Independence Day: Ending the silence of the lambs

For years, I was told that good teachers did not “get involved in politics.” The virtuous teacher was the one who just locked herself in the classroom and devoted all her energies to the challenges of teaching.  I soon learned, however, that everything about education in America is political, and there were some very uninformed or underinformed people off somewhere making crucial decisions about what I should, could, or must do with the students for whom I am responsible.

When my husband and I first moved back to Mississippi in 1987, we were under mission assignment for a large Christian denomination to establish a youth outreach and a new church. However, when the county association discovered we were Black, they balked at providing the support we had been promised (which included living arrangements for us and our four children). A meeting was called that we were not allowed to attend. Instead, a member of the association was appointed as a surrogate for us. We were denied permission to establish the work under their auspices, and had to set out on our own with $50 and a footlocker that held all our household possessions. I’ve often wondered what that “surrogate” did or did not say on our behalf.

Many times since then, I have been in situations as a professional educator in which my colleagues and I were not allowed to speak for ourselves. One of my greatest hopes as I became recognized for teaching excellence was that it might afford me a platform to speak on behalf of other teachers who had been silenced for so long. One day, during my tenure as Mississippi Teacher of the Year, I spoke at a small rural elementary school. At the end of my presentation, a group of retired Black teachers encircled me as they told me how proud they were that “one of us” would be going to Washington, D.C. [for the TOYs recognition and the announcement of which of us would be the National Teacher of the Year]. Then, in an act which took me back to my childhood in the Baptist church, they pressed a handkerchief full of money into my hand. These were women who had taught under the old segregated system (and as some said under the new one). It would have been impossible for any of them to be considered for State TOY, Milken Award, or any other such recognitions. Yet, they taught valiantly, many of them with consistently marvelous results, under wretched conditions. I took very seriously the responsiblity to be their voice wherever I spoke from then on, opening with a verbal libation in their honor.

As a group, teachers are still largely ignored on matters of educational policy, curriculum, scheduling, class assignments, discipline, or dozens of other matters directly related to our working conditions, and more important, to our students’ learning. [Remember, I’m in a right-to-work state, no bothersome unions, contracts, or tenure to hold back our student achievement, no siree.] More insulting and more dangerous than being forbidden to speak, is being told we can “have input” on a decision that has already been made or will be made regardless of what we might say. Occasionally, we’ll see a “token” teacher (I’ve been in this role) on a committee or program.

Recently, I and others have noticed a growing trend, especially at the national level, in the wrong direction—away from inclusion of accomplished, successful teachers in the planning and implementation of educational reform policy. I can’t think of another area in which those who consistently demonstrate success and expertise in a field are so routinely and blatantly ignored in its research and development.

Despite the urban myths, there are educators all over this country who year-after-year prepare students for success in college and career; their work is documented and consistent. Some of these educators work in high-needs schools with what are called at-risk students. Where are the voices of these experienced educators on venues such as the recent NGA/CSSO national standards project? There are one or two notable former classroom teachers and some highly respected education researchers—I guess they are the surrogates for us in this instance. But why rely only on the surrogates? Even many of the national organizations that purport to represent teachers are increasingly headed and staffed by persons far removed from the work of the classroom.

The rise of social networking outlets and virtual communities has made it possible for teachers to connect and exchange ideas in powerful new ways. These tools may also be the vehicle for bringing the voices of highly successful teachers to the public arena, without taking us away from our primary responsibility. This presupposes, however, that teachers will speak out and share what we know with those who need to know. It is past time for accomplished teachers to insert ourselves (invited or not) into the public discourse on ed policy. Happy 4th!