On Thursday, I gave a speech at the Minnesota Professional Conference to a crowd of teachers working one more extra day to be better for the students who need them most. In that speech, I called on teachers to stand up for their students on the educational issues that matter outside of their rooms.
When I speak to teachers, run trainings, or write about teaching and education, I am often holding a picture in my head of one student. Her name is Arrie’anna, and she is brilliant. She is world-beating brilliant, and among the most natural leaders and most empathetic people I have ever known, but school is often not fair for her. School, on too many days, does not deserve to have her. So, I do my best for her. She keeps me angry and engaged.
She is not the only student I have who need teachers as louder and better advocates, but she is the one that seems buried in my head and heart. I know as I spoke that I was not alone. Teachers, all teachers, have these students, current or former students who we know need us at our best, who we know need us standing beside them, who we know are not getting everything from school that they need.
It is the students who tie together our newest with our most veteran teachers, these same students that we carry with us and who inspire us. In an exhausting and frustrating job, they are our batteries and our compass, and they need us to step out of our rooms.
I have no doubt that teachers, far from the largest problems, are our best hope for solutions. We need to step out from our rooms, be involved in the work other teachers or other groups are doing. We need to write more, speak more, share more of what we truly see and feel in our schools every day. Teachers need to be activists for better schools.
The voices are too often getting the conversation wrong, and don’t recognize the complexity of the problems we face. We know that it is often teachers who are being attacked. We know that it is teachers who can often be the most vicious attackers. We need to do better than that. We need to support the voices of all teachers, we need to push for a conversation that is better for our students than the one currently being had. The voices of teachers need to be voices for our students.
Teachers need to stop letting education happen to them. Teachers need to stop letting schools happen to our schools.
Some of the most vigilant, passionate, and productive activists for social justice are teachers. We know that there are too many stories left untold of the hard battles teachers have fought and won for their students.
But we also know that any time a student comes home with the story of any interaction where they felt attacked or blamed, that expectations were tragically low, that every interaction they felt was sexist, racist, homophobic, or transphobic, that each story that comes home of something damaging that came from our mouths undoes the good stories of the good work we do.
We know this happens in our schools. Teachers know this happens. So what, then, will teachers do to stop it? When strong voices come to us and tell us to worry only about the parts of school we can change, we can tell them there is nothing about schools that teachers can’t change if they work hard enough and work together.
If this is our profession, and it is, then we need to own it. If good schools are made by the work we do, and they are, then we need to work for more of them. We need to admit our failures in order to fix them. We need to celebrate our successes in order to replicate them. We need to work together. We need to let each other be strong.
We need schools that deserve Arrie’anna, schools, all schools everywhere, that deserve the privilege of the kids we carry with us.
Tom Rademacher is the 2014 Minnesota Teacher of the Year and is a language arts teacher at the FAIR School in downtown Minneapolis. He can be found on twitter (@mrtomrad) and on his blog (misterrad.tumblr.com).
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