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At the Chalk Face: Classroom Teaching Experience and Whose Voice Matters

For about two decades from my early 20s into my early 40s, my first (and I believed only) career was public high school English teacher. Around 2002, I moved to higher education where I am primarily a teacher educator but also maintain in part a role as a teacher/director of writing in our first year seminar program—meaning I have been a teacher now for 31 years.

Throughout my time as a K-12 public school teacher, I was most of those years a department chair, a position for which I received no stipend and no release time. Along with being a full-time doctoral student for 3 years and adjunct instructor at local colleges while remaining a full-time high school English teacher in the mid-1990s, I spent the last third of my K-12 teaching career also coaching soccer (at first, as head coach of both the girls and boys teams, and then as boys head coach). My coaching stipend, by the way, after taxes, added about $70 a month to my check, and I remained an uncompensated department chair throughout those years.

My first years teaching high school included five courses in a six-class-period school day (with a planning period and including my role as faculty sponsor/teacher of the journalism class) of about 30 (occasionally 35) students per class; each class required a separate prep (different courses with different textbooks for each class, totaling about 15 vocabulary, grammar, and literature textbooks I had to juggle along with learning to teach). From my first day teaching English, as well, I considered my primary responsibility to be the teaching of writing.

Since I kept a record of my work as a teacher of writing, I can attest that over those 18 years, I read and responded to about 4000 original multiple-draft essays as well as about 6000 journal-type single-draft writing assignments each academic year.

While teaching and coaching, my day went something like this:

I’d arrive at school between 7 and 7:30 a.m., rushing into the athletic offices to put my teams’ uniforms in the washing machine. After my first period class (class change time was five minutes), I would run down the hall, back to the athletic offices to move those uniforms into the dryer. Between second and third periods, I’d run back to the athletic offices to take the uniforms out of the dryer. My planning period was spent folding and sorting the uniforms, placing them in the players’ cubbies for the next match.

On more than one occasion, I was reprimanded by administration because I wasn’t stationed at my door, shirking my hall duties.

My lunch period was about 20 minutes; I ate in my room, responding to essays essentially every day.

During soccer season, I rushed directly to practice or matches as soon as the school day ended—my work day concluding around 6 p.m. when we practiced and 10 or 11 p.m. on match days.

What’s my point? My point is that this is a typical day for K-12 public school teachers. We almost never pause, and we are being watched by students and administrators virtually non-stop (there is a psychological weight to this that few people other than teachers understand). And along with our responsibilities to know our content and to teach our students, we are also responsible as adults for the safety of other people’s children.

My atypical days, by the way, included coming home with my clothes splattered with the blood of two young men I separated fighting in study hall when I was passing by on my way to the restroom. My atypical days included walking out of my room and bumping into a student gunman (someone I was teaching). My atypical days included receiving a call that the school building in which I was teaching (and where I had attended high school) had burned to the ground.

My point, however, is not that my story is some herculean feat worthy of praise. Again, my story is replicated and exceeded daily by thousands and thousands of K-12 public school teachers—many doing so three and four decades, not just my two.

Over about 150 years, the more-or-less modern public school teacher has worked in ways I describe above, and mostly, they have done so without having much voice in how their profession is administered and what policies mandate their practices.

Since public schools are government agencies, policies are mostly designed by elected officials (and in unionized states, influenced by unions, but that influence has dwindled while many teachers work in right-to-work states, where we have almost no power or voice), with virtually none having classroom teaching experience. Historically, even school-based administrators rise to their positions with minimal time teaching day-to-day; administrators (mostly men) teach and coach 3 or so years, and then become assistant principals, and then principals, district office officials, and superintendents.

Teaching as a mostly voiceless and powerless profession must not be separated from the reality that teaching has disproportionately been the work of women. Where educators have had the most power (and highest salaries), you find, again disproportionately, men.

So, now, let me raise my larger point: I continue to see a number of people weighing in on the education reform debate bristle at classroom teachers calling for their voices being heard and at the recognition that education debates and policies are being driven by people with no or very little K-12 classroom experience (such as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, and Michelle Rhee).

Although not a simple argument, it is an essential argument: Classroom teaching experience and teachers’ voice should matter, by driving the education reform debate as well as informing education policy. Let me explain how that should look.

Classroom Teaching Experience and Whose Voice Matters

Let me state clearly here that I am not saying—and I believe no one else is either—people without classroom experience should have no voice in the education reform debate. My primary argument about professional autonomy and education policy is that the initial and primary voices that matter should be classroom teachers and people with significant classroom teaching experience (this is also a problem in teacher education where education professors can and do hold positions with little or no classroom experience).

Historically and currently for the field of education, the public voice and policy paradigms are greatly flipped since those without classroom experience hold most of the public voices and almost all of the power to create and impose policy on schools.

As an illustration, consider the influence of education historian Diane Ravitch, whom I have characterized as Ravitch 1.0, Ravitch 2.0, and Ravitch 3.0. Ravitch serves my point here because many who reject criticisms of educational reformers without classroom experience point out that few people raise any concern about Ravitch, who openly admits that she has no K-12 classroom experience (in fact, when Ravitch spoke at my university, this is the first point she raised at her pre-speech talk to our education students).

Ravitch 1.0 was a strong advocate for standards and high-stakes testing, and during those high-profile years, she wasn’t often championed by classroom teachers (she may have in fact been considered one of the enemies); I argue she wasn’t even known by many classroom teachers.

Ravitch 2.0 and 3.0, however, has become if not the at least one of the most high-profile education faces and voices embraced by classroom teachers—a phenomenon that is at least ironic, if not puzzling. So what gives?

The evolution of Ravitch has included not only changes in her positions related to education but also a willingness to listen to as well as honor the experiences and voices of classroom teachers.

This means that if you decide to hold forth on education and have no classroom experience, you should not be surprised if you are held accountable when your claims do not ring true among those who teach every day under the policies that you endorse or have implemented.

Ravitch 1.0—coincidentally without K-12 classroom experience—supported policy that did not ring true to those of us in the classroom (notably the first two decades of high-stakes accountability throughout the 1980s and 1990s).

Ravitch 2.0 and 3.0—coincidentally without K-12 classroom experience—supports, echoes, and endorses policy that rings true to those teaching in K-12 classrooms day-in and day-out.

If you have never taught in K-12 classrooms, you are unlikely to understand what it is like to spend your entire weekend writing lesson plans for the next week, meticulously correlating every thing you and your students will do, minute-by-minute, to the required standards and then having your principal or assistant principal drop in and ask for those plans, only to reprimand you for not being where you said you’d be. Or calling you in to tell you your students’ test scores on high-stakes tests correlated with those standards are not adequate.

As a result, if you have never taught in K-12 classrooms, you may offer a cavalier claim that Common Core is no big deal; you may trivialize the passion and even hyperbole coming from the mouths of teachers who live the reality of high-stakes accountability aligned with CC.

And it is there that your credibility correlated to not having classroom experience comes into question. When we call you on this, we are not attacking you, we are not failing the debate with our tone, we are not over-reacting. And when you follow up with any of those charges, you are stepping into an ugly tradition that includes, as I noted above, the silencing and marginalizing of teachers, what tends to be associated with women’s professions, and women—as explained on this Feminist Legal Theory blog post:

Similar to “bitch,” the word “crazy” demeans women. But, instead of negatively characterizing women, “crazy” marginalizes and dismisses them. When discussing emotional responses, our culture often describes women as “crazy,” “oversensitive,” and “hysterical”—contrast to men as “sane” and “rational.” These words reduce a woman’s response to irrational behavior. Consequently, she believes that her feelings are not normal and are thus ultimately worthless. This behavior is similar to what is known as gaslighting: “psychological abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making a victim doubt his or her own memory and perception.”

Classroom teachers are almost entirely powerless, disproportionately accountable for mandates they did not create and outcomes over which they have little or no control, and working every day in high-pressure, frantic (and tenuous) working environments. When you discount their emotional responses, their efforts to express the inexpressible through metaphor, their insistence that someone listen to them, you have failed the debate, and you have exposed the flaw of people without classroom experience driving the education debate.

There is a paternalism and oppression of the rational in the education debate that must not, as well, be discounted, ignored, as teachers and their experiences and expertise routinely are.

And the CC debate is just one example. I could spend many more paragraphs detailing this same disconnect about value-added methods for teacher evaluation, high-stakes testing, merit pay, charter schools, and the primary elements of education reform now being proposed and implemented.

Classroom teachers aren’t perfect, or universally “right.” I’ve struggled with classroom teachers over grade retention, corporal punishment, isolated grammar instruction, and such. I once taught a graduate class that included a colleague from my own English department who flippantly said in class, “O, you can make research say anything you want.”

So don’t accuse me of offering some romantic tribute to the infallible classroom teacher. I’m not.

What I am saying is that education is a field rich in experience and expertise and bankrupt by the unwillingness not to tap into that goldmine.

If you wish to be a part of the discussion and you have no experience in the field, your solidarity needs to start with you listening, really listening, before making claims yourself—your solidarity needs to include the same level of passion we teachers feel, to recognize that those feelings matter as much as the rationality you believe you are offering.

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P.L. Thomas

Paul Thomas, Professor of Education, taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. Recent books include Parental Choice?:...