Sunday, November 23, 2014
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Giving teachers their voice

This is the fundamental problem with education reform in America: The people who are most important in a child’s classroom feel they are effectively without a voice.


Posted on July 30, 2014 at 6:06 p.m.

CHICAGO — Teachers feel powerless.

This is the fundamental problem with education reform in America: The people who are most important in a child’s classroom feel they are effectively without a voice.

When new teachers are concerned about their performance in the classroom, going to an assigned mentor opens the possibility of being perceived as weak or faltering. The additional fear is that an offhand remark that claims the newbie isn’t hacking it will reach a supervisor.

When a tenured teacher has concerns about another teacher or even about a superior, there’s really no recourse. Even if this person is clearly incapable and everyone else in the building knows it, expressing apprehension will result only in emotional release — or being labeled a rat.

If these teachers have concerns about the curriculum, testing or other changes they believe will affect their ability to do their jobs, they can talk all they want — but it will be guaranteed to fall on deaf ears. Every teacher knows that aside from a few comments during the open-discussion portion of a union meeting, such lofty concerns are addressed far above their pay grade.

Even writing letters to the editor or otherwise commenting publicly on school can be off-limits — if what you have to say is in any way negative about, let’s see ... absent or overbearing parents, the school administration, other teachers, the union — oh, the poor sap who dares say anything critical about their union! I’ve witnessed teachers in the faculty lounge talk of ugly mayhem for speaking up about the union.

Which brings us to the anonymous teacher who wrote to The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss, who then posted his or her meditation on all that’s wrong with education — “Educator: The many reasons ‘I am ashamed to be part of the system’” — on the Post’s Answer Sheet blog.

Described as “someone who has worked in two public school systems in Maryland and in private schools for some 25 years as a teacher, counselor, administrator at the school and district levels and in other positions,” he or she chose to “remain anonymous out of fear of reprisal.”

I really can’t do justice to this person’s 1,150-word screed — which blasts everything and everyone from burned-out teachers to the never-ending parade of silver bullet new programs to the absurdity of zero-tolerance behavior policies.

What I can add, however, is that as someone who was a teacher for two short, frustrating years and continues experiencing the world of education through family members, teacher friends and readers who pour out their hearts to me but beg me not to name them in print — all of the anonymous correspondent’s comments rang true.

Grades are inflated through parent and student demand and administrative pressure; we expect first-graders to act like mini-adults and in many ways treat high school seniors like babies; school guidance counselors stick students in classes for scheduling’s sake rather than for academic need (driving teachers nearly insane); and some of the politics and corner-cutting that goes on in school buildings around the country, regardless of whether they’re high-poverty or wealthy districts, is nothing short of shameful.

But don’t expect teachers to talk about such things publicly.

Surveys, the most recently being a poll of 20,000 teachers conducted by Scholastic Inc. and the Bill & and Melinda Gates Foundation, consistently find that teachers feel they are both voiceless and powerless over their profession. In the Scholastic Inc./Gates survey, only a staggeringly small 5 percent and 2 percent feel they’re heard at the state and national level, respectively.

Teachers can’t be seen as complainers — they must endure with dignity and strength in order to maintain the respect of their peers, their superiors, the community and their students.

But they must make themselves heard. Put me down as someone who prefers teachers to go on the record. Surely these professionals can find respectful and constructive ways to express criticism that will ultimately make students’ education more meaningful. But if one must blog or comment on newspaper websites by withholding their name, or ask journalists to tell their stories under cover of anonymity, the risks might be worthwhile.

It’s not preferable, it’s not ideal. Yet in a national conversation where one of the most important stakeholder’s authentic voice is rarely heard, it’s a route that I believe some could take.

Esther Cepeda’s email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.

(c) 2014, Washington Post Writers Group


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