Where the Hammer Meets the Pick

Recently, I engaged in a conversation with some friends from the Center of Teaching Quality before an exciting panel about the future of education, a precursor to a book we have coming out through Teachers College Press ("Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools -- Now and in the Future"). In the conversation, we discussed a myriad of topics from "teacherpreneurship" (a portmanteau from "teacher" and "entrepreneur") to integrating 21st century technology into the everyday functions of school. In these conversations, I usually listen intently, trying to find the best way to ground the otherwise lofty, aspirational goals of those of us who want better school systems. When our discussion turned to the self-proclaimed educational reformers, I observed a fact too many of us omit, whether intentionally or otherwise:

Teachers may not always be able to articulate policy as policy wonks do, but they're the first to feel its effects, positively or negatively.

I then stated that there's a trend with public servants in that respect, looking at soldiers or police officers for example. One teacher in the talk quipped, "Yeah, but at least the people in charge have been soldiers before! There isn't a general or sergeant in the army who hasn't been a corporal and that's a major difference." Another person said, "Just look at [Chicago Police Superintendent] Jody Weis. He wasn't even an officer, but an FBI guy, and [Mayor Daley] asked him to lead the CPD. This week, police protested in front of headquarters and asked for his resignation!"

Unlike most other professions nowadays, the people who are in positions to dictate the education position in this country don't need any substantial experience either as a teacher or principal. (Is it under the presumption that being a student for 15+ years is enough? I hope not.)

I ruminated on this topic some more because I simply couldn't get over this concept. The state of education is such that innovation from the ground-up is often seen as rebellion, as the culture in our schools has made a sense of teacher autonomy a dangerous thing to possess. The educational systems inequities persist even as (or because) the economic and racial composition of The United States of America changes. Scores of third party vendors develop lesson plans for schools interested in impressing others or getting more funds for their schools, even when the teachers themselves don't get proper training in these lessons (and can probably write better lessons themselves). Emphases on test-taking and accountability only push teachers towards a one-dimensional focus for students who need enriched and vibrant learning. Our deflation of social studies and sciences, both subjects the cornerstones for better citizens and innovators, only exacerbates the dilution of education in this country. All this falls under the pretentious guise of standards.

Ultimately, then, my mission as a math teacher is to do my part to understand these dynamics and how they relate to the 30 students I have in front of me every morning, hoping I can make a difference for them as they navigate through their lives. I'm not in the classroom to save them much the way I'm not writing to you to change your opinion: only you can do that. I am there to make sure that they have more tools at their disposal so they can figure it out for themselves. Ostensibly, I follow the guidelines handed to me as per federal, state, and city standards for teaching, but covertly, I'm figuring out the best ways to frame (or disavow) malignant policies in the name of stronger pedagogy for my students.

With a teacher in the conversation, the education wonks might actually learn something.