I attended a talk last week sponsored by the Washington Teachers Union. The invited speaker was Enid Lee, who was also an editor of Beyond Heroes and Holidays. At some point during the conversation, I was inspired to comment on social media:

A few conservative folks “favorited” this tweet, thinking I had a problem with multiculturalism. That’s not what I meant, and I was encouraged to explain my thinking. Over the years, there’s been some criticism of an inadequate approach to multicultural education. That is, teaching diversity as an additive approach with themed months or weeks, emphasizing individuals, heroes, and special holidays, which is what Enid Lee’s book counters.

Teachers across the country still ascribe to this “soft” approach to multiculturalism. Many of those same teachers feel just fine with this, that it’s totally adequate. That’s where teachers end the conversation about diversity and equality: on or around MLK Day or during Black History Month. As a result of years and years of this very noble, albeit very limited, approach, I don’t think teachers on the whole are viewed as a group of professionals that can be counted on to stand up and speak out. I say on the whole because there are some positive examples in some areas. Teachers, however, have been very complacent over many years and have not been major figures in justice movements.

When I say that teachers have ceded professional ground, I guess I meant that many teaches have comforted themselves with the soft, additive approach to teaching about social justice, and stopped well short of engaging in real action.

Again, as a whole. Can we really count on teachers to stand up for what is right? I don’t think so.

Education Week reports on a study that adds to the literature on linkages between teacher and student stress.

First, let me get this out of the way.

For the study, researchers surveyed 17 teachers in grades 4 to 7 on their potential burnout, and then tested over 400 students in those teachers’ classrooms for stress levels by collecting saliva samples three times in one day.

I get it, cortisol levels. Gross.

There are, of course, limitations to this kind of research.

But from an anecdotal standpoint, this makes a ton of sense. Even if you think about when a test is administered throughout a school. The entire culture changes. The adults are on edge because of security concerns and the additional people in the building just waiting for folks to make a mistake. Not to mention that your life’s work is be evaluated by something you’ve never seen before and won’t ever get to see. (You may get results by February of the next school year, BTW. Good luck with that.)

In a school like ours, which is a “priority,” we have eight different people coming by telling us what we’re doing wrong on this checklist or that. These hit and run, ten minute observations. We have to abide by several checklists in fact for a variety of competing requirements. It almost feels like every single interaction you have with administration, or his or her close circle, could land you in the hot seat.

When I’ve had a bad observation, before I get around to feeling sorry for myself, I begin by blaming the students. Why couldn’t you just follow directions, or sit down, or whatever? I’ll admit, I’ve gotten short when I returned from a feedback meeting, and I almost need some time away to cool down. And these are five and six year old kids, mind you.

When someone at work is undervalued, not appreciated, and lacks autonomy, how could this not have an impact on our students? Additionally, in schools where students are already stressed by their circumstances of, Christ, living and breathing, then leadership should get the message that how they treat the adults impacts how our students learn.

What classes or degree programs do leaders take that tell them this is how you treat people?

 

 

I have to say. I’m very sympathetic to the Washington Teachers’ Union (WTU). They have a tough job. DC is not by and large a union town. It’s been pretty easy to erode the powers of organized labor over the last several years, especially from within.

As some of you may know, the WTU is embroiled in what could be a relatively ugly election season. There have been accusations of withholding ballots, of dragging feet during contract negotiations, of frivolous litigation by members against the union itself, and now non-payment of real estate taxes on the WTU’s new(ish) headquarters.

As a WTU building representative, who listens to the issues that really concern rank-and-file teachers on a daily basis, this internal squabbling over these kinds of issues does not instill me with a lot of confidence that the WTU has its act together.

Building reps put themselves at a lot of risk representing the union. There is, in many cases, an oppositional relationship between labor and management, between teachers and administration. It takes a certain kind of person willing to put themselves out there. And in the current climate in which we are teaching, it takes some courage on behalf of individual teachers to even share their concerns with building representatives.

In order for this system to work, teachers and building reps have to know that the WTU has our backs. For me, when I see this kind of internal conflict and turmoil, I lose my resolve to stand up for teachers. If I put myself out on a limb, I have to feel like someone might catch me if I fall. Otherwise, I’m going to throw up my hands and say to everyone whom I represent, “You’re on your own now.”

If this stuff about tax liens or car allowances or denied leaves of absence matters to someone, then I guess that’s politics as usual during an election season. Great. Fantastic. And maybe it’s about trying to score some political points during a time where it won’t matter very much overall. I really can’t say for sure if many DC teachers are really paying much attention to it right now given that it’s their summer break. So the damage to morale might be minimal.

But for my money, I actually really care very little about these issues. I don’t know much about buying property, for instance. As an advocate for teachers’ working conditions, why would I expect a Union President to be an expert on property taxes? I suppose this is indication that an administration is disorganized because a leader would be effective at delegating this responsibility to someone who understands property taxes and all of that.

That’s probably the issue. Mismanagement of union fees and dues. I get it.

Yet, what’s a little mismanagement of funds if you’re out there really fighting on behalf of teachers? Not saying the current admin has a lock on that either. I’m just having a hard time caring about, and therefore voting with my conscience, on these kinds of issues.

 

 

 

I read Paul Thomas’ take on Christopher Emdin’s new book, which is soon to be classic. I’m not sure how I feel about the book yet. Not all the way through it. However, as a white teacher in an urban Title I school, I was also struck, as was Mr. Thomas, by this quite:

“The way that a teacher teaches can be traced directly back to the way that the teacher has been taught. The time will always come when teachers must ask themselves if they will follow the mold or blaze a new trail. There are serious risks that come with this decision. It essentially boils down to whether one chooses to do damage to the system or to the student (p. 206).”

The first point is essentially not true for all teachers, and is certainly not true for me, unless the equal and opposite reaction counts. That is, I’ve spent my career teaching to the opposite of how I was taught. I’ve spent a career taking risks and, on many occasions, being chastised for them.

The final point in the quote, that we can either do damage to a system or to the student, is true, in my experience, but the road to and from that choice is fraught with incredible risk, particularly in school systems and schools where the level of scrutiny from district officials and administration is high.

Hopefully, Mr. Emdin provides some guidance, which I have not found yet, for teachers who are willing to damage the system, because the system will come for you. The system will retaliate in a variety of ways, using all the tools at its disposal. The system and its indoctrinated agents will wear you down until damage to the student seems like the new best option.