My friend Sarah Brown Wessling and several other national Teachers of the Year wrote an article asking teachers to advocate for safe schools (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2018/03/02/teachers-of-the-year-urge-educators-to-do-the-uncomfortable-advocate-for-safe-schools/?utm_term=.9ae979817c73). The title of the article was “Do the Uncomfortable: Advocate for safe schools.” I encourage my teacher colleagues to read it. It is critical that teachers have their voices heard in the national conversation around school safety.
As I read the article it struck me that it was sad that teachers would find it uncomfortable to become advocates for schools, much less for school safety. Yet, I get it. Over the course of the last three years I have raised my voice as an advocate for public schools. I can say from experience that it isn’t always easy to speak out. A column that I wrote generated over 1000 comments in the Washington Post, many of which suggested that I was a no good filthy pinko who hated America. Even in a very supportive school district, my advocacy can make my employer a little squeamish. I have also encountered colleagues willing to come at me in public forums for choosing to speak out. In short, it can absolutely be uncomfortable to teachers to speak up. With that being said, teachers have to be heard.
Teachers need to be heard on the issue of school safety. Teachers understand that schools are often a refuge for our students. They can be a refuge from poverty, they can be a refuge from a troubled family life, and they can be a refuge from the violence that they might face in their own neighborhoods. Teachers recognize that the hours students spend inside their school are often where students feel the safest. Schools put a lot of thought and effort into making our schools safe. Every teacher has thought through what they would do if their student’s safety was threatened by someone wanting to harm them. The all-too-familiar history of school violence is filled with stories of courageous teachers willing to lay down their lives to protect their students. If politicians pay are paying any attention at all, they will hear that teachers AND students are saying clearly that putting more guns in our schools is NOT the answer.
While school safety is a critical issue that teachers need to be heard on, teachers across the country are also raising their voices in order to protect public education. The teacher’s strike in West Virginia was an example of teachers collectively saying that they were no longer going to watch legislators dismantle public education in their state. Teacher pay in West Virginia is very low, the legislature was attacking teacher unions, there is a health-insurance crisis, and there was an attempt to push more public tax dollars into for-profit charter schools. The teachers of West Virginia stood up and collectively said that they weren’t going to allow their legislators to undermine public schools any longer. They stood up for the public schools that they have invested their lives in. The lesson of the teachers strike in West Virginia is that when teachers come together to be heard we can create real change for the good of public schools.
You can see teachers voices rising in many other states as well (https://www.cnn.com/2018/03/09/us/teachers-union-movement/index.html). Teachers in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, and many other states are sending a message that teachers are the best advocates for, and defenders of public education. If we don’t stand up now, as forces seek to push public schools into a state of atrophy through lack of funding, dismantling of teacher unions, and lining the pockets of those who seek to profit off of our education system, then we are complicit in the decline of the schools that we care so much about.
Teachers understand how our schools change lives. We must tell our stories. As I watched Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos interviewed on 60 minutes this weekend it became clear that our voices must be heard now more than ever (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2018/03/12/betsy-devoss-botched-60-minutes-interview-annotated/?utm_term=.92ae4948af5b). Ms. DeVos has a giant megaphone through which she spreads misinformation. She doesn’t seem to understand that, although unqualified, she now shares the responsibility of supporting public schools students with all of us who have chosen to dedicate our lives to public education. It will take the collective voices of teachers throughout the country to overcome the damage that she is inflicting on public education.
The greatest thing that has come of my choice to write in advocacy for public schools has been hearing from other teachers. I have kept many notes from young people who are preparing to go into teaching as well as notes from retired teachers who have been kind enough to reach out in support of my writing. To all of my teacher colleagues, I understand that speaking out can be uncomfortable, and I know that it isn’t what any of us got into teaching to do, but it is critical that we be heard. I promise that the rewards will far outweigh the discomfort.