August 4, 2020

Empathy for teachers won’t stop us from demanding systemic changes in public education


It would take you a few minutes of scanning my years of writing about education to conclude I’m pretty tough on teachers. Because of that, you might be surprised about what I write next.

Watching teachers in Oklahoma and other states protest for their right to reasonable pay, and adequate school funding isn’t driving me to be reactionary, or to denounce their walking out on children. In these cases, the evidence is clear: the pay and supports they receive is an insult.

This thing that I’m feeling is called empathy. Given what I write you might believe I have never encountered it, at least for teachers, but that’s not true.

Here’s what I know: every morning America’s 3 million teachers wake up before you and me, and they get themselves to our schools in time to be mentally, physically, and professionally ready for our children.

They are the people who prepare each generation to run the world.

Teachers can’t be doing it for the money because — as Oklahoma proves — pay in public schools is the surest sign our government dislikes children.

Teachers evidently don’t teach for the prestige because teaching has none. Telling people you’re a teacher more often draws pity or fake reverence than sincere appreciation.

And, they aren’t in education for the high levels of respect because — although every poll ever taken shows the public adores its teachers — educators certainly don’t feel the love when people like me belabor the many ways public schools must improve.

I can see how they feel targeted, misunderstood, and scapegoated for not reversing what they say are more massive societal problems better addressed by social services, health care, and economic reforms.

They have other news for us, too. Our kids aren’t the angels we think them to be.

Classrooms and schools are a hot breath away from devolving into Lord of The Flies at all times. There are hazards galore. Sick kids. Bullies. Inattentive and disrespectful students who know their parents won’t reprimand them if school staff call home with reports of bad behavior.

As dedicated educators, many of you work very hard. The task of teaching our children who come from incredibly diverse backgrounds requires you to be an expert strategist, an adept caregiver, and a pedagogical wizard.

Who can do all that while serving the gods of data and bureaucratization in a hyper-hierarchical system that leaves you more punch drunk than energized?

Real talk, I couldn’t.

I empathize. So, you may ask, why does this empathy rarely finds its way into much of what I write about teachers in blogs and social media?

Imagine for a moment that we ask activists for criminal justice reform “why don’t you write more about the positive things law enforcement does?”

In light of a “stop killing us” era that would sound like Pollyanna dipped in cold milk.

Apply that to teaching. Though I have empathy for many teachers — especially those teaching my kids today — that doesn’t preclude activism against the ways that teachers contribute to the oppression cycles we see in other systems (welfare, prison, unemployment, etc.).

Maybe your heart is in the right place, but your unions fight relentlessly for more money and less accountability but are mostly silent about widespread implicit bias in teaching and racialized low standards held by teachers for low-income students in far too many classrooms.

And then there is that terrible narrative teachers broadcast about our kids. People, the awfulizing must stop.

Maybe it sounds like compassion in your ears to go on and on about how traumatized, starving, poor, and broken down black kids are, but it’s racist and gross. I wonder if you ever consider the possibility that our children are brilliant and human and capable of a full range of attributes that defy the labeling you do of them in public?

Sure, not all of you do it, but consider the 50,000 plus member Badass Teachers Association’s mission statement that sums it up well:

“This is for every educator who refuses to be blamed for the failure of our society to erase poverty and inequality, and refuses to accept assessments, tests and evaluations imposed by those who have contempt for real teaching and learning.”

That Badass message is all wrong. If you can’t see why ask a friend to help. If they can’t see the problem either, reconsider your friendships.

Parents of marginalized children are right to distrust government institutions, such as schools, and to demand measurement of the deep inequities in student outcomes. You can’t intervene in problems you have no proof exist.

When we ask teachers to focus intently on improving instruction; and ask principals to evaluate teachers, and ask districts to use data to improve students outcomes, that is very different than blaming teachers for the failures of society. It’s asking them to be responsible for their part of the problem, the part we pay them to solve.

f you want an honest exchange of ideas, you can’t label all inquiries into classroom practices an “attack” that is meant to “destroy public education.”

Instead of deflecting, you should fess up to a few critical problems in the “profession.”

Please admit the bar for entering teaching is too low and that when teacher candidates fail basic skill tests, the response from the “profession” is to lower the bar again or scrap the tests?

Consider the research that says the majority (58%) of college students with high GPAs said they would be more likely to consider education as a major if standards were higher.

Focus on the empirical evidence suggesting teacher bias criminalizes black girls and lowers expectations for black boys.

Yes, people like me need to admit that teachers labor beneath dummy-proofed policies that may unduly assume they are poor educators.

We need to admit that although everyone agrees on the importance of great principals, almost no one has figured out how to produce those great principals at scale.

And, we must be honest about the fact that too many superintendents report to elected or appointed school boards made up of well-meaning people who couldn’t competently govern a book club if Kindles were free.

As people who push for better schools and better teaching we can admit all of that, but, we need a profession of teachers to meet us where we are.

We need teachers who refuse to blame our children for the problems of the inequitable education systems that put the worst teachers before kids who need the best.

We need teachers who are capable of calling out bad teaching in the way we expect good police officers to call out their own when injustices are done even if that bad teacher is the one that looks back at you in the mirror every morning.

We need teachers who want to be accountable — not for miracles — but for seeing the potential in our children and moving them quickly toward it.

And, we need teachers to stop pretending our only motive for pushing so hard to reform public schools is not because we love our children and our people and we’re determined to change the game for our communities, but because we’ve joined some weird global neoliberal plot to trade our schools on Wall Street.

After all, empathy is a two-way street paved with reciprocity and respect.

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