Open Letter to Teachers Unions, Professional Organizations, and Teacher Education

After speaking and guiding a workshop recently, I was struck by some distinct impressions I witnessed among several hundred educators.

First, although teachers and educational leaders coming to a conference are a skewed subset of teachers, I was impressed with their passion for teaching but more so for their students.

However, I must add that these teachers repeatedly expressed a lack of agency as professionals; a common refrain was “I [we] can’t,” and the reasons were administration and mandates such as Common Core (or other standards) and high-stakes testing. That sense of fatalism was most often framed against these teachers clearly knowing what they would do (and better) if they felt empowered, professionally empowered, to teach from their expertise as that intersects with their students’ needs.

This experience came just two weeks after my trip to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) annual convention, this year in Washington DC—where I presented on the value of books and libraries as well as delivering the Moment of History as the Council Historian. Again, I spent several days with a skewed subset of teachers, but there I would also characterize much of the talk as “I [we] can’t”—because of administration, because of Common Core.

I must admit that during my 13 years as a teacher educator, once our students enter the field of education, I listen as my highly motivated and bright young teachers begin to speak in “I [we] can’t,” often apologizing for essentially never being able to implement in their classes the many research-based practices and robust philosophies we explored when they were in methods courses.

Let me now highlight here that the first experience above was with all unionized teachers; the second example, with active members of a professional organization; and the third, with traditionally certified teachers from a selective university and a highly praised and accredited program.

Earlier this year, Helen Klein reported:

American teachers feel stressed out and insignificant, and it may be impacting students’ educations.

Gallup’s State Of America’s Schools Report, released Wednesday, says nearly 70 percent of K – 12 teachers surveyed in a 2012 poll do not feel engaged in their work. The study said they are likely to spread their negative attitudes to co-workers and devote minimal discretionary effort to their jobs.

…When compared to 12 other occupational groups, teachers were least likely to report feeling like their “opinions seem to count” at work.

And thus, I have a very serious question:

If being unionized, a member of a professional organization, or certified results in teachers feeling the same powerlessness, the same lack of professionalism as most other teachers, how do teachers unions, professional organizations, and teacher education justify themselves?

I think this question is valid, and I think we now stand at a watershed moment for teachers unions, professional organizations, and teacher education. And I offer this hard and blunt question because, ultimately, I believe in the promise of teachers unions, professional organizations, and teacher education as a discipline.

My first impression about this question is that far too often unions, professional organizations, and teacher education have failed teachers and education by racing to grab a seat at the table—eager to contribute to how to implement standards, testing, and bureaucracy. All three arenas of educational leadership have failed educator professionalism by rushing to participate within the partisan political accountability movement over the past thirty years.

Leadership from unions, professional organizations, and teacher education has been overwhelming as fatalistic as the teachers I described above; diligently compromising, eagerly complying, breathlessly trying to excel at accountability and bureaucracy—in effect, leading by following.

If we return to what we know about how teachers feel, Klein noted the ultimate danger of a lack of teacher professionalism:

“The problem is that when teachers are not fully engaged in their work, their students pay the price every day,” says the report. “Disengaged teachers are less likely to bring the energy, insights, and resilience that effective teaching requires to the classroom. They are less likely to build the kind of positive, caring relationships with their students that form the emotional core of the learning process.”

And thus, compliant, fatalistic educational leadership feeds compliant, fatalistic teachers—failing the most important aspect of universal public education, students.

Instead of challenging the assumption that public education needs accountability based on standards and high-stakes testing, unions, professional organizations, and teacher educators have mostly focused on helping teachers navigate each new round of standards and tests—even praising each new round despite no evidence that standards and testing work (or are in any way address the real roots of educational inequity).

Too often, that same pattern has occurred with value-added methods for teacher evaluation and calls for reforming teacher education. [1] The responses have been about implementing policies slowly so they can be done correctly—not substantive rejecting of deeply flawed policy and the dismantling of teaching as a profession.

I do not discount that a powerful consequence of high-stakes accountability is that educators and educational leaders are on the defensive, often frantic because a failure to comply with flawed policy can result in serious consequences—risking funding, lost jobs, ruined careers even.

However, the exact reasons that teachers unions, professional organizations, and teacher education should matter are the antidotes to remaining trapped in a state of frantic reaction: Collective and professional noncooperation with any policies not supported by the knowledge-base of the field of education and the established norms of professionalism.

So this is my point: Teachers unions, professional organizations, and teacher education have a duty to their own existence and to teachers as well as the field of education; that duty includes no longer fighting for a place at the education reform table, no longer putting organizational leadership and bureaucracy before the integrity of education as a discipline and a profession.

As English educator and former NCTE president Lou LaBrant announced in 1947: “This is not the time for the teacher of any language to follow the line of least resistance, to teach without the fullest possible knowledge of the implications of his medium.”

As James Baldwin declared in Nobody Knows My Name: “The challenge is in the moment, the time is always now.”

This is about time. It is time to set aside the failed pursuit of accountability, the corrosive insistence on rigor, and the dehumanizing commitment to standardization.

It is time that teaching reclaim its rightful place as a profession, setting the table for how teachers teach, how students learn.

It is time leaders in teachers unions, professional organizations, and teacher education lead by leading.

[1] We do have examples of resistance, although too rare; see this response to NCTQ by NCTE.

12 comments

  1. Martha Atwell

    Thank you for this. I couldn’t agree more. I am so tired of our union happily going along with testing and now Common Core. We have also turned over curriculum for EL learners to textbook companies, and expect people working with the most vulnerable to be the ones who must do scripted teaching. 20 plus years of experience tells me this is exactly wrong. Our unions must help us preserve our profession, not just our paychecks.

  2. Pingback: It’s Time for Teaching to Reclaim its Rightful Place as a Profession | Actualization
  3. wgersen

    Reblogged this on Network Schools – Wayne Gersen and commented:
    As noted in earlier posts on this blog, any teacher who entered the profession since the implementation of NCLB perceives their mission as improving test scores. If we do not put the brakes on this soon we will have an entire generation of teachers who believe their primary mission is preparing students for standardized testing.

  4. Pat Rusk

    I couldn’t agree more. As a long time union leader and then union staff person, I recently resigned my position for this very reason. We spend our time helping teachers be good little soldiers instead of organizing an army.
    I used to say that if we didn’t have a seat at the table, we might be on the menu. But the seat we have been given is a high chair. And the menu is to eat our own.

  5. jprealini

    This describes the California Teachers Association’s and my local Sunnyvale Education Association’s response to the deluge of Common Core deformation.
    I have sent this article to my Union Representatives and requested a response.
    I await their response.

  6. Marilyn J. Hollman

    It is usually more than a rush to the tables; it’s more like a traffic jam, but a speedy one if there’s such a thing. Probably not. So much for similes.
    Losing one’s job is more frightening to some of us than to others. Maybe that’s part of what led us to teaching in the first place.
    Nevertheless, there is nothing much in the CC that can’t become a reasonable part of a literacy classroom if one knows one’s subject, one’s theory, pedagogical and cognitive. Teachers and their supervisors need to know their stuff. As frequently as you hear “I can’t. . .” I hear, “What’s the good of this theory?”
    The testing issue is another thing, I admit.

  7. Pingback: Open Letter to Teachers Unions, Professional Organizations, and Teacher Education | veraewatson15
  8. The Educator Advocate

    There is a valid point missing here… I don’t have an issue with sitting at the table. However, instead of “racing to the table” we should be the table inviting others into our conversation about education. Too often we are the organization of no and offer no solutions or stand wavering in what we know what kids need. It IS time to stand up and LEAD! Thanks for this very thought provoking reflection/blog.

  9. TryingToTeach

    After reading this I am left with the question: where to begin? I work at a school that has all of the labels that people like to throw around: “urban” inner-city”, “high needs”, “99% free and reduced lunch” etc. Teachers get burned out or achieve tenure and move on to other schools. At the end of the day/week/ year I am exhausted and often feeling a bit defeated. Now I understand that this goes beyond the issues of the standards and high stakes testing into the issues of systematic oppression but I am still wondering where can I start dismantling this problem? Do I get involved with the union? Do I try to organize at my school? Do I teach at a charter or alternative school where I will have more agency and voice? What are radical teachers doing? What has already been tried?

  10. mark dziedzic

    Thank you for speaking directly to the heart of the issue – we, individually AND as a profession, MUST lead instead of fighting for scraps. We need to do it loudly and with our classroom doors open for all to see (as you suggested in your previous post on professional transparency). And for there to be a mass movement of individuals openly leading at the classroom level there needs to be level of confidence that the profession “has our back.” If we don’t take this up collectively, we will never see more than small scale pockets of resistance – which will push good teaching further underground and result in more and more good teachers leaving the field.

    Our professional associations and unions must push the conversation to a level where the discussion becomes about what we actually value in education, not just what we can test. I often hear educators – from all levels, and myself included sometimes – criticize the use of standardized testing as thee measure of success, but in the next breath discuss the test scores of schools they believe are doing the real and deep and meaningful learning. It is such an easy and tempting thing to do, but if these test scores don’t measure what we value, then what validity do the scores hold? Yes, talking about success on accepted terms gets us into the conversation about education policy, but it brings us in on the wrong terms and sets up standardized test scores as legitimate measures of student success.

    We can and must do better, but it will only happen when our professional associations, unions, and teacher ed programs have a clear, well articulated, and aggressive public stance that offers a viable alternative to the current testing and accountability movement that is narrowing curriculum, shackling teaching, and reducing our students to data points.

  11. Peter L. Gust, Ed. D.

    In this time of introspection where we are seeking to answer fundamental professional questions such as: who we are, what we are and where we are going to go! a guiding light to read; thank you.

    I am a union advocate/employee and I see day in and day out the impact of federal and state policies on my members and colleagues. I agree and believe that the stress of the political morass that we find ourselves in has impacted the work of the professionals I represent. That change in attitude does impact the instructional delivery and the passion with which it is delivered to the students in the districts I advocate for. That diminished effort and the loss of passion impacts the students sitting in those desks in ways not yet known or studied. This impact is evident if you spend anytime at all watching the comings and goings in our public schools; instead of the students smiling on the way into the school house they are smiling as they leave.

    The smile on our students faces has to become a two way street at each school house.

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