In the U.S., “solidarity” and “community” are very difficult concepts. Having lived my entire life in the rural South, I’d argue “solidarity” and “community” are nearly foreign concepts here—a very painful claim to make.
But the South is an important phenomenon to examine in order to come to some understanding of what it means to be a K-12 teacher in U.S. public schools. The rural South includes mostly workers, we live and live among visible poverty, and we are nothing if not the embodiment of “community.” Yet, Southerns are prone to bashing people in poverty—railing against welfare and the lazy poor—and reject unions with a self-loathing glee that is hard to understand.
These self-defeating qualities among my South remind me of the self-defeating qualities within my profession, teaching. [And for the record, I love few things more and more deeply than the field of teaching and my South—and about few things do I get more angry than teaching and my South. As with family, we often walk a thin line between passion and anger in matters of the heart.]
And I believe we are now at a point when K-12 teachers in the U.S. must examine who they are and how solidarity is essential if universal public education is ever to achieve its purpose as an essential pillar of democracy among free people.
So it is there that I begin this open letter to K-12 teachers as a call for solidarity.
My career as a teacher is grounded in 18 years teaching public school English in the rural South as that has been informed by my dissertation work, writing a biography of English educator Lou LaBrant. Three aspects of her career serve me well in this open letter:
- Much of LaBrant’s early scholarly work focused on the importance of free reading and libraries (work she conducted and published throughout the first half of the twentieth century); as well, she published much of this work with a librarian, Frieda Heller, modeling, I think, a powerful message about teacher scholarship, teacher agency, and who constitutes “teachers” within the field.
- In 1932, LaBrant was offered and accepted a position at the University School newly opening at the Ohio State University. One of her first acts once hired was to lobby with the school that English was not a separate course (the position for which she was hired), but that literacy (reading and writing) were elements essential among all disciplines. Even at an experimental school, LaBrant was an outlier voice of critical re-imagining how we do school.
- LaBrant was notoriously hard on other teachers; many who knew LaBrant believed that the phrase that best captured her was “She didn’t suffer fools.” Once when she was giving a talk, a teacher in the audience stood to ask just how teachers were supposed to know and do all that LaBrant demanded (and, yes, LaBrant demanded). Without missing a beat, LaBrant told the teacher if she didn’t know how, then she should quit, learn how, and then come back to teaching.
It is at this last example that I find myself torn when I advocate in public writing for both public education and public school teachers. And that is why I write this open letter.
Public advocacy for schools and teachers is a lightning rod for angry responses; what is interesting is that the venom I often receive comes from a wide spectrum of stakeholders in public education, including K-12 teachers.
Just as one current example, my stances on Common Core and high-stakes testing (I reject both entirely) are routinely challenged by K-12 teachers—not just reformers and school-bashers.
K-12 teachers and advocates for those teachers and public schools face, then, a tremendous number of tensions, and I believe our solution to those tensions rests on forming a level of solidarity teachers have yet to achieve.
In order to create that solidarity, we must confront the tensions before us:
- The greatest tension facing a K-12 teacher is the call: “first, do no harm.” We must always be advocates for each child in our care, each child in our schools, each child in our community, each child in our state, and each child on this planet. This is a massive weight, one that makes our work monumental.
- Another tension is the need to admit that K-12 teaching, historically and currently, is not a profession. K-12 teachers are bureaucratic employees. As hard as this fact is to face, the greater tension lies in making the case that K-12 teaching should be a profession. K-12 teacher have little autonomy and muted voices; further, K-12 teachers work under the thumb of external accountability for implementing the mandates not of their design and for outcomes beyond their control. That is not the context of a profession.
- As is the case within all fields of work, that there exists a wide range of competencies among teachers is a burdensome tension. This tension confronts K-12 teachers with the need to become good stewards of their own field, even when that field is corrupted by non-expert bureaucracy.
- Another incredibly complicated tension is what K-12 teacher need to admit about public education: Historically and currently public education has failed and is failing, but not in the ways often expressed by political leaders, the media, and the public. This tension, however, is ripe with possibility since the fact that schools have not yet succeeded and currently do not succeed must be placed at the feet of that bureaucracy and then K-12 teachers must claim their own table for demanding and enacting the reform we have yet to address.
- Finally, K-12 teaching is criticized and portrayed as if the field is far more unified that it is, a rarely identified tension. Teaching in a unionized state is far different than teaching in the mostly right-to-work South. Teaching in a rural school is distinct from teaching in an urban school. Ironically, however, one thing most K-12 teachers share is that our work is incredibly isolated as we spend most of our working day the sole teacher behind our closed doors among our students. K-12 teaching is a frantic exercise that pushes us deeper and deeper into that isolation, in fact.
Yes, much is being done to K-12 teachers—baseless teacher evaluation and merit pay schemes as well as increased and misguided accountability mandates simultaneous with the dismantling of teachers unions and job security.
And that, I suppose, is the great tension: How do K-12 teachers achieve the autonomy and professionalism they deserve in positions so bereft of power?
K-12 teachers are not being served well by political leadership, the media, professional organizations, or unions. While all of these entities should be within the power of teachers to change, we are faced with growing evidence that will not happen.
This means K-12 teachers need solidarity. Solidarity to become the profession we have been denied so far. Solidarity among teachers and all workers to create the conditions of working that all people deserve in a free society.
Solidarity is a unified voice, but not a singular mind.
Solidarity is taking ownership of being good stewards of the field we imagine even before it comes to fruition—possibly because we must imagine before it can come to fruition.
Solidarity is teacher-led modeling of what it means to be a professional teacher and a scholar-teacher, and not merely a bureaucratic employee.
Solidarity is teacher-led praise and criticism of teaching and schooling, that is unlike what politicians, the media, and the public have offered.
K-12 teachers, among whom I align myself, can we begin the process of solidarity around the pursuit of teaching as a profession and of public education as a democratic essential?
Can we begin the process of teacher solidarity as a beacon for the solidarity of all workers within the larger pursuit of human dignity, human agency, and human autonomy?
As we turn the page to 2014, I will remain a voice calling for the actions needed for this solidarity, and I’d be honored to have you all there with me.