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America’s Premiere Teachers: Demoralized, Infantilized, and Fearful?

obriena's picture

Last week I had the chance to attend the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) annual conference. For those who don’t know, National Board Certification is an advanced teaching credential, achieved through successful completion of a voluntary assessment program designed to recognize effective and accomplished teachers who meet the high standards set by the National Board. The program appears to do a good job of recognizing talent (though of course there are a large number of amazing teachers who have not undergone this certification process) - as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan pointed out to the group, while “National Board Certified teachers [NBCTs] are only 3% of the teaching force, you account for fully 20% of the 2011 Teachers of the Year.”

But especially given that the conference was a gathering of some of America’s best teachers, I was dismayed about some of the frustrations that they expressed.

For example, in the Q & A following Duncan’s speech, one NBCT pointed out that her school had been selected for a merit pay program funded by Race to the Top. Aside from the fact that the day before Dan Pink had reviewed research on motivation that suggested the underlying theory of action for such programs is flawed, this particular teacher - and her colleagues, according to her - found the process by which it was adopted quite demoralizing. It seemed to them like outsiders coming in to fix things, without considering the expertise that existed in the school.

Her experience was part of a theme I heard in other sessions: Policymakers often preface comments against teachers with, “We’re not talking about the good teachers.” The mood at the conference: “You’re not talking with us, either.” In a session called “Meet the Press” (which included a great panel featuring the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss, EdWeek’s Stephen Sawchuk, NPR’s Claudio Sanchez and CNN’s Sally Holland), the word “infantilized” was used to describe teachers. While not all agreed it was accurate, the fact that it was worthy of discussion is telling of the climate surrounding educators.

In that session and the two others I attended (one on how teachers can find a voice in policymaking, highlighting the work of the Accomplished California Teachers network and one on the education blogosphere, which included a panel of premiere teacher bloggers, including some who have written for our blog in the past – Nancy Flanagan, Anthony Cody, David Cohen and Daniela Robles, with an appearance by Renee Moore), a theme that came up a number of times was fear.

Teachers (and principals) are afraid to talk to the press. They are afraid to talk to policymakers and to take a stand against policies that they think are unfair, because they are afraid of losing their jobs and of other backlash. They are afraid to blog, again fearing retribution from either their district or colleagues. These are some of America’s premiere teachers – and this is the climate they describe. It is not a climate that a professional should face.

Yet despite the rhetoric, I felt a great sense of hope. The sessions I attended – which NBPTS was smart enough to include, in addition to the usual sessions at gatherings of teachers on integrating technology and such – were dedicated to teachers finding their voice. And the NBCTs appreciated it: I overheard two attendees talking about how different this was from what they normally heard – and how necessary.

These teachers (and I am assuming others) are mad about the way they are being treated by policymakers and portrayed in the press. In multiple contexts I heard about the need for action – collective action, since there is safety in numbers. The Save Our Schools March, whose organizers included some of these teachers and which was attended by many others, was one way in which they were able to vocalize their discontent. And I am hopeful that it was the beginning of a larger effort by teachers themselves to demand they be included in making the decisions that impact their lives, as professionals should be.

And one of the primary ways

And one of the primary ways that teachers can unify and have a voice, their associations and unions, are being attacked and demonized as well.

Great piece--the idea that

Great piece--the idea that teachers need to find their advocacy voice in the fight to save robust public education is increasingly resonant. This is our profession, after all, that's being taken down in the quest to capture the public-good market of education.

One small error--the fourth blogger on the panel was Daniela Robles. She blogs for AZK12, where Kathy Wiebke is director.

Thanks for catching that,

Thanks for catching that, Nancy!

For those who missed, I initially listed AZK12 director Kathy Wiebke as a participant in the education blogger panel. As Nancy noted, the blogger from AZK12 who should have been listed (and now is!) is Daniela Robles.

These teachers are providing

These teachers are providing important data on the culture of fear for school leaders at the district and state levels, as well as policy-makers.

A key principle for designing high performance organizations, including schools, is Edward Deming's that one of the leader's roles is to "drive out fear" in their organizations. The goal is to create a culture where speaking up, telling the truth and encouraging problem-definition and problem solving are powerful keys to improving learning.

Thanks for your powerful

Thanks for your powerful comment and response. I'm copying as I want to share it with others.

Let teachers run the schools.

Let teachers run the schools. Professional knowledge workers need autonomy, self-direction and the opportunity to develop mastery. This idea flies in the face of the central command and control mentaility that dominates state and district governance structures. Great teachers are as much victims of this ridiculous system as students are..both are being wounded.

Teachers need permission to step outside the system and if districts and states really care about the students and the people that have chosen as their calling the responsibilty to “empower each individual with the knowledge and skills to use his or her unique voice, effectively and with integrity, in co-creating our common public world.” they would give teachers the freedom to teach and students the freedom to learn.

We need more of this http://www.educationevolving.org/teacherpartnerships

First, as a member of the

First, as a member of the NBPTS Board of directors, thank you for this thoughtful and highly accurate analysis of the NBPTS Conference. It is always wonderful to gather with our colleagues, but you're right there was a very somber tone to this year's gathering.

Second, I really enjoyed dropping in on my fellow bloggers workshop, but I too noticed the real reticence and fear among teachers about speaking out publicly on what is happening in education or within our own districts and schools. This ought not to be, but is in fact the climate that has been created in too many places. Teachers not being permitted or encouraged to act as competent professionals; then being penalized for it.

There is hope, however, as we continue to press for the influence and voice that we should have as a profession. Always good to see the examples highlighted here at LFA of those who are moving against the tide, but it will be so much better when doing the right thing for our children doesn't have to be done in spite of policy.

Anonymous - Another theme

Anonymous - Another theme that I heard at the conference involved teacher voice. Who speaks for teachers? In the session featuring ACT (the Accomplished California Teachers), one point that came up was that unions are often demonized by both the press and policymakers. Their group is another way that those outside the education world get the voice of teachers, without getting the politics of the union involved (note that at least some of these teachers are active in their union).

Just as a side observation...While critics would have you believe that unions DON'T speak for teachers, at this event - not in any way (to my knowledge) associated with the union - I was truly surprised at the number of positive references to unions. To me, these teachers (at least the vocal ones) really validated the claim that unions speak for teachers.*

Nancy, absolutely!

John, also absolutely! I think that one of the frustrations in education is that even when a principal is able to create that kind of culture in his/her school, it doesn't necessarily translate to a better climate in the district or community. But if at a higher-level (the federal or state level, perhaps), speaking out was encouraged, and what was said was actually used in policymaking, more teachers and principals might be willing to speak out and it could result in a more systemic culture change.

*Of course, I recognize - and it was acknowledged at the conference - that there is a wide range of opinion in the educator community, and that each teacher doesn't agree with each position taken by his/her union.

Very well written, and speaks

Very well written, and speaks about what is affecting most all teachers across the country, the fear of retribution. There is also a fear to speak out at local board meetings for the same reasons, even though policy is being made by people who have never been inside a classroom.

I was at this conference too.

I was at this conference too. My son who is going into education came with me. He called many of the talks a "downer".
During the "meet the press" session, someone asked about how teachers can get the word out about the good things we do. To my disappointment the reporter from NPR replied that teachers who work hard and get results aren't news. They are just doing their jobs. When asked if they feel responsible for the climate of the nation and the teacher bashing they seemed surprised. Although they only choose to cover conflict and bad news they feel no responsibility, the exact words they used were "don't shoot the messenger".

Teachers do need to find their voice. I had to return home and couldn't attend the March in DC on Saturday. I watched the news and saw nothing on the march. The only place I saw or read about it was on facebook and TMZ. We can't get coverage by protesting or by doing a good job. What do we do?

Thanks for a wonderful post.

Thanks for a wonderful post. You provide an accurate portrait of the conference, and has left me, like the many other commenters, thinking about next steps with regard to our profession and my work as a teacher.

I appreciate the post and the

I appreciate the post and the comments that have followed. I'm sorry I'm a bit late to the conversation (having been "offline" for a week in the interim). While I heard all of the same potentially demoralizing talks and comments in sessions at the NBPTS Conference, I also heard a consistent recognition that we do have the expertise and the commitment to bring about change. I'm hopeful that the pendulum is swinging back already, and that teachers are moving past anger to action.

On the topic of unions speaking for teachers, I'm also hopeful. While they haven't handled the transition in quite the way or at the pace I'd like, I do sense a shift towards unions playing a greater role in advocating for the profession and for student learning. I hope they're recognizing that higher quality work and better results are the ideal ways to build up the profession, keep the associations relevant, and turn around the P.R. to boot. The Priority Schools campaign by NEA is a good example, along with the CTA-sponsored Quality Education Investment Act support for low-performing schools here in California. There's still a ways to go, and I think groups like ours (Accomplished California Teachers) can provide a healthy addition to the policy arena. We won't compete with CTA in terms of scope or influence, but on select issues we can be more focused, more nimble, and inject teacher voice of another sort to push the conversation forward.