No, YOU Shut Up! (What Matters In Education Discussions)

Jose Vilson Education, Jose


One of my favorite moments last year was meeting Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis. At the time, her name was floated around as the author of my book’s foreword. I was super-excited to get the chance to meet her, especially in light of the backlash against her and CTU after the epic teachers’ strike of 2012. What’s most appalling about people’s perceptions about her was that, despite her obvious passion and intellect, they confused the role she had to play as the leader of CTU and the loving person she actually is. I understood this long before I met her, but few people do. In order to fight for what’s right, we sometimes have to step out of ourselves to make something happen.

In light of that, my work on elevating teacher voice always brings me back to the question of who gets heard and why. I’ve said multiple times that women’s rights and teachers’ rights are inextricable. Most teachers are women, and most higher-level administrators are men. Thus, we can attribute the disconnect, at least partially, to the fact that, when men make laws, they do so often to exclude. Anytime we don’t make language easy to access for everyone, we can very deliberately find ways to exclude people who don’t have access to said language.

As such, even male teachers who want to speak up are often disregarded because teaching is seen as women’s work, a multilayered, intersectional understanding of the way power works in education.

Now, what does that mean about education discussion? I asked my friends on Facebook what they thought about this question, and we did lots of unpacking. Generally, we agree that teachers ought to have a larger voice in education policy. Analogies to medicine and the military are appropriate here in that, no one would want the highest position in those fields to be someone without experience on the ground level. We tolerate this in education for too many reasons, the major one being that K-12 teachers are predominantly teachers.

We see teachers constantly pushed out the way, if included at all, when it comes to even talking about their own profession. How many education panels will we have that exclude a current teacher? How many initiatives will we have that didn’t take teachers into a primary advisory role? How many? How many? At least until some of us force our way in?

Then we started to see counterexamples and realized that, it’s not as black and white as teaching experience. For instance, I respect Gen. Colin Powell, but he took us into war with the Middle East under false pretenses. Muhammad Ali, with very little education, knew not to go into the Vietnam War at a time when the rest of the country thought we should. There are scientists who, under pressure from funders, advocate against climate change despite the mounting evidence. Then there’s this from Mike Klonsky:

How about opinions of parents, researchers, students, civil rights activists, ordinary citizens…? Here in Chicago, we have a career K-12 educator, Byrd-Bennett closing our schools and privatizing the system.

And Jessica Klonsky (related):

But I don’t think someone should run an educational system without having any classroom experience. Also respecting someone’s opinion and agreeing with them are two different things. I don’t have to agree with someone on educational policy for me to have respect for their opinions. I’m happy to disagree with someone as long as they have shown that they are on the side of working-class and poor families, immigrants, people of color, and struggling learners. There is plenty of room for disagreement with respect among people who are on the same side. When it comes to people who are essentially just puppets or members of the corporate elite interested in sucking profit out a school system and only interested in what’s good for business then I don’t really care if they’ve spent their whole lives in the classroom. I oppose them.

So. At this point, I’ve seen panels and books from all sorts of folk that aren’t K-12 educators, including folks who I genuinely appreciate. People with business degrees, marketing, politics, advertising, billionaires, and a whole slew of other professions not directly related to K-12 education. I even include my higher education folk who, even if they have similar issues, know that K-12 teaching needs to be respected.

As far as I can tell, the main point about who belongs in the education discussion isn’t about how much educational experience we have isn’t necessarily about how much educational experience they have, but on whether we agree with their direction, and that’s an OK argument to make. Kudos if they do have more than five years in the classroom. Kudos if they spend time in schools, listening to teachers, students, and parents. Kudos if they helped create schools that work democratically with key people in schools.

But I often see the “educational experience” debate come up when there’s a disagreement of some sort. Consistency is key. Otherwise, we can be OK with having productive, nuanced dialogue about the future of education, and not obfuscate our ideological purities with understanding that there’s a bigger umbrella of folk who want to have a stake in truly improving schools. Democracy demands this.