Sending Teacher Bashing Out of Style

When I saw Kenneth Cole's short-lived billboard, which falsely pitted "teachers' rights vs. students' rights" and asked the public where it stands on the question, I was so angry I could barely see straight.
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It takes a special kind of person to be a teacher, and I don't just say that because teaching is my own calling as well. As a whole, we are a group of people who knowingly choose a profession that will pay us less than our education and skills merit, because we're more interested in making a difference than making money. We understand that teaching the present means reaching the future, and we want to ensure that future is a bright one. Every year, we collectively spend millions of dollars out of our own (decidedly shallow) pockets to supplement the meager budgets provided to supply our classrooms. We sacrifice time with our own families in order to plan lessons, grade assignments, write recommendations, organize and take trips, and whatever else we know will enrich our students' educational experiences. All this, and more, we do out of the goodness of our hearts.

And all we ask in return is to be treated fairly, and to be able to use our knowledge and expertise to create the best possible conditions for teaching and learning. Yet despite doing so much, and asking comparatively little in return, we are repeatedly bullied and attacked by those who seek to advance their own personal, political and/or economic goals at our and our schools' expense.

So this past Saturday, when I saw Kenneth Cole's short-lived billboard, which falsely pitted "teachers' rights vs. students' rights" and asked the public where it stands on the question, I was so angry I could barely see straight. After two years of bruising work in a toxic school district, and another two spent battling the social, political and economic forces that created that toxicity, it was the slogan that broke this teacher-turned-activist's figurative back.

To some, a billboard like this might not seem like such a big deal. But those of us who understand the decades-long history of anti-teacher attacks also understand that by advertising false ideas -- as though one must choose between teachers' rights OR students' rights, for example -- organizations and individuals commenting on education policy contribute to an overall atmosphere in which the public is led to support destructive education policies enacted on the basis of stereotypes and misinformation, instead of what's best for kids and schools.

It was incredibly gratifying to see the rapid outpouring of unity and support from teachers, parents, students and community members that led Kenneth Cole and his associates to agree to take down their billboard Monday afternoon. But I know as well as anyone else that this is just one small victory in a much larger battle.

While Kenneth Cole may not have realized the gravity of the statement his company made, there are other organizations and individuals who quite deliberately trade in the politics of division and deception in order to promote their political, ideological and economic agendas. They have taken advantage of a three-decades long head start in the mass media, using their platforms to spread misinformation about schools and teachers, and to promote education policies that bear little to no relationship to the ideas of actual public school stakeholders, or the best available evidence about what really works to improve schools.

But we're fighting back. Combining old-school organizing with our newfound ability to articulate and share (Tweet, and 'Like') our ideas, we're starting to rediscover our voices, and our power to create the kinds of changes that will actually improve our schools. I'm thrilled to have spent the past two years watching and participating in the beginnings of this transformation, and I'm even more thrilled to join the American Federation of Teachers to take this movement to the next level. It's long past time for actual public school stakeholders -- parents, students and community members, not just teachers -- to reclaim our place at the center of the education policy conversation, sharing our vision for our schools and communities, and pushing back against the powerful outside interests who have tried to separate and silence us for far too long.

In just two short days, we proved that when we unite, we can make things happen. I look forward to seeing what else we can accomplish together in the days, weeks, months and years ahead.

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