First Person

“Shut Up And Teach”: The High Stakes of Teacher Voice

I remember the moment I stopped resenting the deduction in my paychecks that went to my union. It took me three years, and happened suddenly.

Halfway through my third year of teaching music, in 2007, administrators in my St. Louis district decided to cut student time in the arts by 64 percent at the middle-school level as part of a plan to improve student test-scores. Appalled, I sent an email to my fellow arts teachers across the district asking what we were going to do.

The response from my colleagues? There is nothing you can do; this has been happening for the past 20 years. Nonetheless, unwilling to let the arts programs go quietly, I circulated petitions among staff, acquiring signatures from several hundred teachers—arts and non-arts teachers alike. It didn’t do anything.

Out of ideas, and with no sense of what it might accomplish, I called my union. The response was immediate: The union would help mobilize teachers and parents opposed to the planned cuts.

In the end, the union’s role in the struggle was minimal. But at that moment when I felt ready to give up, its contribution was decisive: It rejected the powerlessness that my colleagues had articulated, and affirmed my professional convictions about the centrality of the arts in public education. With renewed confidence, several of my colleagues and I began to organize, and following a large outcry from parents and teachers, the administration ultimately reversed its decision.

Flash forward to today. I am in my sixth year of teaching, now in New York City, and what bothered me then in St. Louis bothers me even more now.

I am frightened by a perceived powerlessness in my profession—teachers across the nation who have given up advocating for their students not because they don’t wish to, but because it seems an impossibility. And I am saddened by the fragility of our hard-forged convictions. I am saddened that my efforts researching and negotiating the work of public education seem meaningless in the face of current policy debates—and that last year’s nationwide struggle over teacher tenure or this week’s “debates” over teacher evaluation in New York arrive forcefully, demanding immediate reaction rather than initiative from educators.

Consider this past year. By all accounts, it should have been one of teacher outrage. For me, 2011 started—as it did in many school districts across the country—with the announcement of teacher layoffs for the fourth year in a row. In New York City, this included 6,000 teachers, with a disproportionate share of those in physical education and the arts. Over the summer, my school also joined many others across the country in losing its Title I funding when a large portion of these funds expired with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. And then in October, $753 million in cuts to New York City schools forced mass layoffs of school support workers: secretaries, teacher aides and parent coordinators.

Additionally, my school’s budget was reduced by 3.26 percent (adding to a total of almost 14 percent in the past four years), general per-pupil funding was cut by 6 percent, and the city decided students with special needs would receive 15 percent less per-pupil funding than before. Students in poverty would receive 50 percent less.

In total, this meant a budget reduction of more than $300,000 for my small school, 80 percent of whose students live at or near the poverty line.

What interests me here, however, is not the magnitude of the cuts and layoffs, both at my school and across the nation. I could list the effects on my school, where we made hard choices to reduce after-school programs and time for teacher collaboration in an effort to maintain moderate class sizes and services to students with disabilities.

Instead, what interests me is the fact that these cuts—coupled with other challenges that teachers faced in 2011—targeted students in poverty and students with special needs, that they targeted arts and physical-education programs, and that they severely disrupted school processes as one seismic change after another was proposed. What interests me, too, is how the cuts to schools came and went so quietly while other education issues raged in the public eye.

How do cuts so brazenly disproportionate toward students in poverty and those receiving special-education services happen without notice?

I believe these cuts were made—strategically, perversely—to the very populations least likely to detect and fight against them. I have seen this happen all too often in the short decade I have worked in education.

Who, then, will speak up—and not simply for marginalized students and communities, but for all students? Who will articulate what it means to attend music class, or what it means to be in a class with 28 students versus 35 or 40 students? Who might feel that these issues are no less worthy of attention than that pertain to teacher tenure or evaluation?

Most teachers, it seems, have learned simply to “shut up and teach” (as one conservative blogger has advocated). The atmosphere has been so relentlessly damning and thoughtless about our work these past few years, it’s hard to know where to start engaging with the public. By my best estimate, under 10 percent of New York City’s teachers participated in any kind of protest or public action over last year’s threatened teacher layoffs. The budget cuts, as I have noted, came and went quietly.

What happened?

Perhaps teachers heard what I had been hearing as I sought to organize: “This has been happening for the past four years,” or “There is nothing you can do.” Perhaps teachers learned the lesson that Gov. Scott Walker hoped we’d learn from the Wisconsin protests: It doesn’t matter how loudly you shout.The power to direct education lies with politicians who consider it one of many special interests, with billionaire philanthropists who’ve been plowing policy changes that suit their business models through Congress for nearly a decade.

Mark me: I do not believe that teachers alone should run schools or direct education policy, nor do I believe that every idea from the business sector is misguided. But there are deep problems when teachers are taught to shut up and “teach,” as if they could do so in silence. When teachers cease to advocate, we cease to fulfill one of the most essential elements of teaching: the act of caring.

To teach is to care—and to care deeply when students don’t get the services they require, or when class sizes are unwieldy, or when test prep becomes synonymous with education, or when there’s not enough money to pay for after-school programs.

There is a grave negligence, I believe, when the public gives the work of education over to bureaucratic and market forces. More than politicians and the invisible hand of markets, it is teachers working as professionals who recognize that students are not numbers to be thrown into global economic wars, but rather lives and bodies—bodies that sit in desks, that suffer, that grieve, that matter uniquely in the future we wish to create. It is, indeed, the charge of the teaching profession to further the work of education, in consideration of our children, our society’s needs, our changing world.

Lest I be accused of naïveté, let me point out that part of teacher professionalism is advocacy about job interests—compensation, money for supplies, pleasant working environments. It is also true that the perspectives of teachers may be biased toward the immediate needs of their students, and less concerned with larger social and economic needs. But this is no less true in the bureaucracy (politicians look out for votes) or market (investors look out for profits): These are all compromised spaces, which must have shared voice and dialogue to serve as checks and balances, and to build on the best that each offers.

A few examples of reforms suggested by professional associations of teachers seem called for here—examples that in the past decade have been overshadowed by talk of testing, accountability and choice.ASCD, a national association of education leaders focused on curriculum practices and policies, launched an initiative in 2007 called “Whole Child,” which calls for states to coordinate services, resources and data collection across school, social, health and safety sectors. Urging broader definitions of achievement and accountability, it proposes a plan that measures achievement by including access to healthcare, safety, personalized learning and support, learning that is connected to the broader community, and academic challenge across all subjects.

In 2008, a coalition from various education researchers and diverse professional associations launched a campaign for “A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education.” In it, the authors coupled a bevy of school-improvement proposals with investment in pre-k and kindergarten, health services, and access to a range of out-of-school programs. The policy paper is notable for its repeated emphasis on evidence based in serious and sustained research.

What happens when these kinds of proposals that grow out of education communities are lost or rendered mute? What happens when the discipline of education is devalued? Or when teachers come to learn that no one will listen to their testimonies, assessments and analyses of what they daily see and hear?

If you ask me what needs to happen, I have a few suggestions. First, unions need to widen their discourse beyond bread-and-butter issues like compensation and work environment. Teachers must be able to engage seriously and continuously in their profession’s discussions of evaluating teacher quality, of developing standards and curriculum, of allocating resources. Only then will we see substantive engagement, and not the kinds of rushed reactions I’ve seen recently from New York City teachers over the current teacher-evaluation debates.

Second, in order to do this, leaders of all teacher professional associations must do a better job of organizing teacher voice. Here there is fault in our unions and our professional associations, which for too long have served as top-heavy lobbying organizations. Small, local associations such as the New York Collective of Radical Educators have found ways to foster and direct teacher voice by creating member-led committees that develop projects and actions; a few national organizations have done similar work with membership networks. It is imperative that our unions and largest associations find ways to build spaces for member action, and to focus member discourse on innovative practices and policy.

Third and finally, teachers need to find ways to engage with education policy. This engagement—which the act of caring for our students demands of us—includes finding and creating spaces within our professional associations where we can speak of issues that matter to us, and where we can act in ways amplified by the weight and work of the associations.

These are not easy tasks, and I do not have a precise blueprint for where to start. But my experience working in several cities and participating in teacher associations has convinced me that there’s an eagerness among teachers to participate in our profession as professionals, not as technicians isolated in classrooms and subject areas. To build that capacity after years and perhaps decades of isolation, though, will require careful attention and hard work.

The stakes—the voices of those who work with children daily, the building of educators’ capacities to care fully and advocate for those they teach, the valuing of teaching as a profession—have rarely been higher. But I believe they are the right stakes, and the ones on which not only our educational but also our civic lives will thrive.

Eric Shieh is a founding teacher of the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, “A School for a Sustainable City,” which opened in New York City in September 2010. His article “Can Music Professional Associations Build Capacity for Curricular Renewal?” will appear in the Spring 2012 issue of the Arts Education Policy Review. This piece originally appeared at the Hechinger Report.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.