Public school is often unnecessarily hard labor, and it is the teachers who ultimately bear the greatest burden in the profession.
POINT OF NO RETURN
By the third month of the academic year, the culture and climate of US public schools have started to become firm. At least one round of report cards has been sent to the families who are tending to the delicate balance of managing their trusts in the best ways they know how. Our communities and students comprise the majority of public education’s stakeholders and often apply blind faith with respect to (and for) the educators.
Meanwhile, in at least every fifth classroom, there is a bad coach who will harm many children in their care for the rest of the year.
Miss Shoulda rolls her eyes as she paces around the classroom, looking down on the Others and resenting them for everything they are not. [Some call it a deficit lens; I call her a not-see!] She sees skills gaps, achievement gaps, communities who must not read to their children or actively support them, students who do not value education, and any other imaginable reason or excuse for stagnant learning outcomes in her classroom. Miss Shoulda wants to stay at home tomorrow, and can’t wait until her nine days off for Turkey Time. Do you blame her?
Mr. Coulda is just going through the motions. He operates like a Blockbuster clerk, offering boxed curriculum to anyone ready to check it out. Half of his students don’t seem to read well enough to keep up, so he shrugs off their chances of passing STAAR tests in the spring. One out of every five children on his roster makes all of the work look easy. Mr. Coulda is doing school without embracing the business of education, an LLC (Literacy, Learning, and Culture). Yet he believes that his job and professional reputation are based on his bottom line — summative, end-of-year data. Do you blame him?
Mrs. Woulda is confident that her challenges, struggles, and failures are everyone else’s fault. Her endless murmurs, paraphrased:
- She is only a teacher, not a social worker or surrogate parent.
- She isn’t properly trained or paid.
- She has to write her own weekly lesson plans on borrowed time.
- Her instructional coach is stretched thin — no help.
- Mrs. Woulda’s principal is invisible during school hours and clueless at all times.
- A tiny percentage of bad kids who never get real consequences run the school.
- She might be a better teacher if the higher-ups stop adding:
- new boxes to be checked
- new expectations
- new initiatives
- new strategies all year
- new strategies every year
- The system is making her sick.
Every year Mrs. Woulda says it is her last year in the classroom. Do you blame her?
As I wash the blood off of my hands after bashing a few bad teachers, what problems have I solved?!
As much as I disagree with all three of their perspectives, I would have to lie to say I’ve never been like them — for a minute or a week at a time. For coal miners, factory workers, and classroom teachers, occupational disease is real. So, what’s in the air?
The danger is in the details, specifically the vacuous blind spots.
A top-down scan — president, national education secretary, state agencies, school boards and districts, to campus leadership — offers a critical explanation. Every political or professional tier of the education sector above classroom teachers is subject to knowledge gaps, problems of practice, and shabby systems that form turbulence on the ground level. Public school is often unnecessarily hard labor, and it is the teachers who ultimately bear the greatest burden in the profession.
So, can you blame them?!
I can’t… even as many of them routinely blame children, families, and communities. It is never a good time to verbally or spiritually assault teachers, especially given the storms they endure daily.
The solution to both measurable and mythical “achievement gaps” they face is standards-based.
The prevalent perspective about schooling prioritizes teachers’ alignment to annual state (testing) standards. Yet it is not a secret that schoolchildren, and the money that shows up with them, are the fuel of the public school engine. So, centering the experiences of our students is the surest standard.
As a classroom teacher, I used my desk less every school year. By year four or five, I began to understand how active the business of education (LLC) is, so I removed my teacher desk altogether. However, we have a powerful metaphor to ponder by looking at our desks as the focus of our individual (and collective) business affairs.
Teachers are often disconnected from the “higher powers” of educational expertise within district hierarchy. Granted the crucial ability to “close my door and teach” 70% of the year, a teacher’s desk is always standards-based since it faces the students directly.
Moving up the ranks, the desks tend to shift and spin. For example, the instructional coach could be the principal’s gopher. The assistant principal might be a hall cop, a discipline detective, a paper pusher, etc. The principal may be managing a million-dollar budget, a multifaceted staff, and the many tasks of being spokesperson to the district and the community. Imagine the content expert at the district office smothered in test scores, all the way up to a superintendent turning their attention to corporate partnerships. [If you’re a school board member reading this, what are y’all focused on today?]
If all educators aligned their desks to face the students (and families) for one day a week, what would change?
I don’t have all of the answers, but one reasonable outcome is that curriculum, instruction, teaching, and learning would be better supported. Until then, the predictability of who succeeds or fails persists. Most teachers are racially, socioeconomically, culturally, linguistically, and geographically different from their students. This explains the wave of cultural proficiency, culturally responsive teaching, and educational equity in the industry. Yet these are tepid efforts, at best, without systemic anchors to hold them in place.
Any education professional in any role at any level can reference “what’s best for kids” to convey virtuous intent, but who is aspiring to the labor of attending to children’s Literacy, Learning, and Culture? We’ve gotta be moving beyond the language of educational equity to the labor of educational equity, or we run the risk of lamenting what our schools coulda, shoulda, and woulda done with our children.
We’ve gotta be treating teachers like professionals, modeling the high engagement and expectations we want to see in classrooms. We’ve gotta be further professionalizing them, too. Actively. Not micromanagement, but coaching. We need good coaches on the front line, so we’ve gotta be creating good coach culture.
They may be easy targets, but teachers ultimately deserve the same love, patience, and care as the children they are expected to serve. This can only happen when we institutionalize keeping students at the center of our decisions and actions.