There’s a rift growing in our profession. Some teachers feel dumped on, others are tired of rhetoric from leaders who lack experience in teaching, and even more are preparing to leave behind their passions for the classroom. Another, contrasting, group of teachers have begun using the tools of the information age and leadership development programs to play a role informing education policy. The viewpoints of teachers towards our profession may continue to divide if the trend of alarmist and incendiary messages from news and pop-culture media persist. In what ways can the profession surface and rise towards the elevated status it deserves, given the incessant, and sometimes negative, coverage of our country’s fierce education debate? We all know that endemic in our profession right now is extreme adversity; why are some people able to turn this adversity into strength, while for others it is debilitating?
I have begun to reflect on this dichotomy after many conversations with teachers around the U.S. and our recent interviews with prospective Teaching Ambassador Fellow candidates. My typical conversation with future Fellows began on a somewhat common ground of knowledge about education policy, allowing for healthy dialogue on proposed reform agendas. In opposition, some conversations with teachers around the country were founded on annoyance, extreme frustration, and perceived helplessness towards reform agendas. Both groups were passionate about the same topics, yet informed through different experiences. I’m convinced that all teachers are capable of participating in political discourse, but not totally sure our daily experiences prepare us to be strategic and enthusiastic about those conversations.
One of the colleagues I met on the road came to me in tears caused by her frustration. In her second year teaching in a Western U.S. urban school system, she is facing the threat of losing her job due to impending budget cuts. During our first conversation I carefully listened to and legitimized her trepidation. I then shared resources, tactics, and my own story of layoff threats during my first-year. Without my experience of working in the U.S. Department of Education, our discussion may have been less productive and more focused on the daily rumors we hear about nationwide layoffs. Last week I followed up with her over the phone to learn how she is feeling since we last met. This time she sounded strong-willed. She is prepared for the worst but is now focusing on the two things that are most important: her students’ science projects and building a network of contacts that will support her search for a new position.
While this example alone ensures me that my year away from the classroom has been worth the sacrifice, I can’t help but think that the percentage of peers I have personally connected with over the last 9 months is infinitesimally small. Beyond that, I understand I don’t have all the answers and still need to lean on those around me for support. How can informed teachers overcome the negative buzz that media coverage generates for hundreds of thousands daily? How can we share what we’ve learned, ensuring there is a collective will and ability of all teachers to develop policies promoting student achievement and teacher support? I challenge any educator in a position of leadership to build relationships with discouraged colleagues based on positive and honest communication. These relationships will begin to bridge the rift by enhancing teachers’ collective capacity to drive an agenda for future reforms, inching the profession towards an era of empowered decision-making.
Nicholas Greer, 2010-2011 Teaching Ambassador Fellow