Strategy and Analysis to Defend and Transform Public Education
We published this article, written by two Oakland teachers, in our most recent newsletter. They were trying to capture a very real and very ironic problem for teachers: overworked as they are, how often do teachers get to teach themselves. If this resonates with you, teacher or not, please let us know in the comments.
I spent two weeks of my summer participating in an intensive professional development with teachers from my school along and dozens of other bay area teachers from various social justice oriented high schools. The seminar was excellent – everyone walked away excited to start the year with new ideas and methods for helping our students learn how to read and discuss difficult texts. During the closing circle, a teacher from a progressive school in Oakland stated, “I resolve to read during the school year, just like I’m expecting my students to read.”
A simple yet provocative statement. During the lunch hour a handful of teachers sat and discussed the fact that as educators we have a hard time carving out space for intellectual and political development in our own lives. One teacher reflected that, “during the summer my partner doesn’t want to watch any documentaries or movies that get our intellectual juices flowing because it’s summer, and that’s the time to take a break. But during the school year we also don’t want to watch things that provoke us to think too much because need a break from the classroom and just want to decompress.” The majority of the teachers echoed the sentiment.
How many times have you heard something similar? Be honest, when was the last time you read a book? When was the last time you read a book that wasn’t a novel? When was the last time you were in a study group?
The reality is that teachers are very, very exploited. Here’s where some people might chime in, “but teachers are so privileged! Just look at how much more money they make than their students’ parents.” Well, yes, in some ways we teachers do get paid more and get more benefits than other working class people, such as some of our student’s parents. But exploitation is not just about how much you get paid, it’s about how much you get paid versus how much you work. Most of us work a ton of hours, and when it’s time to come home we have limited energy and time left to be conscious. Turning on a mindless movie or TV show, folding laundry, cooking dinner and checking homework are often the only conscious activities we can find energy for before turning in for the night.
Many teachers get out of college having learned something about the world, developed some form of politics, made some type of commitment to radical social change, and having been inspired to implement this through teaching. But how many of us actually continue developing our politics once we’re in the classroom? How many of us continue to be involved in political organizing groups, other than attending fundraisers or summer events?
So often the 4 walls of the schoolhouse become our main domain of critical inquiry into the world, with the students being our main allies. We read their work, we read the books we teach, we might even participate in meaningful discussions with other teachers about pedagogy, but what do we do beyond this to develop our own critical faculties? We know the world around us is in crisis, but we are so consumed by the dynamics, possibilities and challenges of our own classrooms and schools, that we can hardly even delve into deep political discussion Saturday night in the bar, not to mention actually engage in intentional study to understand the current moment and the prepare for the attacks on teachers, students and education that lies ahead.
There is a caricature of teachers as wide-eyed naïve idealists, and there is some truth to this perception. Many teachers do enter the profession with broad sweeping visions of the work they will do. But soon the conditions in our schools, the contradictions inherent to involuntary enrollment, our own exploitation as workers, leave most of us who continue to teach, deeply disillusioned after just a few years. We become narrow-minded about the impact we want to have. How many times have you heard a teacher say, “I know I can’t change the system, but I CAN change my students’ lives”? Or even something along the lines of, “The district will always be fucked up so we can’t worry about whether a policy hurts other schools as long as it is good for our school.” Like so many people in this country, as teachers we have internalized a central idea that maintains the status quo: “the system is impossible to change so it’s not worth understanding or trying to change it.” And so it makes sense that the little energy that we do have becomes focused on pedagogy and strategies to improve our school culture and our teaching practice.
First off, there is the impact in our classrooms. As educators, we struggle on a daily basis struggle to inspire young people to feel passionate about learning, to feel curious about the world, to challenge themselves to never stop asking questions. When we are not engaging in this practice ourselves, can our students see through us? Do we see through ourselves? Would we be better teachers if we were as committed to our own education as we are to our students? Probably.
Let’s take a step back from our own individual experiences and examine our relation to the bigger picture.
Consider the fact that public school teachers make up 30% of unionized workers in the United States. It is no coincidence that the supposedly “self-interested teachers’ union” is the new villain in the right wing assault on education that is being sold as a progressive strategy to “put kids first.” If the right-wing can take down teachers’ union, the largest remaining sector of unionized workers in the U.S., they will be one step closer to the century long project of defeating organized labor in the U.S. and the most powerful constituency of the democratic party. Once more, they understand that teachers’ unions, however deeply flawed we all know they are, are the only real opponents in the movement to privatize the entire education system in this country. Thus our ability as teachers to not only understand this attack, but to also be able to take highly effective collective action to counter it, is essential not only to preserving public education – the last remaining free social service provided to everyone in the U.S. – but also to protecting the right to collectively organize for all workers in this country.
Now, consider that in a fairly progressive city like Oakland, a good number of teachers probably have SOME idea of the increase in charter schools, the privatization of public schools, the national attacks on teachers’ unions and the ongoing austerity policies (i.e. harsh social spending cuts) that are leveling public school budgets. Yet despite this knowledge, how many of us really understand the capitalist political economy and how it causes these trends that so deeply affect our students, families, and ourselves? While some of us are aware of the moves that corporations such as Wal Mart and Target, and billionaires like Eli Broad and Bill Gates are making to privatize public schools, how many of us have some idea of what to do about it? Where’s our collective strategy for fighting back against capitalist austerity that prioritizes the building of prisons over the education of children? Where should we draw lessons from in the struggle for education justice?
The reality is that our strategies are completely impoverished. Teacher unions, for the most part, are on the complete defensive – if that! Many are collaborating with the same districts, foundations and corporations that are seeking to smash the unions as well as privatize the public schools, standardize the curriculum, implement zero tolerance policies that criminalize young people! We have no winning strategy to fight the war that the politicians and 1% are waging against us. Why?!
It’s complicated, yes, of course, BUT – how much of it has to do with the fact that we live our lives like ostriches, with our heads buried in the ground of our daily search for sanity and survival? How much of it has to do with the fact that we aren’t studying these phenomena with our co-workers, studying the moves toward privatization AND studying the way in which teachers from Chicago, Puerto Rico, Chile, Canada, and Mexico have fought against similar moves by the system to control and destroy the way we teach and the way our students’ learn?
Obviously studying something doesn’t change it, but where do we start? What if our study was a part of a program that included building more meaningful and political relationships with the parents whose children we serve day in and day out? What if we had small meetings and discussed the issues that are affecting all of us – students, teachers, and parents? Many of us don’t see our visions represented by the organized forces – unions, nonprofits, etc – relating to public education in Oakland and many of us feel deeply concerned about the direction our school district is moving. What would it look like if we reinvested just a fraction of the time we spend on daily lesson plans, into the hard work of organizing ourselves around a vision of a education we dream of for our students, our communities and ourselves? Or if we engaged in our own intellectual and political development alongside that investment in our students?
Let’s take a risk and say there is a step forward. We are not powerless. Maybe we don’t have the answers yet but we can start by looking for them together. A group of us are taking a leap of faith, we are scraping out a small amount of time from our schedules to start studying, start talking to each other, start meeting to figure out how we can use our position to shift our school system in a different direction. Want to join us? Have a better idea? Hit us up!
Sarah Rose Oyfstand and Aram Mendoza are both teachers in Oakland.