A Note to my Teacher Colleagues: “They” are On to Us

Dear Teacher Colleagues,

I hope that you are all enjoying a relaxing break before heading back to school next week.  A little tip, if you want to stay relaxed, avoid the comments sections of news sites and blogs (particularly when it comes to education).  I spent part of my break reading news stories about our schools and about education policy. I also made the mistake of reading the comments under some of these articles and stories. I have some bad news based on reading those comments.  There is a whole section of the American population who are on to us.  This segment of the population has figured out that it is teachers who are holding back American schools from being great again.  They have figured out that we are becoming rich with our outrageous salaries, benefits that include health insurance, and our very cushy schedules.   They have had it with our 24 minute lunches and the fact that our fat cat salaries make it possible to donate (on the average) between $500-$1000 in school supplies to our students each year.  These people in the comment sections know that teachers just care about protecting our jobs.  They have figured out that we became teachers to brainwash young people to become adults who are unable to think for themselves.  This is what a lot of people believe, if you don’t believe me, get into these comment sections and read up.

OK, so I need to stop reading the comment sections, but it is important that we recognize that these people are out there.  If we’re honest, these are the people who got out and voted in the 2016 election.  Somehow they got out of their mother’s basements and they voted.  No matter how wrong they are, the narrative that we, as public school teachers, are failing our kids is out there.

How do we change the narrative?  I wish there was a simple answer, but there isn’t.  People like Betsy DeVos have spent Billions of dollars to tell a narrative that argues that by simply providing unregulated for-profit charter schools throughout a state that it will elevate student achievement.  Her billions of dollars have only served to line the pockets of those opening schools that are not performing better than their public counterparts.  Less money is getting to young people and more money is going into corporate pockets with no evidence of real replicable results.

The narrative of ineffective teachers, wasteful use of school resources, and an unwillingness to change is being sold by people like Ms. DeVos, and the Koch Brothers through the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).  They are pumping millions of dollars into propaganda and candidates willing to do their bidding.

So, how do we change the narrative?  My bank account (and mine is pretty similar to all of yours I would guess) has a few less zeroes than Ms. DeVos or the Koch boys, so simply buying legislators is out of the question.  What do we have in our power to change the narrative?  What we have are our stories.  Historically teachers have not had to “fight” for public schools.  Historically Americans have understood that public schools represent the best opportunity for young people to achieve the American Dream.  For whatever reason, Billionaires have decided that only “free-market” competition among schools will “restore” American education.  Interestingly, the research doesn’t back that up.  Christoper and Sarah Lubienski wrote a very interesting book entitled “The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools.”  (https://www.amazon.com/Public-School-Advantage-Schools-Outperform/dp/022608891X)

From the Amazon synopsis of the book:  “For decades research showing that students at private schools perform better than students at public ones has been used to promote the benefits of the private sector in education, including vouchers and charter schools—but much of these data are now nearly half a century old. Drawing on two recent, large-scale, and nationally representative databases, the Lubienskis show that any benefit seen in private school performance now is more than explained by demographics. Private schools have higher scores not because they are better institutions but because their students largely come from more privileged backgrounds that offer greater educational support. After correcting for demographics, the Lubienskis go on to show that gains in student achievement at public schools are at least as great and often greater than those at private ones. Even more surprising, they show that the very mechanism that market-based reformers champion—autonomy—may be the crucial factor that prevents private schools from performing better. Alternatively, those practices that these reformers castigate, such as teacher certification and professional reforms of curriculum and instruction, turn out to have a significant effect on school improvement.”

We have to use our collective voices to share this type of data.  We also have to tell the more personal stories that inhabit each of our schools.  There are those who don’t want to talk about the fact that 22% of the students who walk in our doors each day live in poverty.  There are those who don’t want to talk about how the rapidly changing demographics in our schools impact learning.  They don’t understand that by acknowledging these very real statistics that we aren’t making excuses.  We are simply recognizing that our students come to us very differently than they did 20 years ago.  We are adapting every single day with finite resources.  Teachers don’t typically like to blow their own horns.  We know that in reality the successes in our classrooms are the kid’s successes, but we have to recognize that it takes a great teacher to make magic happen in a classroom.  I am saying that we have to blog, give speeches, send letters, and tweet (#ITeach) our stories so that our narrative gets told.  As a Twitter example “In the school where #ITeach many kids get their only full meal at lunch.”  Another example, “In the classroom where #ITeach, kids are studying fractions in collaborative teams.”  Let’s tell our story by telling people about why #ITeach.

Lastly, I believe it is important for teachers to be subject to one another.  We need to be there for each other.  We need to lift each other up.  None of us got into teaching because it was easy.  We got into it because we cared about young people.  We got into it because we care about the future.   We got into it because it is in our blood.  Public education advocates don’t support more pay for teachers because we want to see anyone (ourselves included) get rich.  We recognize that the only way we are going to get the best young people to consider teaching, is to pay them a professional wage.  To those who think that teachers underperform and are overpaid, where is the army of those who are better who will do the work for less money?  Bring them on.  See, the problem is that those people don’t exist.  Our classrooms are filled with great teachers.  Are there bad teachers?  Sure, and they by and large leave the profession.  We, as teachers, need to be subject to one another. My favorite president of all time is President Josiah Bartlet from the “West Wing.”  President Bartlet had this to say: “Be subject to one another …  In this day and age of 24-hour cable crap devoted to feeding the voyeuristic gluttony of an American public hooked on a bad soap opera that’s passing itself off as important, don’t you think you might be able to find some relevance in verse 21 (of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians)? How do we end the cycle? Be subject to one another.”

The American public is hooked on this voyeuristic gluttony without a doubt.  As teachers, our only hope is to tell our story.  We must be truthful when those with an alternative narrative lie.  We must be humble when others are self-righteous.  We must be willing to be proud of the work we do.  We must proclaim loudly that public education is how our young people will change their lives for the better.  Politicians will talk about making people’s lives better, but teachers will actually do it.  We will do it with the families we serve, with the communities we live in, and we will do it by being subject to one another.

Have a great 2017.  Speak up!  #ITeach

Your Colleague,

Pat Kearney

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12 Comments

  1. We must remember that in many rural areas, teachers are some of the highest-paid workers in their communities in terms of salaries plus benefits. That shapes residents’ perceptions about compensation, work hours, etc. Compared to minimum wage or lower-end service / manual labor jobs, the salaries, benefits, and job security of teachers look pretty good in comparison.

    This is not to say that teachers are paid or respected near enough. But this is surrounding context that shapes some of these conversations…

    • This is a good point, Scott. In the community where I first taught 20 years ago, the day the school district published its teacher’s salaries in the newspaper was the day the locals in the corner bar would pin that newspaper up and throw darts at it.

      There has always been a level of distrust eminating from outside of public education for different reasons. Of course, this is a fairly broad generalization, but I think it is legitimate.

      “Be subject to one another.” … As the start of a solution? This couldn’t be more dead-on.

      • No argument, Janet. But those folks you mention are fewer in number – and their salaries are private so a community rarely knows how much those people are really making. So educators are betwixt and between, arguing for better salaries and benefits when their rural peers already see them as some of the more educated, affluent people in the community. It may not be fair but it’s reality.

      • You make a great point Scott. I believe that most of us (all of us probably) who to into teaching know we aren’t going to be rich, but we have to recognize that we have (rightfully in my opinion) negotiated for health care and pension plans over time. I really believe that the reason that the primary argument for higher teacher salaries should be about who we attract to the profession going forward. If the narrative of some is that the profession is filled with ineffective teachers clinging to jobs, then how do you get better people into the profession to begin with? I don’t have an answer that doesn’t include competitive salaries. If there is an army of better qualified people who will teach for less money, less job security, and fewer benefits, where are they? Teachers are betwixt and between for sure. If we don’t advocate for the resources (including salary and benefits) that are necessary to make schools effective, who will? When we advocate, there is a certain segment of the population who simply sees us as greedy. This is why the “market-driven” model for schools (charters, private schools, etc.) is so popular among some. The theory is that we should force schools to “compete” against each other in order to bring dollars with the students. The problem is that the research I am aware of does not suggest that the “market-driven” model is better for students. I really do believe that is why teachers have to turn the narrative to what schools are really doing to meet the needs of ALL kids. While change in schools moves slowly at times, there is no doubt that schools are changing with the intention of creating more authentic experiences for kids. Schools need to earn the trust of our communities and that is going to be best done by opening our doors and putting a spotlight on what it means to learn in the 21st century.

  2. Pingback: A Note to my Teacher Colleagues: “They” are On to Us — patrickjkearney – Sidelined

  3. Thanks, Pat, for your very thoughtful comments. I so agree with your point about highlighting our own stories. I have been a teacher educator for 30 years-and the kids (student teachers) just keep getting better. Not only are they “smarter’ ( knowledge of best practices, how to use data, engagement, knowledge of content, etc.) they are “wiser”. My current student teachers are willing to meet their students exactly where they are-they understand context. Every semester I work with kids who “could have been anything”- and they chose to be a teacher!

  4. Pat, Great thoughts here. It reminds me very much of the #Eduwin movement, that I have been a part of. Whether it’s #ITeach or #Eduwin, getting the stories out about good things happening in education is critical to changing the narrative! Thanks for the post!

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