If I wasn’t a teacher, here’s what I’d probably think about fixing education

If I only got my information about teachers from mass media, here are the top five messages I would absorb:

  1. Teachers are really important. Good teachers are heroes, or even saviors.
  2. Unions make teachers lazy. Everyone gets tenure and then they essentially go to sleep on the job.
  3. Unions protect bad teachers. We need to fire more teachers! No more excuses.
  4. Bad teachers are ruining education, thus cheating helpless students of their rights.
  5. Charter schools are the way to escape the broken system. We need to open more charter schools and shut down all the bad public schools! 

I’d get these messages from the news, from Oprah, from NBC’s Education Nation week, from the Secretary of Education, and most prominently this season, from Waiting for Superman. Taken together, they’d help me to cultivate an emotional, righteous attitude about the urgency to revamp public education in the name of saving our national soul.

But… but…

The teacher in me, who lives the reality of working with young people every day, knows that the public is being misled.

What does quality education on a large scale look like? What would it take to get there? I just don’t see us making it with the policies inspired by the half-true messaging above (accountability via high-stakes testing, privatization, abolition of community school boards in favor of autocratic chancellors).

I feel like the teaching profession is being abused. What do you do when your entire profession is smeared with suspicion and off-base assumptions? Although my school is a supportive place, I think about the larger attitude of mistrust and hostility directed towards teachers in America and I feel disconcerted. Teachers are on the defensive, constantly feeling the need to justify their not being complacent, ineffective widgets.

It’s easy to get mad. I feel angry a lot. (My wife, a former Bronx teacher, expertly knows how to listen and talk me down.) Doing my job the best I can and writing this lonely blog are my little ways of coping.

Some teachers are freaking out. I checked outhttp://www.waitingforsupermantruth.org/ ,  a protest website featuring a 6-minute trailer for “The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman,” a documentary coming out (presumably self-distributed) later this fall. I agree with most of the stuff said in the trailer and I appreciate the DIY aspect of it. But while I was watching it, seeing the unflattering photos of Geoffrey Canada and Michelle Rhee float menacingly towards me, I could already anticipate the dismissals for its transparently angry crankery.

I don’t know if nasty puns (“Rheeform has come to end!”) and protesting movie theaters are useful. I don’t know what’s useful to help ordinary people understand and support policies that recognize the nuances of living classrooms. The simplistic REFORMER vs. UNION narrative has become ubiquitous, even if it’s the wrong one for actually improving schools en masse. The rhetoric and the reality are not aligned.

Waiting for Superman, though, can’t be outright dismissed. It’s a major movie by a major filmmaker who does want education in America to improve. How I wish teachers’ voices were a significant part of the movie. Alas, they are not. Still, I believe teachers should see the film and talk to people about their thoughts.

Maybe the only way to dismantle dangerous myths (For example: “We know what works!” as code for privatization) is to talk about the real lives of teachers and students.

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