teacher voice Archives - The Jose Vilson

teacher voice


Today, it was brought to my attention just how costly teacher voice can be.

The top-down management style of most schools lends itself to an undemocratic collective of adults and children in the building, all exacerbated by internal and external factors like poverty, personalities, and Charlotte Danielson. Autonomy is in the eye of the beholder, and the beholder is often fresh out of college and / or hasn’t been in the classroom longer than I have.

That’s why teacher voice is a reform in and of itself. The idea that teachers and students have a say as to the direction of the school runs contrary to what policy tells us over and again, no matter if you’re in a rural town with one elementary, middle, and high school or if you’re an urban teacher trying to dodge the bullets of an ed-deform mayor.

The status quo tells us that teachers should only speak when spoken to, help reform only when it’s close to the finish line, and smile only when it’s an appreciation day or on their own time. By the time teachers are given (!) the chance to speak up, it already went through a bunch of heads who want to educate without educating, or make a difference without much understanding or interactions with real people.

Teacher voice should look less like the anonymous focus groups and telephone surveys assessing customer satisfaction and more like boards of directors and action committees. When we assume on-the-ground educators shouldn’t have an equal stake in what happens in the classroom, we beg for two things to happen. Either a) teachers leave or b) teachers rebel.

I’m hoping for the latter.

Freedom isn’t free. Having a voice isn’t free, either. This is no coincidence. The ability to break free from the yeses – where “yes” is really a masked “OK, let’s just get on with it” – comes at a cost. Checklists, bulletin board inspections, browbeating, hurt feelings, and incidental layoffs soon follow. Our collective voice has to come from understanding the risks involved, unpopular as our opinions may be.

A teacher voice demands an eye on progress, a heart for students, and a voice for waking lions.


A Memo on Teacher Voice

by Jose Vilson on June 10, 2013

in Jose

tightrope walking

Why do people always feel the need to limit the potential of teacher voice?

Last year, I expounded on redefining teacher voice, and what that means for true education reform:

Teacher voice is the collective and individual expression of meaningful, professional opinion based on classroom experience and expertise.

What developed shortly thereafter were a plethora of discussions of what that looks like, and how we employ that in different settings. I came to realize a few things:

  1. People aren’t always ready to change the paradigm to make decisions more democratically.
  2. Teachers don’t always have the time or energy besides doing the best job possible in the classroom.
  3. The education debate as a whole hasn’t evolved from just picking one side and one group of people to side with.

These points make for a lack of teachers activating their voices. For those of us who do this selflessly (sans incentives, rewards, titles, and permission), it often feels like punching a wall with your bare knuckles, or breaking down a cement building with an ice pick. On one end, you have a well-versed, well-funded machine that has a set of coherent talking points on one end, and a passionate and divergent cluster of people on the other end.

These ends aren’t equal by any measure, in wealth, in numbers, or in self-actualization.

Here’s a few things we can do to build up our voices individually and collectively:

  1. Educators can change the narrative by pushing for our stories to come to the fore with the right research and best practices to back them up.
  2. Educators can support each other (within reason) as often as possible, linking articles, blogs, and tweets of people they like and …
  3. Educators can highlight the things education deformers a lot less.

Coming up with solutions ourselves, finding the right people willing to push those ideas, and building alliances takes a lot of hard work, but, as we deconstruct others’ arguments, we can build together. How do we get all those people to our table?

Jose, who thanks Sabrina Stevens for helping me hash out these thoughts …

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A. Phillip Randolph and Who Really Controls Teacher Voice

by Jose Vilson on February 28, 2013

in Jose

A Phillip Randolph

A Phillip Randolph

This week, I had the distinct please of listening to Norman Hill speak as part of a panel of activists and organizers that worked on and around the Civil Rights Movement, specifically with Bayard Rustin. In one of my favorite moments, Hill quoted A. Phillip Randolph:

“At the banquet table of nature, there are no reserved seats. You get what you can take, and you keep what you can hold. If you can’t take anything, you won’t get anything, and if you can’t hold anything, you won’t keep anything. And you can’t take anything without organization.”

? A. Philip Randolph

I’m reminded of this every time we talk about teacher voice, and getting an invitation to this imaginary table.

After listening to that quote, I then wondered, if all these people are at the table and there are no reserved seats, then why are we as teachers still talking about not having a voice? Why wait until someone grants it to us from on high?

Why seek validation from the assortment of “education experts” like mayors, chancellors, politicians, millionaires, billionaires, presidents, random people off the street, corporate CEOs, actors, musicians, artists, and the occasional athlete? Or anyone else with an opinion on education?

Professors and union leaders sometimes fit in this category, too, because they should know better than to talk down to K-12 practitioners, but some do, and forget to invite teachers to their events and panels even when they say they’re advocating on behalf of us.

We don’t always want “on behalf of.” We want to do a lot of this ourselves.

(Don’t misconstrue this as me dissing my union. If anything, we need one, now more than ever. But there’s more we can do, too.)

We know enough teachers who want to elevate their voices beyond the current issue du jour or the hottest edubuzz word. Yet, some of us prefer to see teachers as weak and incapable because it lets us market to a disempowered constituency.

In other words, if we’re going to raise teacher voice, we can’t expect that nature has reserved that seat for us. We must take it.

We must do whatever we can, big or small, to shake the very foundation of society’s understanding of what it means to teach children. You have every right to speak up, apart from the inner sanctums we create within your circle of friends. Once you’ve relinquished your right to the belief that you have a say, you’ve lost.

A. Phillip Randolph chose to organize massive amounts of folk when he wanted to organize. The least you can do is help spread the word for this movement.

Jose, who doesn’t want to pull punches …


A Quick Note on Student Voice [Because You Need To Hear It ... Again]

February 7, 2013 Mr. Vilson

A couple of days back, I saw an incident with one of my student ambassadors and a teacher. Nothing to write the Post about, but tempers flared, and misunderstandings ensued. Yelling and consternation spill over to the hallway. Frankly, a huge misunderstanding only inflated by the fact that other adults who felt like pushing the […]

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Heart Matters When You Speak

February 5, 2013 Mr. Vilson

Excerpt from my latest at The Future of Teaching: Instead, what the audience got that night was me speaking from the heart. Sure, I prepared, but I hoped to convey the passion and love I have for teaching as I do in conversations with you, or in my own writing. Sometimes, while striving for perfection, […]

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The New York Times and Why Adding More Educators To Your Panel Matters

August 21, 2012 Jose

Last year around this time, I criticized the New York Times for not having many K-12 educators on their panel. Excuse me, for having maybe three current teachers and another handful of former teachers out of a possible 70 panelists. I laughed at the prospect of a public education system without any educators, and my […]

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