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Teachers in the Audience

Righteous indignation isn’t a rare state for me, but I usually don’t do anything about it. I just don’t have time. But about a year ago, during a day off, I was watching “Morning Joe” on MSNBC and caught what I felt was an unfair attack on teachers and our unions. By the end of the day, I’d dashed off an angry response to the show. I never heard back; mine was probably one of many responses. Since then, I witnessed a few more attacks by the show’s hosts on teachers, thinly disguised as attacks on unions to the extent that I stopped watching the show.

And so when I saw a commercial for last Thursday’s broadcast of “Morning Joe,” featuring a forum on education, I wondered if the panel of experts would include any teachers. Although I haven’t seen the show in a while, I wished that I wouldn’t be commuting and working while it was airing. During my lunch period, I did a little reading about the event and learned that there most certainly were teachers present.

They were in the audience.

Audience members — that’s what we have become in this national debate about everything that’s wrong with our schools. We sit back while other people, who were probably still using Clearasil the last time they spent any substantial time in a classroom, proclaim themselves as “experts.” They have us in their crosshairs, and it’s not hard to find us, because we’re sitting in the audience.

Why have we allowed this? Why is it that our expertise, ideas, and insights remain in classrooms, faculty lounges, the blogosphere? That’s an easy answer: The “experts” haven’t asked us. Because the conversation would get really complicated if we got to speak. As I see it, the fixes they suggest mainly focus on tenure (due process rights and academic freedom are evil), merit pay based on test scores (because we’re all about money and want to invest even more time preparing kids for tests) and a longer school day and year (kids are immune to burnout, and since many kids in my school are already here from 8 a.m. to 5:15 p.m., we should just make it an even 12 hours)

But if you asked a teacher, a true education expert, about the problems and the solutions, you’d get an array of concerns, especially from teachers in high-needs schools. I worry about my kids’ families in these difficult economic times, especially when I need to reach a parent and can’t. I worry about my kids’ health because many of them don’t seem to sleep enough and think that soda and a bag of Doritos is an acceptable breakfast. I worry about the kids who are chronically late and absent and the ones who never do their homework or never have school supplies.

And I wonder about other things too — like why I only saw 27 parents during our last round of parent-teacher conferences, even though I have 59 students. I wonder what a really terrific language arts curriculum looks like, and wish I had time to really devote myself to writing one. I wonder how I can incorporate things I love into my lessons, like art history, while still making sure the kids are ready for the test. If they don’t perform well during those two testing days, in the eyes of the city and state it doesn’t matter what we were doing during the rest of the year. And I see so many things that can’t be measured by tests but still mean a lot, like my homeroom students’ low-level but wonderful obsession with American presidents, or how all my kids love when I read stories to them. It kills me to have to say, “I wish we could keep talking about FDR, but we have to get back to test prep.” But there might come a time when I won’t keep my job if my kids don’t do well enough on those tests, and so many things that are interesting and engaging to my kids will go out the window.

As far as I can tell, none of the “experts” have been able to put forth a clear, comprehensive strategy for improving schools, one that supports, not punishes, students and teachers. Personally, I am not opposed to becoming a better teacher; I always enjoy learning new ideas and strategies. I have wondered if the teachers I’m friendliest with at my school have become my friends because we are very interested in improving our craft, but too often conversations about teaching take place while passing in the hallways or in the ladies’ room before school. The current organization of time doesn’t allow us to have the kind of discussions we not only need, but really want.

I know a lot about the problems that plague our schools; I’ve only given a brief synopsis here. And I’ll be honest and admit I don’t really know how to implement the solutions. But I am positive that ignoring teachers’ input and continuing to make noise about tenure and merit pay won’t really make things better. I’m not being dismissive of the non-teacher “experts.” Everyone has a stake, including students, parents and communities. We need to broaden the conversations because we all have something to say.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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