First Person

“Shut Up And Teach”: The High Stakes of Teacher Voice

I remember the moment I stopped resenting the deduction in my paychecks that went to my union. It took me three years, and happened suddenly.

Halfway through my third year of teaching music, in 2007, administrators in my St. Louis district decided to cut student time in the arts by 64 percent at the middle-school level as part of a plan to improve student test-scores. Appalled, I sent an email to my fellow arts teachers across the district asking what we were going to do.

The response from my colleagues? There is nothing you can do; this has been happening for the past 20 years. Nonetheless, unwilling to let the arts programs go quietly, I circulated petitions among staff, acquiring signatures from several hundred teachers—arts and non-arts teachers alike. It didn’t do anything.

Out of ideas, and with no sense of what it might accomplish, I called my union. The response was immediate: The union would help mobilize teachers and parents opposed to the planned cuts.

In the end, the union’s role in the struggle was minimal. But at that moment when I felt ready to give up, its contribution was decisive: It rejected the powerlessness that my colleagues had articulated, and affirmed my professional convictions about the centrality of the arts in public education. With renewed confidence, several of my colleagues and I began to organize, and following a large outcry from parents and teachers, the administration ultimately reversed its decision.

Flash forward to today. I am in my sixth year of teaching, now in New York City, and what bothered me then in St. Louis bothers me even more now.

I am frightened by a perceived powerlessness in my profession—teachers across the nation who have given up advocating for their students not because they don’t wish to, but because it seems an impossibility. And I am saddened by the fragility of our hard-forged convictions. I am saddened that my efforts researching and negotiating the work of public education seem meaningless in the face of current policy debates—and that last year’s nationwide struggle over teacher tenure or this week’s “debates” over teacher evaluation in New York arrive forcefully, demanding immediate reaction rather than initiative from educators.

Consider this past year. By all accounts, it should have been one of teacher outrage. For me, 2011 started—as it did in many school districts across the country—with the announcement of teacher layoffs for the fourth year in a row. In New York City, this included 6,000 teachers, with a disproportionate share of those in physical education and the arts. Over the summer, my school also joined many others across the country in losing its Title I funding when a large portion of these funds expired with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. And then in October, $753 million in cuts to New York City schools forced mass layoffs of school support workers: secretaries, teacher aides and parent coordinators.

Additionally, my school’s budget was reduced by 3.26 percent (adding to a total of almost 14 percent in the past four years), general per-pupil funding was cut by 6 percent, and the city decided students with special needs would receive 15 percent less per-pupil funding than before. Students in poverty would receive 50 percent less.

In total, this meant a budget reduction of more than $300,000 for my small school, 80 percent of whose students live at or near the poverty line.

What interests me here, however, is not the magnitude of the cuts and layoffs, both at my school and across the nation. I could list the effects on my school, where we made hard choices to reduce after-school programs and time for teacher collaboration in an effort to maintain moderate class sizes and services to students with disabilities.

Instead, what interests me is the fact that these cuts—coupled with other challenges that teachers faced in 2011—targeted students in poverty and students with special needs, that they targeted arts and physical-education programs, and that they severely disrupted school processes as one seismic change after another was proposed. What interests me, too, is how the cuts to schools came and went so quietly while other education issues raged in the public eye.

How do cuts so brazenly disproportionate toward students in poverty and those receiving special-education services happen without notice?

I believe these cuts were made—strategically, perversely—to the very populations least likely to detect and fight against them. I have seen this happen all too often in the short decade I have worked in education.

Who, then, will speak up—and not simply for marginalized students and communities, but for all students? Who will articulate what it means to attend music class, or what it means to be in a class with 28 students versus 35 or 40 students? Who might feel that these issues are no less worthy of attention than that pertain to teacher tenure or evaluation?

Most teachers, it seems, have learned simply to “shut up and teach” (as one conservative blogger has advocated). The atmosphere has been so relentlessly damning and thoughtless about our work these past few years, it’s hard to know where to start engaging with the public. By my best estimate, under 10 percent of New York City’s teachers participated in any kind of protest or public action over last year’s threatened teacher layoffs. The budget cuts, as I have noted, came and went quietly.

What happened?

Perhaps teachers heard what I had been hearing as I sought to organize: “This has been happening for the past four years,” or “There is nothing you can do.” Perhaps teachers learned the lesson that Gov. Scott Walker hoped we’d learn from the Wisconsin protests: It doesn’t matter how loudly you shout.The power to direct education lies with politicians who consider it one of many special interests, with billionaire philanthropists who’ve been plowing policy changes that suit their business models through Congress for nearly a decade.

Mark me: I do not believe that teachers alone should run schools or direct education policy, nor do I believe that every idea from the business sector is misguided. But there are deep problems when teachers are taught to shut up and “teach,” as if they could do so in silence. When teachers cease to advocate, we cease to fulfill one of the most essential elements of teaching: the act of caring.

To teach is to care—and to care deeply when students don’t get the services they require, or when class sizes are unwieldy, or when test prep becomes synonymous with education, or when there’s not enough money to pay for after-school programs.

There is a grave negligence, I believe, when the public gives the work of education over to bureaucratic and market forces. More than politicians and the invisible hand of markets, it is teachers working as professionals who recognize that students are not numbers to be thrown into global economic wars, but rather lives and bodies—bodies that sit in desks, that suffer, that grieve, that matter uniquely in the future we wish to create. It is, indeed, the charge of the teaching profession to further the work of education, in consideration of our children, our society’s needs, our changing world.

Lest I be accused of naïveté, let me point out that part of teacher professionalism is advocacy about job interests—compensation, money for supplies, pleasant working environments. It is also true that the perspectives of teachers may be biased toward the immediate needs of their students, and less concerned with larger social and economic needs. But this is no less true in the bureaucracy (politicians look out for votes) or market (investors look out for profits): These are all compromised spaces, which must have shared voice and dialogue to serve as checks and balances, and to build on the best that each offers.

A few examples of reforms suggested by professional associations of teachers seem called for here—examples that in the past decade have been overshadowed by talk of testing, accountability and choice.ASCD, a national association of education leaders focused on curriculum practices and policies, launched an initiative in 2007 called “Whole Child,” which calls for states to coordinate services, resources and data collection across school, social, health and safety sectors. Urging broader definitions of achievement and accountability, it proposes a plan that measures achievement by including access to healthcare, safety, personalized learning and support, learning that is connected to the broader community, and academic challenge across all subjects.

In 2008, a coalition from various education researchers and diverse professional associations launched a campaign for “A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education.” In it, the authors coupled a bevy of school-improvement proposals with investment in pre-k and kindergarten, health services, and access to a range of out-of-school programs. The policy paper is notable for its repeated emphasis on evidence based in serious and sustained research.

What happens when these kinds of proposals that grow out of education communities are lost or rendered mute? What happens when the discipline of education is devalued? Or when teachers come to learn that no one will listen to their testimonies, assessments and analyses of what they daily see and hear?

If you ask me what needs to happen, I have a few suggestions. First, unions need to widen their discourse beyond bread-and-butter issues like compensation and work environment. Teachers must be able to engage seriously and continuously in their profession’s discussions of evaluating teacher quality, of developing standards and curriculum, of allocating resources. Only then will we see substantive engagement, and not the kinds of rushed reactions I’ve seen recently from New York City teachers over the current teacher-evaluation debates.

Second, in order to do this, leaders of all teacher professional associations must do a better job of organizing teacher voice. Here there is fault in our unions and our professional associations, which for too long have served as top-heavy lobbying organizations. Small, local associations such as the New York Collective of Radical Educators have found ways to foster and direct teacher voice by creating member-led committees that develop projects and actions; a few national organizations have done similar work with membership networks. It is imperative that our unions and largest associations find ways to build spaces for member action, and to focus member discourse on innovative practices and policy.

Third and finally, teachers need to find ways to engage with education policy. This engagement—which the act of caring for our students demands of us—includes finding and creating spaces within our professional associations where we can speak of issues that matter to us, and where we can act in ways amplified by the weight and work of the associations.

These are not easy tasks, and I do not have a precise blueprint for where to start. But my experience working in several cities and participating in teacher associations has convinced me that there’s an eagerness among teachers to participate in our profession as professionals, not as technicians isolated in classrooms and subject areas. To build that capacity after years and perhaps decades of isolation, though, will require careful attention and hard work.

The stakes—the voices of those who work with children daily, the building of educators’ capacities to care fully and advocate for those they teach, the valuing of teaching as a profession—have rarely been higher. But I believe they are the right stakes, and the ones on which not only our educational but also our civic lives will thrive.

Eric Shieh is a founding teacher of the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, “A School for a Sustainable City,” which opened in New York City in September 2010. His article “Can Music Professional Associations Build Capacity for Curricular Renewal?” will appear in the Spring 2012 issue of the Arts Education Policy Review. This piece originally appeared at the Hechinger Report.

First Person

I spoke with our governor during his TNReady listening tour. Here’s what I hope he heard.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tara Baker raises her hand to talk during Gov. Bill Haslam's Sept. 4 roundtable discussion about state testing challenges. An assistant principal at Nashville's McGavock High School, Baker was among about 150 educators invited to participate in Haslam's six-stop "listening tour," which began Aug. 31 in Knoxville and ends Sept. 18 in Gibson County.

As the testing coordinator for a large high school in Nashville, I was in the eye of the proverbial storm this spring as tens of thousands of Tennessee students slogged through technical snafus and breakdowns in the state’s return to online testing.

It was ugly.

The daily stops and starts sucked the joy of learning right out of our school community. And the testing platform was not the only thing that broke down. Students were frustrated to the point of tears after their hard work disappeared behind a spinning blue cursor.

Students and their teachers should never feel that level of exasperation and futility.

That’s why I was thrilled to be invited — along with about 150 other educators from across Tennessee — to troubleshoot testing problems with Gov. Bill Haslam this month during his six-stop “listening tour” on TNReady, the assessment that’s now entering its fourth year.

I wanted the governor and his education commissioner, Candice McQueen, to know just how bad testing went at my school, and to hear observations and ideas from ground zero for moving forward.

I talked about our school’s disappointment and tears as we persevered through a rocky start, with already overtested students exasperated by what felt like unending technical difficulties. “They were defeated,” I told the governor. “It crippled us before we really ever got started.”

I shared how only 36 out of 500 students in our English III classes were able to successfully submit their essays for one part of their online exam. Imagine working for over an hour to read and examine an article and construct an in-depth response, only to have your computer freeze or shut down before you could finish. Our sophomores had more success, but we still had almost 150 incomplete submissions in that class after multiple attempts. The stories were similar for students in Integrated Math, Chemistry, and U.S. History. While I can’t know for sure, I believe the intensity of the problems contributed significantly to our school being rated recently at the state’s lowest possible level for academic growth — a devastating blow to me and my colleagues.  

The governor’s 90-minute roundtable discussion, held in a middle school media room in the town of Franklin, was cathartic for many of us present at the fourth listening tour stop. We realized that we were not alone in our frustrations and concerns.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Educators in Middle Tennessee participate in the governor’s fourth roundtable discussion at Freedom Middle School in Franklin.

Gov. Haslam and Commissioner McQueen listened intently, and I was grateful for the opportunity to share my school’s experience. But a lot of ideas and emotions were compressed into a relatively short amount of time. At the end of the day, here’s what I hope they heard:

We spend too much time on testing and not enough on educating students. Teachers talked about using class time to take practice tests in the fall, the long three-week testing window in the spring, and the sheer number of tests that students are required to take.

We should still test; we just have to do it better. Teachers want valid data. We want useful and meaningful feedback. But we need to know that the information provided is a true representation of what our students know. And we should be able to accomplish that with shorter, more thoughtful tests that cut down on subparts, testing times, and the number of questions. The current testing regimen isn’t working. It stresses out our students, teachers, and families.

We are not ready for online assessments in Tennessee. Computer-based testing generates faster results, but it introduces many factors that currently are beyond school or district control. Dead batteries, network updates, lack of internet connectivity and bandwidth — these are not things that schools can regulate with certainty, and they directly impact testing. Most importantly, until we have enough computers so that every student has one-to-one access to a device, we should have other options and school-level contingency plans in place. This could mean having paper backups on hand or quickly available.

Teachers and test administrators need to know the plan! As the link with our stakeholders, we need training to make sure the information that we provide students and parents is correct. It’s our job to promote the assessments to the community but, to do that, we should completely understand the process and be appropriately trained, including what to do when things go wrong.  

Tests need to reflect the diversity of our students. Reading selections should be varied to address students’ abilities, experiences, and lifestyles. For example, Jane Eyre is not relatable to any of my urban high school students. Could we pull from some high-interest contemporary novels, such as Jason Reynolds’ “Long Way Down,” about a black teenager whose brother dies in a shooting?

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam listens during his Sept. 4 roundtable discussion. An advisory team is using the feedback to develop principles and recommendations for consideration by his and the next administration.

This school year, the stakes are higher than ever to get testing right. No one has confidence in last year’s scores or results. How could they when we learned on the third day of testing that the scores wouldn’t count? And this wasn’t our first rodeo with TNReady problems, either. For the new school year, we must get it right to rebuild confidence in the assessment. To the state’s credit, the Department of Education already has made some good moves — for instance, bringing aboard ETS, a reputable testing company, and planning stress tests for online assessments in the fall and spring. I welcome the on-the-ground input of 37 educators serving as our state’s new TNReady ambassadors, as well as steps to improve customer service before and during the next round of testing.

But will it be enough? The above list of concerns represents what I heard at this month’s roundtable discussion and from other educators, too.

Thanks for listening, Gov. Haslam. I hope that yours and the next administration consider this a call to action.

A former English teacher, Tara Baker is an assistant principal at McGavock High School, a 2,400-student learning community in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.

First Person

We’ve come a long way in addressing student stress and trauma. I could use help, too.

PHOTO: Jose M. Osorio/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images

There’s an old adage, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” But as a paraprofessional in Chicago, my cup is almost drained.

Each day, I provide academic, emotional, and behavioral support for over 200 students. The amount of mental and emotional energy it takes to calm a single student down, redirect or remove them from the class, and provide appropriate consequences is overwhelming — even with experience — when there are 11 other six-year-olds in a classroom that need my help.

Related: Chicago teachers, take our back-to-school survey

I look forward to coming to work in the morning, but by the time I get home, I barely have the energy to make my own dinner or plan activities for the next day. I tune out almost everything and everyone. While I love what I do, it is hard.

This heavy responsibility affects my mental health and the health of all educators, and it certainly impacts our ability to properly teach and support students. In the wake of Chicago’s teacher assistant layoffs this summer, my colleagues and I have dealt with the added stress of job uncertainty, too.

But we haven’t acknowledged the effects of that stress on educators, and we aren’t equipped with support to manage it.

The good news is that we are having a conversation about the effects of stress and trauma on our students. I’ve watched advocates successfully push for change: Educators for Excellence-Chicago, an educator-led organization I am involved with, brought some of these issues to light last June. Since then, we have held citywide problem-solving forums in partnership with the district’s Office of Social Emotional Learning and successfully advocated for the passage of two school state resolutions to ensure that student trauma is appropriately recognized throughout Illinois.

The recent focus on social-emotional learning — also known as “soft skills” — in our classrooms is also helping schools better prepare students for challenges that no child should face, but many do.

Those challenges are real: In my classroom, one student is a caregiver for his parent, another has lost multiple siblings to gun violence, and many others have parents that work long hours and are rarely around. These experiences have a considerable impact on their learning; often, students don’t have the tools to cope with this stress, and so they express their frustration by acting out in disruptive ways.

And yet, amid all this advocacy for our students’ mental health, we neglect our own. I worry that without a healthy state of mind, educators can’t offer their best teaching and attention to students, perhaps causing additional harm to kids already dealing with heavy burdens outside of school.

I don’t think it has to be this way. If more funding was allocated to our schools for student counseling, it would allow educators more time to focus on teaching. Our schools could provide social and emotional support to our students and staff to help them learn coping mechanisms. We would be able to hold self-care activities for the entire school. Support staff could give students and parents tools to support them outside of school.

To ensure students’ well-being, we need our own help.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it best: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” Student and educator mental wellness are deeply interconnected, and we all must make sure we help educators be the best they can be for their students.

Shakita Smith is a teacher’s assistant at Pablo Casals School of Excellence in Humboldt Park. She is also a member of the Chicago Teachers Union and Educators for Excellence, a national teacher policy and advocacy organization.