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Teacher Voice (Dropping The Mic To Make Sure It’s Broke)

No one’s going to hand you the mic, so you better take it when it’s your turn. Or else.

As a teacher, I’m often asked, “Why do you advocate so thoroughly for teacher voice?”

My reply as short as “Why not?” But that’s usually not enough to quell the majority of people who ask me that question. For teachers to speak up, we’re often given few venues, if at all, to express our admiration and / or discontent about education policy. If we’re lucky, we get to be part of a meeting with our administrators. Even fewer of us get to talk to our superintendents and other higher ups except in “Thank you for your work” and “Hello.”

Yet, the time is ripe right now for teachers to flip the paradigm and transform the teaching profession into something more soluble, less frustrating, and more attuned to our ever-changing student body.With all due respect to principals, support staff, district leaders, community members, chancellors, and the plethora of go-betweens and consultants currently occupying our education system, it’s time for teachers in the classroom to make decisions.

In order to do that, those of us who are educators need to find ways to speak up and out about the issues we see affecting our classroom and not rely on others to do that for us.

Lots of people say, “Who really represents teachers?” With our current political dynamic, it’s hard to tell who we would consider left or right on the issue of education. Some say leaders like US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp, or Washington DC schools chancellor Kaya Henderson have teachers’ voices in mind when they create policy. Others say teacher groups like TeachPlus or Educators for Excellence show the potential for teachers to create pockets of influence in legislation and with philanthropy.

On another side of things, union leaders like Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, and Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, have been endorsed by many rank-and-file educators for their rebuttals and activism in big cities, often the epicenters for our current set of education reforms. NYU professor Diane Ravitch has captured the ears of thousands of educators across the country through her speeches and books on the deleterious effects of the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top initiatives, and Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond remains a voice of reason, especially in the field of educational research.

Yet, teachers have a hard time seeing their own agency when talking about what happens in the classroom.

It boils down to four questions:

  1. What do you want to say?
  2. Who is your audience?
  3. How passionate are you about what you’re about to say?
  4. What’s your solution?

While the general public generally gives high marks to their local teachers, many see teacher voice as complaining rather than acting. Let’s flip that. Instead of waiting for someone to hand the mic to us, let’s take it. Instead of just reiterating what others have said, let’s speak from our own experiences. Instead of complaining about why teaching sucks, let’s talk about why we stay.

Often, the answer to the last statement is the students. The idea behind redefining teacher voice is that we see the students more than anyone else does. Anyone who represents us should either have come from our ranks or constantly keep a pulse on what we think because, in school, we can be powerful agents for students in many ways that those outside the classroom cannot.

As for me, I do believe in unions. I am on the board of directors for the Center for Teaching Quality, a great organization dedicated to proffering teachers into the policy world. I do consider people like Ravitch, Lewis, and the host of others who espouse anti-edu-corporate views as colleagues in the work we do. However, in order to do that, I had to develop my own agency.

I couldn’t wait for anyone to say, “It’s your turn.” I’m ready to speak now, and the mic is open.

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