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?