'Bad' Women, Teachers, and Politics

Our field has been under bipartisan attack for a while now, as our feminized profession (76% female) has joined the ranks of all the other "bad" women throughout history accused of threatening society's well-being.
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Just three months into 2012, as the Republican primary season continues, the tenor of the political conversation around contraception and other "women's" issues has grown increasingly alarming (to those of us firmly grounded in the 21st Century, anyway). Though there is a long historical tradition of projecting social anxieties onto women's (especially 'bad' women) behavior, it's still jarring for those of us who've grown up hearing about, thinking about and believing in our equality to be reminded of how tenuous our freedoms really are.

But for those of us who work in education, these gendered frustrations haven't just resurfaced because of primary season. Our field has been under bipartisan attack for a while now, as our feminized profession (76% female) has joined the ranks of all the other "bad" women throughout history who've been accused of threatening society's well-being.

To those with a mind for history, none of this is news. They already recognize the predominantly female teaching profession among the latest in a long tradition of projecting community/societal anxieties onto "bad" women -- from "witches" to bad mothers to feminists and beyond -- of all kinds. But given how much of the field has been placed under political control, in this election season it seems important to offer a reminder (and perhaps plead for a bit of solidarity as well).

To recap a few years' worth of disinformation: Teachers, you may have heard, will determine the social and (especially) economic future of our entire nation. And because we have sooo many of these bad, lazy (read: unionized) teachers, our students have performed miserably compared to those in other countries, struggled with a persistent racial "achievement" gap and more, threatening the very future of America. All this they've done while enjoying lavish pay, benefits and pensions that have bankrupted our budgets.

(Finding out that they were "haves" instead of "have-nots" was news to a lot of teachers, many of whom drive aging cars, rent instead of owning homes because they're priced out of their local housing market, moonlight, and clip coupons in order to provide for their families AND stock their own classrooms.)

In reality, teachers are subject to far greater outside interference than members of other professions, simultaneously shouldering more responsibility while exercising less control over their work. Unlike other fields, which govern and monitor themselves, there is an assumption that teachers cannot be self-determining. (Sound familiar, ladies?) Instead, politicians and business leaders (notably, two traditionally masculine spheres) demand to control how teachers work, imposing their uninformed opinions on everything from curriculum decisions to teacher evaluation. Indeed, as I write this, there are even bills under consideration that attempt to limit teachers' free speech rights while they are on and off duty.

Just as with the 'ideal' woman in a broader sense, there is much praise lavished on the 'ideal' teacher, who quietly, unobtrusively and selflessly does her work. But when teachers try to have a voice in the decisions that affect them, or advocate for better pay and working conditions, they're derided as being selfish. (Teachers, after all should be there for the kids, not their own selfish desires like three meals a day or a decent place to live! Don't they know that low teacher pay is mandated by God?) The call to "put students first" ignores the fact that teachers' working conditions are students learning conditions, and reminds those in the field that there are livelihood-destroying consequences for not knowing their proper place. And sadly, this is one of those instances where, all too often, the worst of this role enforcement is carried out by some of our own, teachers who buy into the self-sacrificing rhetoric to their own -- and their colleagues' -- detriment.)

(These calls to "put students first" are especially ironic in this situation, since many teachers are also parents themselves. For teachers who are both teachers and mothers, there exists an especially cruel double-bind: the demand to put children first in their working lives, despite the fact that this directive comes into direct conflict with the broader societal call for them to do everything they can for their own children.)

As with the other political sideshows we've seen recently, this, too, serves as a distraction from the bigger issues preventing kids from reaching their potential: rising poverty, food insecurity, homelessness, and all of the physical, social and emotional ills that come with widespread economic strife. (It's probably no coincidence that the very people who could do the most to alleviate these conditions are turning their attention on teachers and other public employees instead.)

Fellow voters, as the rest of this election year unfolds, and politicians of all stripes pile on to teachers, please keep a few things in mind when education enters the conversation:

A commissioned report on education reform that's drafted without a single classroom teacher or principal is functionally no different than a Congressional hearing on birth control convened without a single female committee member. (You should be deeply suspicious of both.)

The kind of perfect madness that drives mothers down the road of anxiety and undue stress, is related to the madness that drives nearly half of all teachers to leave their profession within their first five years. (One should also ask what that does to children, to be surrounded by adults' stress at home and at school.)

And leaders whose best plan to deal with our struggling economy and social problems is to blame and punish the latest group of 'bad' women, tend to preside over societies that aren't all that free (or prosperous) for anyone else, either.

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