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Last Tuesday, January 4th, many teachers, parents, students, and other Americans started out the new year by wearing the color red to show their support for public education. Nearly five thousand people from all across America replied through Facebook that they were wearing red, and many more than that actually participated. The “Wear Red For Public Ed” campaign generated press and discussion from Colorado to Florida and just about everywhere in between. Teachers said it made them feel empowered and not so alone when they saw others dressed in the same color. The event was so successful, that it has now become a weekly goal to “Wear Red For Public Ed” every Tuesday. Based on all of this, the “Wear Red For Public Ed” campaign was successful at doing what it was meant to do: create awareness and get people involved in and talking about public education. However, many teachers have asked, “What next?” It is in reply to this question that I wrote the following.
Teachers have always been in the public eye, but currently, teachers are under the microscope more than ever. Education has become a hot topic, and, like it or not, teachers are the face that people see when they think of public education. It seems everybody has an opinion about how teachers should teach, how much they should be paid for doing it, and what that pay should be based upon. A day doesn't go by that somebody, somewhere doesn't write something regarding such topics as teacher tenure, teachers unions, or teachers' productivity. As a teacher, I welcome and encourage this discussion. However, it is well-past the time that teachers insert themselves into the conversation.
For far too long, teachers have complained about “teacher-bashing,” but have either voiced only the complaint without providing any type of solution or have kept their voices safely tucked behind the scenes in teachers' lounges, while at public establishments congregating with co-workers, or within the comforts of their homes where only sympathetic ears are there to listen. Occasionally, teachers might even let their voices venture throughout the realms of the internet, anonymously posting comments on those stories they find most offensive. Teachers, I am here to tell you that the time for “safe” complaining, the time for preaching to the choir, the time for anonymity has expired. We must let the public get to know us, we should let the public hear our complaints, but, more importantly, we must let the public hear our solutions. And we must all do this together.
There are plenty of teachers out there right now standing up for public education and speaking out on behalf of public educators, but plenty is not enough. There are many teachers blogging, Tweeting, and Facebooking about the real issues facing public education, but many is not enough. There are even some teachers out there like Gina Frutig who have been bold enough to speak up about public education straight to the faces of our legislators, but some is definitely not enough. If teachers truly want the public education system to succeed, then we must all be a part of that success; we must all share a part of the collective voice that I believe the rest of America is ready to hear.
What makes me so sure Americans want to hear from teachers? Well, when seeking advice for an ailment, they consult a physician. When the problem at hand concerns the law, they enlist the professional services of an attorney. It is only natural, then, that when the issue on the table is public education, the American public would want to hear from professional public educators. Who knows the ins and outs of the public education system better than teachers? Who else, other than teachers, works day-to-day putting the policies of education into practice? Who best to ask about what works in the classroom versus what doesn't work if not teachers?
The problem is, the public isn't asking these questions because they are being pre-fed the answers by those outside the teaching profession—and they are believing them. If you don't think this is true, just take a look at the results of some of the polls that are out there. They show that the majority of people feel America's public education system is not up to the standards it should be. Why do they think this? Because this is what those outside the profession are telling them. However, when looked at more closely, these same polls reveal that Americans feel the schools in their own communities are doing quite well. Why the huge contrast? Because in their own communities, Americans see the work teachers do. They communicate with those same teachers via phone calls, emails, and face-to-face conferences. They understand the problems teachers face on a daily basis such as dealing with a lack of resources or technology, having no control over the curricula they are forced to teach and test on, and having to make accommodations due to overcrowded classes, just to name a few. They see these problems teachers are up against, and, since teachers are the face of public education, they begin to see some of the problems facing public education. However, those same Americans then turn on their televisions or open up their newspapers and hear or read about all of the rotten teachers that are dragging the education system down with their tenure, and their unions, and their implied lack of proper teaching techniques. They hear about all of the reforms that “need” to be put into place to fix all of this. And then they must sit back and think to themselves how lucky they are to live in a community with the only good teachers in the nation.
So how do we change this? By doing what we do best: communicating. We obviously communicate very well with the parents and guardians of our own students because they understand and support us. What we need to do now is communicate with the rest of America. Not about what we are so upset with, why we feel under attack, or how tired we are of feeling misunderstood, but about who we are, what we do, and how we think public education needs to be reformed. And, as teachers, we need to do this publicly and continually until our message is heard and acted upon because if we don't, your anonymous cries for help will never be answered. And when you look into the mirror and see the face of public education staring back at you, you might not recognize it anymore.