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EduSanity: Standing Back-to-Back with Teachers

It was one of those Saturday nights growing up in small town Kansas, USA when I probably should have stayed home. Instead, I traveled ten miles to Sharon (population 189) to a Catholic wedding dance. I was a 9th grader and in way over my head, but I was big for a 9th grader which apparently led to one of the 25 year-old locals, more than a little inebriated, to try to pick a fight with me.

Main Street

We were toe-to-toe, mono y’ mono and if I could go back there now, I would have told me to run out of that whiskey scarred air.

But I didn’t. I stayed and faced the opposition and tried to talk my way out of it. While I was standing there apologizing for something I hadn’t done, I’d sensed a presence behind me. Years earlier, when beating me up in 5th grade was the favored national pastime of my classmates, I remembered a similar presence. It was the sinking feeling right before someone–or two or three someones–grabbed my arms and held me while one of the other someones whaled on me.


Flashing forward to the really small town Saturday night, as I walked away from the would-be assailant, my friends gathered round and asked me if I’d seen Kyle Thomas behind me. I had but didn’t know why he was there or why his back was turned to me. At one point his shoulders had bumped into me.

“That meant he had your back, man. Kevin wouldn’t have stood a chance against Kyle.”

Everyone in that entire reception hall, especially Kevin, knew of his chances. Kyle was inarguably the toughest dude in five counties (coincidentally, these fellas are not Kevin and Kyle Fowler, my best friend and his little brother who lived across the street–the Fowler brothers were not harmed in the writing of this post).

Being a teacher and teacher educator naturally connects me with teachers from around the area and beyond. I count myself lucky to hear stories about their classrooms and about their students. I listen to teacher stories, the good ones and the bad ones, and the ones in between.

The concerning stories are the ones that I hear over and over (and over) again, the ones that almost take on a life of their own from their pervasiveness. Two such stories have become ingrained in almost every conversation I’ve had with teachers over the past two or three years.

1) We don’t feel like we can speak out against bogus policies or ideas for fear of retribution. This story circled around so much that a local newspaper reporter picked up on it and called me  to give her names of teachers to contact. I politely declined her request (and not-so-politely wondered what she was thinking). It isn’t that these teachers fear a slap on the wrist or loss of some magical privilege, they literally fear that their jobs or careers will be taken away, frequently pointing to some local cases as examples of that very thing.

2)  We feel like we have less control over what we teach than ever and we don’t like it. In the area where I live and work there is a curriculum mapping phenomenon that, so far as I can tell, came to northwest Arkansas courtesy of some administrators who moved here from Texas. The concept of every 8th grade teacher covering the same material is puzzling, and the most egregious example I’ve encountered to date occurred in the requirement that teachers post identical lesson plans on classroom doors across an entire district. Someone would be by to check, they were told.

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These two stories take me back to that wedding dance in Sharon, KS from way-back-when because they both convey the idea of teachers being embroiled in conflict they didn’t provoke. The bully’s sour breathed accusations seem especially pertinent to the educational discourse of 2014, much of which is rank with misinformation and misinformed zealots.

I thought of that situation again when I was recently directed to (admittedly not a place I frequent) to a report from the Center for American Progress (think Fox News of think tanks) about how teachers who responded to a survey felt like they had more autonomy today than they did five years ago, I immediately raised an eyebrow of suspicion. A Huff Post (MSNBC of e-news outlets) piece published about the same time discusses, this time from the perspective of parents, how teachers in New York are being provided a teaching script, an act that would cause many to have thoughts of altercations and most certainly discredits teachers and teaching.

From the article, here’s a brief excerpt from the script:

Minutes 0-10: The teacher reads the first learning target aloud: “I can follow our class norms when I participate in a conversation.” Then, the teacher asks students to provide synonyms of the words follow and participate. Next, the teacher tells a student to read the learning target: “I can define human rights.” For the remainder of the time, students discuss the meaning of the words human and rights in small groups.

“The script continues with this kind of detail for the rest of the year in a sequence of lessons, units, modules, and assessments. Teachers are not allowed to use their own methods to introduce the material, manage the classroom, or share their own wisdom. Students are not encouraged to connect the material to their own lives, events in the world, or things that may interest them. The script tell the teachers and students, at all times, what to say and do. The Common Core ELA curriculum does not treat teachers or students with dignity.”

But if one listens to the CAP, they seem to believe that this kind of control is precisely what is needed in public education, a fairly telling sentiment:

“The bigger problem in public education, however, might not be too little autonomy but rather too much. This makes it hard to create a true profession, which requires having a clear adherence to a common body of knowledge.” (source)

Now let’s be clear, the Common Core State Standards are many things but are not a script for teachers. What New York–and soon the rest of the country–is experiencing is the idea that once the assessment is in place, standards and assessment combine to create a curriculum, one that can be over-simplified by profiteers, one that in New York’s case most definitely strips teachers of autonomy and professionalism.

What all of this really means is that teachers continue to be trashed in our society and one doesn’t have to look to carefully at the picture of education to see that grand–anti-teacher–narrative (kids don’t know anything, teachers are bad, must raise standards) in action. When teachers speak out about an issue at school, there is this backdrop of educational fisticuffs flying in the periphery, effectively undermining anything said.  When I think about those teachers both afraid to speak out and the ones who have,  I think immediately of the story of Kyle Thomas and how it felt to know that he had my back those years ago. I was invincible but if he hadn’t been there, I’m sure that my words would have been rendered pointless, my face left rearranged.

I assert that some teachers may feel like I felt in that almost fight–nerves, adrenaline, fear–when thinking about our profession or simply carrying out their work. Fortunately, we have colleagues in the support of public education across the country who stand back-to-back with us too. From Diane Ravitch to the Public Education Shakedown to the Bad Ass Teacher Association to Chicago to the MAP-defeating teachers in Seattle from last year, we must stand together. Let’s find inspiration from writers like Alfie Kohn and Paul Thomas and share those readings with parents and colleagues alike. The proverbial Kyle Thomas’ can be in the classroom next door or across the country.

I hope my fist-fighting days are over and don’t confuse the metaphor here as one that advocates for physical intimidation or violence, but it does feel very much like fight or flight time in American public education.

I lament the fact that many teachers feel they cannot use their own names to ask serious and level-headed questions of school or district leaders or the education status quo. A democracy–most certainly a public school–should encourage that type of activity, encourage free and open dialogue without the fear of retribution if for no other reason than to offer a model of America for students.

Colleagues who agree with and support these questions should feel that it wouldn’t endanger their jobs to raise questions too. Unfortunately, in many schools across the country, the current culture and climate is one that values and respects compliance versus conversation, quiet versus questioning, and discipline versus dialogue.

Make no mistake about it, we are in a fight for the rights of teachers to teach and students to learn. Together, with a definite presence behind us, we can back down the foul-mouthed educational bullies we face today.

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Christian Z. Goering

Chris Goering is an Associate Professor of Secondary English Education at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. He received his Ph.D. (2007) and M.Ed. in Cu...