act on behalf of our neighborhood schools. The reason that charter schools and vouchers are politically popular right now is because politically popular groups are supporting them with their actions. The challenge here is that some of our struggling schools are not set up to take help and volunteers. This is something that can be changed. Research says that schools do better when the community supports the school with action. Parent groups, community groups, volunteer work, and the community school movement are all worthwhile ways to engage with our schools. I’ve heard of “friends of the school” groups in successful districts that are made up of future school parents and families fighting for the kind of school they hope to send their child to. In short, advocacy for our schools needs to be directed to our most struggling schools in the form of time, money, energy, creativity, community resources, and eventually, our children.
3) Support excellence, and speak out against everything else
I can’t stand the teacher support movements that are unwilling to admit that some teachers are really bad. As if the admission that there are bad teachers takes away from the professionalism and excellence of the great teachers. In the same way, I’m frustrated by movements unwilling to acknowledge the failures of our schools. We tend to put ourselves in camps and spend time flinging paper airplanes at the other side. You are either pro-teacher or anti-teacher, pro-public or pro-charter, or any other number of polarizing arguments. There is probably value in some of these fights, but the value there doesn’t touch the value of excellence for our students in classrooms. Specifically, we need to check what is working for students in our “failing” schools. The closer you get to schools, the more you notice the excellence that is worth supporting, replicating, and amplifying. Inevitably, you also start to notice some failures. It is possible to be loud about both of these things while being sensitive to the inequities that have always existed in our schools. In all of our schools, including "failing” ones, you will find amazing students who are doing amazing things. Staying focused on students in these conversations is a good place to start.
Of course, this is a primer. It is my hope that Adam jumps in now with his rant on why we need better teachers. He is not in a union, so he can say shit like that. Just kidding, I’ll say it as well. But I also hope that each of you have opinions about the work of our supporting our schools, so feel free to share them.