Tag Archives: teaching

What’s Teacher Voice?

A topic that comes up from time to time in the edu-twitter-blog-o-sphere is one of “voice” — teacher voice and student voice. Curiously “admin voice” or “board of ed voice” or “state education policy maker voice” or “national policy maker voice” aren’t really topics of discussion. Perhaps that’s because many education chats are driven by classroom teachers, perhaps because my Twitter circle is primarily teacher-focused, or perhaps because of these two reasons: teachers and students are the most marginalized of the groups in education and that the other groups don’t have to have a conversation about their voice; they already have one (maybe not admins at certain levels as they are likely hopelessly caught in the middle of edu-bureaucracy).

Broadly speaking, teachers don’t have a voice. Students less so (what’s less than zero?). If we have to discuss the voice that we have, it’s probably because we don’t have one and we’re looking to somehow reconcile the dissonance.

Read on, it ends on a positive note, if that helps any.

Standards and Tests and Feedback

Was there a national survey of teachers that was conducted when new standards were rolled out? If we have the ability to administer standardized tests to millions of students, it seems like we have the infrastructure to administer standardized surveys to classroom teachers. And we can slice and dice that data as much as we want. But we don’t. Because the powers that be don’t give a flying flute.

Think about how crazy and asymmetrical this is. We have the ability (and political force) to have every single student take a standardized assessment that hits on many low level skills required by curriculum. How much more complicated is it to just have a national standardized survey (it can be multiple choice for all I care) that would ask for teacher opinion on a variety of topics?

Here’s a simple example of a standardized survey. Take every question on the SAT (say Math) and ask math teachers if that question is fair to ask. Nothing has to change other than the answer choices being “yes” or “no”. Then we can ask the question on Family Feud. Win. Win. This isn’t technologically out of our reach. But is it out of our political reach? If so, tell me then, where is teacher voice? We can’t even leverage the existing infrastructure to give feedback. And this is an infrastructure designed to give feedback!

We can look at the “opt out” movement as an example of the existence of teacher voice. But even this, I will say, is mostly a non-voice. It’s reactionary. It’s a protest. Protesting is a right of the land. People are allowed to protest and boycott. So coordinating and opting out of standardized exams, while certainly a show of solidarity, is primarily a defensive maneuver. And retaliation against the opt out movement is either a change in law or a threat of penalty and cut of funding. The puppet master always wins.

Workers’ Success

Teachers are the working class in the education group and have no opinion that policy makers care about. Their fate and voice are similar to all those at the bottom of the totem pole in any industry — marginalized, easily replaced, and overpowered by society’s legal and bureaucratic apparatus.

Every industry that has a union has deserved it because of some history of worker oppression. No doubt, unions can be a force of good and equality for teachers, but this operation is primarily at a local level and from my understanding varies locally by strength of union. Oh wait, but teachers are forced to garnish part of their wage to tithe into the union. Tell me, where is the voice?

What are primary news stories about teachers? Sex scandals, abuse of power, cheating scandals, “why do all the good teachers leave?”, why is teacher retention rate so low, etc. Of course, we can look at most any other profession and find that the news harps on similar things because for whatever reason, that’s newsworthy. And perhaps that’s a problem with how a news operation has to (?) operate to stay profitable. But more telling are what the success stories are. In many other professions, the success stories are about records broken, wealth generated, a bold vision and plan coming to fruition giving birth to new industry, a triumphant victory, etc.

In teaching and for teachers, the success story is given in martyr-speak. There’s the tale of the heroic teacher who goes and visits students at their home, never compensated for the extra trouble. Then the tales of the teachers who spend thousands out of their own pocket to make sure that their poor students have pencils, basic supplies, and lunch. Or the gruesome and tragic stories of the teachers who gave up their lives protecting their students during some school horror. Hell, look at some of the more popular edu-movies. Of course, it’s movieland, so I can’t really fault them, but the narrative is similar — kids out of control, school in anarchy, apathetic teachers, and in comes a fresh, naive, but brilliant and powerful educator with the ability to transform. Maybe he/she dies at the end. Maybe the school gets painted with bright colors and kids pull their pants up and sit in quiet obedience churning away at problems. I don’t know, but you get my point. I am in no way, shape, or form, taking away from the noble sacrifices of teachers. It is great that we have these people in the profession. My problem is, why is the story of sacrifice practically the only story ever told of teacher success?

Just about every person has a “this teacher changed my life” story. And that story is an educational one, about some life path corrected, some passion found, nurtured, and developed. Of course, some of these stories are about sacrifices made by teachers and they should be told, but there are a lot of stories about good old fashioned guidance. I have those. I pursued mathematics not because my PhD advisor (who is an excellent advisor, by the way) directed me towards mathematics, but because my high school Spanish teacher encouraged me to continue to learn and learn in my own way. My math instruction in high school was also excellent. But school / life guidance? That came from my Spanish teacher (and my parents, of course). There were other teachers who helped as well. My school’s Latin teacher looked after me and guided me (I never took Latin). My school’s Electronics teacher gave me a safe classroom to come to and just let me be. My Physics teacher just let me run the chess club how I wanted to, even if I was the only member for the first three years. But are these deeds of teachers too small to tell? Are they not large enough for news consumption? Or is it, that the story at a macro level is too nuanced for the masses to care about? Those “change my life” stories while heart-warming, are not of the type: “changed my life so that I saved the world from cataclysm” stories. As you read this, did you care, could you be moved to care?

Then we have stories that no one but the teacher knows. These, too, are small, nuanced stories. They are stories about looking the other way so that a kid who was just having a bad day could cope, or about some assignment not turned in that was forgiven, or about second and third chances, or about subtle classroom environment changes, etc. But again, these are the stories of a martyr. The teacher can’t tell these stories: a) there are privacy issues, b) there’s martyr / humility culture, c) it’s unprovable, unquantifiable. And no one else can tell these stories, because they just don’t know.

“Teachers have voice in their classroom.” is an irrelevant and delusional claim to voice. It is highly localized and the relative yield to broader education policy is zero. Of course, teachers do have voice in their classroom and they can have a positive impact on people’s lives so much so that society is better for it, but I sure as heck am not that arrogant to make that my claim to having a voice.

The worker’s success story is one of martyrdom or liberation (or liberation and martyrdom).

Awards

Yeah, sure, some teachers suck. They’ve been in it too long and have become jaded because all they remember are the things that went wrong and have over the years developed ever more draconian policies to mitigate the bad things. There are also teachers who probably should never have been teaching in the first place — they thought that teaching “kids” would be like well-paid baby-sitting or perhaps they just didn’t know content well enough to teach it dynamically. And these are the teachers we hear about. I hear about it in my math classes. “My \(nth\) grade teacher sucked that’s why I don’t like math.” But what about all the teachers who didn’t suck?

We only hear about great teachers once they retire from teaching or more permanently retire from life. That’s a cultural problem. By and large, we simply do not honor people who are alive. They may become corrupt later. That’s the fear. But if a person screws up today, then let the stoning begin. There’s cultural asymmetry there, too. We’re more afraid that our praises will have to be undone than our condemnation. Yet, we love the rehabilitation story. And we love it for celebrities. Drug abuse, alcohol abuse, sex scandal, then recovery! Closest thing to resurrection, if you will, though not as holy since it is a fall from grace. I suppose we would rather be in the position to say, “I’m sorry I stoned you.” than to be in the position to demand an apology for betrayal.

We do recognize teachers in some way. We have Teacher Appreciation Week. Wahoo. But CEOs don’t have a CEO appreciation week. They have a hefty bi-weekly paycheck. If you’re in a group that’s getting an appreciation day or a remembrance day, you’re either dead, marginalized, or part of a shopping gimmick (Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, etc.). So let’s recognize what Teacher Appreciation Week really is — it’s Teachers Are Voiceless Week.

We do give Teacher of the Year awards. But have you ever been teacher of the year at your school? What did you get? A better parking spot and a few hundred bucks to spend on your classroom? Maybe a party. Wow, great accolades.

Can a teacher of the year win twice in a row? I believe the probability in virtually every school is zero. Not a chance. This makes no sense. Unless, if we recognize that teacher of the year is more a political / bureaucratic award, then it makes perfect sense. It’s not really an award for merit, it’s an award primarily for longevity, secondarily for political association, and thirdly for merit. Excellent teachers do receive this. But how many of these excellent teachers get it twice in a row? Twice in three years? They’re not even considered! If their name got tossed into the ballot, it gets omitted! What insane merit-based system would do this? And that’s an example of teachers taking away the voice of another teacher. Teachers should stand firmly against this type of nomination process. It’s flat out stupid and makes a mockery out of an award for merit. An athlete can be MVP twice in a row. A supermarket employee can be employee of the month multiple months in a row. Frick, politicians get re-elected!

If the concern is, “there are many excellent teachers and they all deserve an award, but unfortunately we can only give one award”, then do this: give one teacher of the year award and give several other category awards (figure out appropriate categories that will allow for a reasonably large pool of candidates). Then for actual awards, the category awards can receive the bump to classroom budget, and the teacher of the year can get a real pay increase in addition to the classroom budget bonus, for example. But don’t do this stupidity of “once in a lifetime with menial material award” type of award. Though, truth be told, increasing classroom budget for one person and not for another makes little sense as well. Reward excellence the way most industries reward excellence, increase pay, increase vacation, etc. And speaking of pay …

Teacher Salary, Effectiveness, and Certification

“But you don’t go into teaching for the money.” Ah, good ol’ martyr-speak again to try to make sense of the fact that there is no voice. Take a look at teacher salaries and the ability to earn more. In NJ, there’s a pay step scale. A teacher can negotiate where they start on the scale once hired, but it’ll be a cold day in hell if someone can skip a few levels because of excellence in teaching. Where’s the voice here? A little whimper at the beginning and that’s that.

And then there’s the pension. Really it’s deferred wages, but not beyond the ability to be raided by the state. How’s that voice helping there?

“But teachers are employees of the state, so their salary has to be on a scale.” Yes, but who cares? Why can’t they progress up the scale at a rate that makes sense based on accomplishment, longevity, etc.? Is it because it’s hard to quantify teacher effectiveness? I grant that that’s not an easy task from a data standpoint. But who is motivated to gather and analyze the data? Teachers certainly should be, but when we measure our own effectiveness and it comes out to be stellar, it’ll be easily assailed as biased. So, I, for example, couldn’t do a study on my own effectiveness. What about school administration? Perhaps, but the relative dearth of longitudinal studies shows either an unwillingness to do this or a general difficulty in doing this.

So what to do? It’s a tricky problem, but I think teachers should take matters into their own hands. They don’t have to collect data. They have to collect stories. Stories are evidence. Anecdotal, I understand, but stories help to complete the data picture. Data cannot capture everything. Teachers, myself included, should start / continue a culture of “follow up” as students go up the grade ladder. I’m speaking broadly, not specifically. I recognize the many challenges here, privacy not the least of them.

Teacher certification makes little sense as well. I have heard of and seen entirely too many programs that make the certification process into an exercise in paper pushing. Combine this with bottom of the barrel salaries and what do we hope to get? Administrators / teachers ought to simply reject teacher certifications from certain programs if they want the certification to mean anything.

What poor certification programs do is that they make the teacher whose certification was actually hard-earned and required not just education theory and content knowledge, but also required demonstration of teaching, stand equally valid as some of these “weekend programs”.

Where’s The Voice?

Simply put, without teacher-friendly, non-profit seeking, financial support that can match the multi-billion dollar, for-profit education industry, teachers have no voice. Inability to set policy, standards, funding, etc. are further evidence of not having voice. The ability to react to these is probably the only proof we have that we are alive, but it’s not a claim to voice. It is defensive and reactionary and always being on the defensive means that loss is eventual.

There is the presence of a lot of educators on Twitter. That has the potential to be quite good. But I’m not holding my breath. Social media activism / propaganda goes both ways. #IWishMyTeacherKnew and #ISupportMarilyn are good examples of public stoning, rightly or wrongly, in the digital age. And that’s what we’ll have given that there are far more non-teachers than there are teachers — everyone has had at least one memorably bad experience with some teacher somewhere. The narrative that has been able to obtain a foothold is that the crime of one teacher is the crime of all teachers.

This is what’s meant by “if a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”. We can yell, scream, rant, and rave all we want and it’ll never be heard. Humanity’s greatest inequality is the inequality of the megaphone. Your best ideas, greatest insights, etc are all for naught when your opponents can drown you out with ever larger, louder megaphones.

But it’s not all that bleak. There are millions of dedicated educators, teachers and administrators both, who want to genuinely work towards developing minds for the better of humanity not just for corporate employment. The latter, being the actual history of the purpose of education, organized or not. Millions of people’s voices must not be ignored. The edcamp movements are a great example of educators banding together to better their profession. However, as teachers are, effectively outnumbered probably 40 or 60 to 1 (assume twenty to thirty students per class, with two non-teacher parents per student), these edcamps can’t gain much additional ground if they don’t start involving communities as a whole. Bring parents. Bring students. Go forth and out into the marginalized communities. Start edcamps where schools are deemed failing.

If we don’t have the billions of dollars, if we don’t have the national political voice, if we don’t have the numbers, we can’t pretend to have a voice. We cannot topple a foe (if we want to see them that way) with that much advantage. We must, instead, organize locally and push forth. Millions of voices can only be ignored if they all speak individually. Let’s not delude ourselves with what we claim to be voice. Let’s go and actually find it. Once teachers can take an active policy level role, then we can say that teachers have a voice. Until then, it’s a fight to speak and be heard.


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