Arizona Stories from School: Where are the Teacher Voices?

Last week, a group of connected educators met with the U.S. Department of Education in Washington D.C. I looked at the picture of the people standing around the table and noticed that there was not a single public school K-12 teacher. I was not bothered by a single person at the table. They were all great, forward-thinking people — many of whom I know on a personal level. The real issue isn’t with who was at the table so much as who wasn’t. Both literally and figuratively, public school teachers did not have a place at the table.

I’d love to say that this is an exception, but it seems to be the norm. I once watched a panel discussion on teacher leadership that didn’t include a single current classroom teacher. I’ve seen panels on teacher retention that never once asked a teacher to articulate his or her experience with burnout.

I find this trend dangerous for a few reasons:

  1. It ignores the contextual reality and nuance of all the bold statements being made about education. Yes, project-based learning is amazing. But talk to a real teacher about the pros and cons of it and you’ll find that not every kid will do an amazing project.
  2. It ignores the expertise that teachers bring to the table. Yes, someone has thought deeply about assessment or systems or data privacy. I get that. We should honor the expertise. However, K-12 classroom teachers have often thought just as deeply about those subjects.
  3. It ignores the practical side of the solutions. Teachers, being experts of the context, know the longterm implications of the “disruption” that is often advocated in these meetings.
  4. It misses the nuance. In my experience, paid pundits and consultants can make a name for themselves making provocative statements. If anything, it lets them build their brands and distinguish themselves without ever having to actually do anything about it. In other words, it’s a whole lot of talking the talk without ever being asked to walk the walk.

When I’ve brought this up, the response is often a statement that quietly devalues the work of K12 teachers. Something like, “teachers can’t afford to leave the classroom.” Then pay for them to leave. Pay for their subs. Pay for their travel. Or they say things like, “teachers often can’t see outside of their classroom walls.” That might be true to a certain extent, but I would argue that many so-called experts have the opposite problem: they can’t see inside the classroom walls. They see kids in the abstract. They forget the human element.

I could be wrong. Perhaps it’s true that teachers might be too busy to join these conversations. But, busy or not, I’m guessing they wouldn’t mind getting an invitation.

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John Spencer

John Spencer has been a teacher coach and a classroom teacher in Phoenix, Arizona, for several years. He has written five books, including: Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology; Teaching Unmasked, about the impact paradox; Sages and Lunatics, a memoir and critique on factory education; and A Sustainable Start, a realistic look at the first...