An Occupy the Classroom movement will help teachers become the education leaders they want to be.
Over the last few months, the Occupy Wall Street movement has grown from a small collection of hardcore activists to a groundswell of everyday Americans frustrated with the lack of opportunity afforded them in the United States. Of course, the irony of society having 24/7 coverage of our country’s ills is that some members of the media portray those same news consumers as uninformed and lacking a clear, concise message.
For those of us who've gone to Zuccotti Park, "We're mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore" sounds rather convincing.
These protestors have regained the spirit of democracy despite the majority of their elected officials failing them. Through budget cuts and draconian policies that punish instead of support, our elected officials have also failed education, specifically K-12 teachers.
Teachers hold our nation’s future right in front of them, as they serve 30—or at the high school level, 150—students per day. We teach academic subjects and implicitly share values and beliefs. Yet, society still devalues our importance in the development of children—paying us with lip service, handshakes, and thank-a-teacher projects, while simultaneously slipping us pink pieces of paper by the thousands. Add in the continued narrowing of our curricula, and we have a dangerous recipe that’s educating children to believe learning is only necessary for commerce.
Many teachers are protesting the direction education is heading, but we need a broader Occupy the Classroom movement to help us become the true leaders of our profession. Teachers as a whole don’t occupy—they are preoccupied. In English, that means "busy with other things often at the exclusion of other things." In Spanish, a more apt translation is "worried."
Teachers live in a space where they worry about every move they make—fearful that some administrator might come out of the bushes with a rubric that decides they're not proficient. We are preoccupied with unproven fads from the latest big expert or CEO selling a pre-packaged placebo, and it’s taking our schools down an ominous, robotic, and scripted road.
Thus, teachers must occupy the classroom. This is more than a call for reforming the way schools are funded. Teachers must develop their own expertise and take control of student learning. When we go to professional development meetings, we should evaluate what we saw, experiment with what we learned, and vote on whether or not it works for our students. After all, this is what happens in high achieving countries like Finland.
Let's evaluate our schools of education and propose a better balance between practice and theory. Let’s have higher expectations for ourselves and each other, from the first day we walk into the classroom to the day students graduate. We need not ask our colleagues to be perfect every day, but we ought to do our best to ensure every teacher does the best job possible, and we as teachers have mechanisms by which we can facilitate that. We ought to be more vocal towards administrators and higher-ups about our concerns and vocalize if there’s a dissonance between their policies and how that plays out in the classroom.
When we hear inaccurate statements about our profession, we ought to stand up and correct them—our battle is a fight against false ideas as well. As we elevate our profession by accurately discussing it, we should seek self-empowerment in the way we speak about our classrooms. Teachers can either continue to let others dictate the words we use to describe our profession or we can occupy the classroom, staying ahead of those who would rather downgrade our job to a matter of bubbles and letters. This will put us in control of the national education conversation and free us from inaccurate ideas about what the word "teacher" means.
We should also reach for the validation of our students. We need to keep them occupied, too. Schooling needs to be less about busy work and more about the kind of learning that will keep kids engaged in the material.
As with Occupy Wall Street, some outside observers will see teachers' Occupy the Classroom activities and claim that we have no clear message and no clear solutions. But, the days of assuming that the ever-growing proletariat will sit idly by in a modern version of manifest destiny are over. To them, I say the same thing the protestors on Wall Street do: Let’s start with your ouster.
We will hold accountable the people in charge of ensuring the right to a fair, equitable public education in the same fashion they have held us accountable. The premise of the occupation must be our preoccupation with our students’ well-being. Thus, let our occupation be our calling, let our calling be our teaching, and let the classroom be the epicenter of our revolution.