Teachers can't create the schools students deserve if they can't find ways to appreciate, protect, and stand up for themselves.
Our society is of (at least) two minds when it comes to public school teachers and teaching. One line of thinking leads us to consistently rank teachers among the most trusted and valued members of society, and rightly so. The other line of thought somehow manages to ignore everything teachers do before and after student contact hours, and over the summer.
People who know and are close to teachers know how much work teachers do. They see the bags that come home stuffed with papers to grade and other things to do, but many people often think, "Well, my sister-in-law/wife/husband works so much harder than most other teachers," never realizing how many other people are saying the exact same thing about their loved ones. That is why the increase in seemingly simple acts of teacher activism, evident in teachers showcasing their work via social media and hosting events like "grade-ins" in malls and other public places, have been so significant. We need more of this—more participation from even more teachers.
But then there are those who, despite all evidence, persist in the belief that, by and large, public school teachers are somehow greedy or lazy. There are many reasons for this, most of which we dyed-in-the-wool public school advocates will just never understand. One reason these beliefs exist—along with public policy reflective of these beliefs—is that there are people who are deliberately teaching the public to not trust teachers. (Case in point: this excellent coverage of Fox News clips about teachers, courtesy of The Daily Show.)
There are people who deliberately exploit others' lack of awareness about what teachers do in order to create false impressions about the nature of this work. People who stand to profit personally, politically, and economically from attacking public schools intentionally use these lies as a pretext to justify making it harder for teachers to come together and advocate for our students, our schools, and our profession.
But slightly contrary to those who have argued that a society that really appreciates teachers would stop letting this happen, teachers need to recognize the ways in which we ourselves allow this to happen. It simply isn't the case that if we ask nicely enough, the political and economic bullies who have spent years misleading and oppressing us are going to suddenly give us power. That's not how bullies operate. You can't convince a bully to like you, or stop mistreating you, just by asking over and over again. They will only stop when they realize they can't get away with it anymore—either when they meet an individual who is bigger than they are, or when the would-be victims band together. They know they can pick on one person by him or herself. But they can't pick on the entire crowd of onlookers, when those bystanders decide instead to be upstanders. That’s the power of solidarity.
By our actions—or too often, inaction—teachers really do teach people how to treat us. And often, it is the seemingly smallest choices that have such a big collective impact. Every time we choose not to challenge useless or unethical practices because we're afraid of what our bosses might do to us, we are teaching those who would bully us that they can get away with it. Every time we watch another teacher take the risk to speak up, and we cheer her in silence instead of publicly having her back, we leave her vulnerable to retaliation, and teach unethical school and district managers that they can get away with pushing onto us the dysfunction their bosses have pushed onto them. This is what a downward spiral looks like. At some point, we have to appreciate ourselves and our colleagues enough to stop accepting this kind of maltreatment, and start insisting upon the respect we deserve.
One key distinction that must be made: there is a difference between insisting on being treated with respect and being selfish. All too frequently, we are encouraged to act as though there is some kind of honor in bending over backwards to please everyone else without saying anything. But people who do not take care of themselves cannot take care of anyone else. The kinds of conditions—the pay, the preparation time, reasonable hours—that allow educators to take care of ourselves, are the very things that allow us to take care of students. It defies reason that we should even have to argue this point, yet we do, and people often try to shame us for doing so. But any situation in which a person fears retaliation or shaming simply for asserting their most basic personal and professional needs, is a situation that is clearly unhealthy for everyone involved.
As Deborah Meier reminds us, "Youngsters cannot learn democracy from powerless adults any more than they can be taught literacy [by] illiterates." It does children no good to see the adults around them being mistreated, not only because frustrated adults are less effective and compassionate with them, but because they are likely to start believing that being mistreated is the natural state of things. That is a terrible thing to learn, and something I don't think anyone intends to teach. No one in a society that claims or aspires to freedom should tolerate that.
I believe that most people in our society really do believe in, respect, and appreciate teachers. Yet it does take a reminder here and there in order to avoid being taken for granted, which is why observances like Teacher Appreciation Week are important.
But it's also important and necessary for teachers to show and share the hard, thoughtful work that goes into running a classroom, and to stand up for ourselves and each other when our schools, our livelihoods, and our well-being are under attack—as they are now. We can't create the schools students deserve if we can't find ways to appreciate, protect, and stand up for ourselves.
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Loudspeaker drawn on a chalkboard image via Shutterstock