Co-opting Courage

Teachers who are passionate about their work and that reach a level of accomplished practice deserve to be paid a competitive salary. However, the current step system in place only applies to new hires. The school system stopped giving the teachers step increases long ago, with no notification. The step system that increased pay for teachers at intervals was abandoned long before recent budget shortfalls in the state.

Richmond Public Schools superintendent, Dr. Dana Bedden, seems to agree that teacher salaries have become compressed, with newer teachers being hired with larger starting salaries while experienced teachers’ pay has remained stagnant. Superintendent Bedden recently asked for $8.4 million to address teacher pay compression. Bedden stated to the school board, “If you’re asking people to come to a more challenging school district than others in the region, you need to pay competitively.” In order to fund an increase, some local teachers, including National Board Certified teachers, decided to take their case to our school board to advocate for a budget increase. As you can see in the video below, these teacher leaders presented passionate but rational reasons for their argument and left the meeting determined to keep pushing for reasonable funding. Mayor Dwight Jones’ office, which crafts the budget that is approved by city council, has questioned the necessity of an increase in school funding.

Although this story of teacher leaders is an important and ongoing issue, it is not the reason for this blog post — identify theft is.

The archetype of the disgruntled teacher is often seen on both sides of political issues and  shows teachers marching and attending political functions with signs of dissatisfaction or demands. Teachers exist in a difficult and politically-charged space when they find themselves at odds with the very school system that feeds their children and allows them to pay their bills. Deciding to bite the hand that feeds you takes courage. I have suggested before that participation in the public dialogue on the quality and value of education is an act of defiance and love. As organizations like the Center for American Progress (CAP) Teach Strong initiative and the U.S. Department of Education Teach to Lead program, push the public to elevate teaching in our country, teachers face a new challenge. Perhaps the biggest challenge is not getting our voices heard, but having them stolen.

Just as new liberalism took the language of the civil rights movement and absorbed into reform rhetoric to support arguments for everything from charter schools, to performance pay, to shutting down community schools, teacher leaders can and will have their courage co-opted.

And that is what happened when Mayor Dwight Jones’ office took the images of teachers who were advocating for their livelihood and better facilities and used it to argue for a property tax increase. In the Mayor’s recent State of the City address, Jones used the following images to propose that schools were not the only priority.

We’ve all seen this image, (Original)

but we probably won’t see an image like this: (Altered A)

Or this: (Altered B)

And that’s what we need to talk about.

The bottom line is the money has to come from somewhere.

As teachers take ownership of their profession teacher leaders face the co-option of their truth. This happens regularly in policy debates. For example, in places like Chicago where privately funded “teacher leader” organization TeachPlus aired propaganda as news and positioned itself to speak for Chicago Teachers. The defamation of my friends and colleagues in the above photos, is just one example of how power does not play by the same rules as the people. When we speak truth to power, it is not enough to speak our truth. Power must be held accountable to that truth.

Images from: Richmond Times Dispatch

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