Learning First Alliance

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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.