Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Classroom Teachers Are Politicos
Besides managing a classroom of 20 to 30 or more students while teaching lessons every day, teachers are also astute politicians. Teachers, for example, using ClassDojo, a free software application, is just another instance of teacher thinking and acting politically. More about teachers using ClassDojo as a political tactic later in the post
I do need to explain that in 2022 (during the Covid-pandemic especially) for teachers to both survive and thrive in their classrooms, they have to be practicing politicians.
Historical context for teachers acting politically
For decades, educators have winced at using the word “politics” linked in any way to their work with children and youth in schools. Let me explain the history behind this aversion to the word.
At the beginning of the 20th century, progressive reformers divorced party politics from the conduct of schooling. Governance reforms led school boards to dump party hacks from their ranks and recruit business leaders and civic-minded professionals to serve. Civil service regulations ended the buying and selling of school jobs. Partisan politics was banned from schools and classrooms.
Not only because of the progressive movement a century ago but also because separating politics and schools became embedded in professional training of teachers. The power of that norm remains strong today. It should come as no surprise, then, that few, if any, teachers take public stands on educational reforms except through their unions and professional organizations. When they do speak out, it is as private citizens. Individual teachers are expected to implement policies that school boards, governors, state legislatures, and Congress–authorize. They are NOT expected to campaign publicly as teachers in the district to get particular policies adopted.
Now, here is the rub. None of what I just said means that teachers do not engage in politics. They do–inside the school. Teachers influence what students do in their classrooms, what other teachers teach, and what parents consider important. None of these micro-politics, however, crosses the line of partisanship.
Teachers as classroom politicians
Teachers, of course, do not like to talk about being “political.” Euphemisms like “working with parents,” “kissing up to superiors,” “Gathering support for the new program”—as I have heard them over the years–-are favored constructions in their vocabularies.
But it is politicking, whatever you call it.
And when it comes to classrooms, teachers—expected to keep classroom order, cover curriculum standards, get students ready for tests, wipe noses and give students a shoulder to cry on–allocate their time and energy to instruction while nervously glancing at the wall clock. They negotiate compromises with students over behavior and achievement, and bargain with other teachers, parents, and school administrators for more resources to help their students. In short, they act politically.
Determining who gets what, when, and under what circumstances to achieve desired objectives is the classic formula for political behavior. And that is what teachers do.
Consider the popular classroom management tool ClassDojo. As long as there have been tax-supported schools–over two centuries now–states asked parents to send their young children to school; a century ago, states passed compulsory attendance laws that required parents to send their young children and youth to be in school or be penalized. States invested teachers with the authority to direct students to learn required content and skills in order to graduate school. Teachers sought through their lessons to achieve goals set by local school boards and ones that they believed important.
To motivate students who had to be in class to learn and to gain their compliance and cooperation, teachers then (as they are now) were dependent upon students for their own classroom success. Teachers have to gain student compliance or they fail. Early 19th century teachers developed systems of rewards and penalties (e.g., to divvy out rewards to students for “good” work and behavior as she saw fit and to use canes, paddles, and slaps).
As time passed, teachers came to rely less on using switches, twisting ears, and humiliation and more on praise and tangible rewards, again intermittently administered as they decided who of their students should get what in order to get student compliance in behavior and cooperation in covering what had to be learned.
Those past actions by teachers to achieve classroom goals fits the definition of politicking in deciding who gets what, when, and under what circumstances.
Teachers using ClassDojo to motivate their students while gaining compliant behavior and cooperation become the most recent incarnation of past generations of teachers who used behavioral management systems fitting the times and context.
So what? Why is it important to establish that teachers act politically in their lessons, classrooms, and schools?
Here is why: Micropolitics in classroom and school are essential not distasteful tasks that teachers perform. To reach the goals they want to achieve with students—literacy, civic engagement, job preparation, moral development (and, yes, compliant and cooperative students)–-every teacher, in different ways and in different proportions, performs three basic roles: They instruct, manage, and politick. The simple recognition of political behavior as a natural part of working in places called schools would help both professionals and lay people to understand the real world that practitioners inhabit every single day.
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