New Year, New Resolve

By Glenda Cohen

In an effort to ward off burn-out, boredom and frustration after nearly 20 years as a public high school teacher, I’ve resolved to kick-off 2020 by launching my new blog: “Teaching is a Political Act.” My focus will be on examining political, policy and social justice issues that affect the lives of teachers, students and their families. 

As each year passes, I’ve seen first-hand the mandates on the federal, state and local levels that have impacted my students and my profession. Regrettably, few of these actions have resulted in positive student outcomes, whether they be academic or social-emotional. Rather than place sole blame on policy makers, I accept that educators have been far too passive in inserting themselves in the political process. For too long, we have been satisfied with having our unions speak for us. This past year, unions in places like Los Angeles, West Virginia, Chicago  have had major success in spotlighting issues such as building conditions, class size and support staff wages. But these successes have not been uniform throughout the country and vary according to the strength and leadership of each local union. 

My own personal experience with my district’s teachers union has been frustrating. For example, when a group of us urged our leadership to be more transparent on its expenditures and accounting practices, we were rebuffed.  When we urged the union to be more vocal on school safety and more active in endorsing local candidates running for office, union leadership refused, preferring instead to continue its politically safer focus on battling funding for charter schools. Though I believe in the concept of unions and their important role in protecting working conditions, we kid ourselves if we believe that all locals are well-managed and assertive in defending the rights of educators. Rather than relying solely on our unions to make political change, educators must become more engaged in the process themselves. 

Some educators are reluctant to wade into the minefield of politics for fear of being accused of partisanship by parents or administrators. A recent article in the Washington Post framed it this way: “The big open question, of course, is where does teaching about politics end and partisan political teaching begin?”

I understand that there are times in our lives when it may be career-threatening (or outright ending) to speak up and take a stand. However, educators must each think globally and critically, and act ethically and on principal.  As Desmond Tutu wrote: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” To extend this metaphor further, it’s time to speak up for our students, who are being stepped on and ill-served by politicians and administrators who craft misguided and misinformed educational policies. Let us each resolve to devote this year to reclaim our classrooms to make social change that will improve the lives of our students.

Let me hear from you. Leave a comment and tell me how you will be more politically engaged this year. And if you don’t plan to be (or feel you can’t), why not?

11 thoughts on “New Year, New Resolve

  1. I was talking to an administrator today who told me that he is actively recruiting teachers who have dropped out of school or gotten expelled at some point in their educational history. Why? Because they “get it.” I am going to try harder to find teachers who mirror their students.

  2. Lulu, thanks for the positive reaction! Hope you’ll offer your thoughts on my future posts.

  3. I’m always surprised at why so many educators are fearful to speak up, even when directly insulted by administrators questioning our professionalism and commitment to students. Just this week, my district’s superintendent accused teachers who had been speaking out about behaviors and discipline of making a “money grab.” I fear that so many of us just put our heads down and hope that things will get better (or, at the very least, that things won’t get much worse).

  4. Thanks for your response, Kim. I hope we will “kick 2020 butt” by putting empathetic, responsive leaders in office in place of some of the cruel, corrupt ones we have now.

  5. Thanks so much for the feedback, Esta. Your suggestions are fantastic, and are exactly what I hope this blog will focus on in the months ahead. Your comment about “drive-by PD” especially resonates. Our school just had a panel discussion on the use of the n-word, and we barely scratched the surface. Unfortunately, I think it was a one-off in response to a racial incident. To my knowledge, there is no follow-up planned.

  6. I agree that educators have been riding on “a roller coaster of trendy ways” and this up-down-all around is one of the leading causes of teacher apathy and burn-out. When a new initiative is introduced (“making thinking visible,” “district determined measures,” “growth mindset”), it is difficult to embrace it enthusiastically because, chances are, it will be cast aside for the next new thing in a matter of time.

  7. Congratulations Glenda. This is a much needed blog. With all the noise in the internet we need your informative and intelligent voice. The education system demands too much of teachers. We need to fight back so we can focus on what’s important, educating our students. I can’t wait for more wonderful posts. Thank you.

  8. Wonderful to read this Glenda and to read the comments of others as well. I think we often tread carefully out of fear. But poorly articulated fear. It is critical that we are reminded that by not acting and not addressing issues and not speaking out, we are actively choosing the side of oppression. Thank you for writing so openly and clearly about this.

  9. Politics ARE educational.
    Unions ARE political.

    Use these teachable moments to explore all sides of issues and please don’t stop having conversations and speaking truth to power.

    Tuck that cape in and let’s kick 2020’s butt.

  10. Thank you for kicking off this critical conversation Glenda! No classroom is neutral! Education is not neutral! Teachers are engaged in politics whether or not they want to accept it, and it’s their choice whether or not they will respond to the needs of their students (and their families) or if they will maintain the less contentious status quo . Most will remain in the safe zone, and here is where our students are sidelined.
    I would like to see a focus on how we discipline students, especially students of color, (and how we decide what constitutes “unacceptable behavior” and how we meet the needs of students — needs that fall outside of the confines of “the standards.” How can we find ways to engage students who bring all kinds of talents and knowledge that are NOT recognized as “intelligence?” How can we make our educators realize that intelligence is not neutral and is a social construct? How can we help those in power to understand these issues? How can we disrupt the pipeline to prison??
    How can we make all educators understand that drive by PD on any aspect of social justice or anti-racism just doesn’t work???
    So much to think about and discuss here. I realize that I have more questions than answers!!

  11. We have all been mandated to get on a roller coaster of trendy ways to educate kids written by pedagogical theorists who have never been in the classroom. We have known these trends wouldn’t work and have watched them repeatedly crash and burn. I have always felt like we were the guinea pigs for these “fake educators”.
    Having sat on the NSF board for the multimillion $ science educational grants in DC, I was so disappointed to see who received the money bc they were known in university educational circles for their stupid ideas and conversely who was not.

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