Pam Costain’s recent Community Voices article, “Stop the Teacher Wars,” rightly calls for an end to the polarizing debates in education and the beginning of a search for common ground. This ongoing tug-of-war has reached a critical stage: Our inability to find solutions to the problems facing education has harsh consequences, particularly for students caught in the ever-widening achievement gap that claims far too many children of color.
The longer we bicker, the more they suffer. But finding solutions in today’s political climate has proven to be difficult. Every player in the education conversation — teachers, administrators, board members, reformers, and community activists — has handed out and been on the receiving end of verbal bruising, hostility, and misrepresentation.
We all say we are on the side of students, but are any of us willing to stop blaming each other for systemic failures and work together to figure out what students truly need? And ironically, in the midst of the din, parents are reminding everyone that they are not willing to be on the sidelines of these debates. We are, after all, talking about their children, but are any of us willing to put down our agendas and listen?
Before I became a teacher, I worked in the area of family counseling. In any family conflict, identifying one person as the “sick” individual is a recipe for stagnation and dysfunction. Focusing on the one person allows the rest of the system to deny any responsibility for the overall patterns of dysfunction. Worse, when a family tries to force that member to change, it often backfires miserably.
And so it goes with our education debates. Depending on who writes the article or who testifies before the Legislature or who runs the meeting, the “patient” might be the bad teacher, the incompetent administration, the uninvolved parent, the self-interested teachers union, or the corporate-backed education reform group. When we talk about each other in such ways, we create resistance to change and make it nearly impossible for others to hear our very real concerns. In effect, we all become tone-deaf.
There seems to be no shortage of blame and shame going around, nor an end to efforts to force change through legislation, contracts, and elections. But our inability to see that we are all a part of an interdependent system with mutual responsibility for the failures and the solutions in education is a communal failure for our children.
The way forward must start with an acceptance of our mutual responsibility for the education of the children in our communities and a focus on how we can change our own part of the system. Put simply, the more time we spend pointing fingers at the “sick” member of the system, the more stuck and dysfunctional we will become.
The way forward+
When we stop blaming one another, we will be able to ask ourselves the tough question of what responsibility we must assume for improving our own part of the system.
Like so many of us, I have more than one role in the education conversation. As a teacher, I must ask how my teaching impacts my students of color in both positive and negative ways. When the issue of a longer school day or year comes up, I have to consider the benefits this added time might bring to some students.
And though I believe with all my heart that each of my students can learn, I have to ask if I am willing to step up and name the roadblocks that stand in their way, even if it’s uncomfortable for me or puts my job in jeopardy. In addition, I have a responsibility to ensure that the needs of my students are a priority. They must have ample instructional time with me and I must provide targeted feedback to help them learn. That’s why I will continue to advocate for reasonable class sizes, caseload limits, and adequate planning time.
As a union member, I have to ask if we as teachers are willing to hold ourselves to the highest standards of the profession by asking for support when we need it, offering support when others need it, and embracing an evaluation process as a path for professional growth. Knowing how important it is to communities of color that their children be taught by teachers from their own race or culture, I have to be willing to find ways to help our district attract and retain a racially diverse workforce.
And I will stand up for my profession and remind others that the best and brightest teachers will come to and stay in this profession when we pay them enough to provide for their own children.
As the parent of three children in public schools, I will continue to encourage my kids to work hard and do their best. I will read to them nightly, volunteer in their schools and offer homework support.
But for the sake of equity, I must also advocate for those schools that need more resources in communities with greater needs. I will assume responsibility as a taxpayer to write my elected officials urging them to sufficiently fund public education so schools don’t have to rely on Target or General Mills box tops to pay for critically important programs.
Responsibility for our schools is in all of our hands. When we stop thinking of each other as the “sick” party that must be cured and learn to listen to one another without blame, we will be on our way toward lasting change. For our children’s sake, we must do this.
Jim Barnhill is a special education teacher at South High in Minneapolis and a member of the Minnesota Board of Teaching. He served on the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers Executive Board from 2008 to 2013.
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