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Our best hope for education solutions: teachers

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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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 10/20/2014 - 09:07 am.

    More of the same

    Let us have real change that gives hope to our kids. Let us invest in Kids. Let us empower kids and families.

    If not, we will have more of the same trickle down education that empowers the largest special interest group in the State – big education.

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 10/20/2014 - 10:54 am.

    It’s Fascinating How Some of Us Think We Can “Invest in Kids”

    without investing in their teachers and the school system.

    I simply don’t understand how such an approach could possibly work,…

    but it sure makes good sloganeering,…

    even if those spouting it never learned enough logic,…

    nor enough ability to understand broader systems and concepts,…

    allowing them to think that if you keep your car clean and polished,…

    and the interior well vacuumed and dusted,…

    but ignore routine maintenance of the engine,…

    your car will never give you any trouble,…

    because it still looks shiny and new!

    Teaching staffs in schools are, in terms of average, excellent, and below average performance, exactly like the workers in any other work site:

    distributed across the normal curve.

    It’s likely you’ll have an equally small number of excellent and below average performers with the vast majority somewhere in the middle.

    That some of us expect the teaching staffs in our local schools NOT to comply with the same human nature that applies in the places where we work is so far out of touch with reality as to have entered the realm of “OZ” or “Never-never land.”

    Furthermore, if the workers at our own places of employment were constantly told by politicians and certain noisy members of the public that they were lazy, make too much money, and their employer should be shut down,…

    with it’s work handed over to outsiders whose only qualification is that they have been among the loudest critics of you and your fellow workers,…

    it’s likely the performance of yourself and all your fellow workers would take a nose dive as your sense of security and well being were whittled away.

    In the REAL (non-“conservative,” non-“better, faster, cheaper,” non-“education reformer”) world, when a company wants to create a top-notch work force, they begin by offering top dollar salaries and benefits in order to draw the very BEST talent available,…

    (except, of course for the CEO, and God only knows why the particular people who become CEOs are able to continue in those jobs when so many of them have run one or more companies or their banks into ruin).

    Why, on earth, do we believe that, when it comes to teachers, we can get the very BEST talent available while paying peanuts compared to other jobs requiring the same level of qualification and dedication,…

    i.e. far LESS than we’d pay a child care provider to care for the same number of children and adolescents for the same number of hours per day?

    Teaching is a very tough job requiring tremendous dedication, energy, and intelligence. Considering the unjustified abuse, criticism and constant carping that teachers have to put up with, these days, it’s amazing ANYONE still enters the profession!

    I can’t help but wonder if a good deal of the criticism of teachers comes from people (like former Gov. Ventura) who viscerally distrust anyone they know to be smarter than themselves, because they’re so afraid they’re going to be outsmarted and hoodwinked and made to look foolish and ignorant (which they may very well turn out to be when verifiable facts are brought to bear).

  3. Submitted by scott gibson on 10/20/2014 - 11:07 am.

    exactly what does that mean?

    What does it mean to ’empower’ kids or to ‘invest’ in kids? Those are vague phrases that can be used to justify almost anything. Specifics would be nice as to how you might think things could be done differently to benefit ALL Minnesota students. I suspect you have some of your own special interest groups in mind.

    • Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 10/20/2014 - 03:40 pm.

      Vague phrases….

      Kind of like “hope and change.”

      • Submitted by scott gibson on 10/20/2014 - 09:20 pm.

        that, of course, is not an answer

        it’s just a snarky way to deflect the point of my comment. So, I’ll ask again, what does investing in the kids mean to this particular commenter. General dislike for teachers unions is not an example of investing in kids.

  4. Submitted by Emily Sojourn on 10/21/2014 - 03:02 pm.

    Keep it up, Tom

    Doctors have the capacity to change what is systemically wrong with their industry as do bankers and attorneys. Why? Because they have the societal clout and the money to do so.

    Teachers are standing between two constricting walls that bind them in place and then are repeatedly castigated for not turning around.

    Let the country that claims to value education pour the amount money and interest and respect into it’s schools as it does it’s athletic stadiums and banker’s pockets. Let the pride truly be in student scores and not the NFL scores. Then buy the talent that comes with good paychecks and community respect. Watch what would happen then. It would be eye-opening.

    Or you could keep guilt-tripping the diminishing numbers of teachers who are still in the profession and utterly ignoring the responsibility of the parents and the employers who will need these children to work in their businesses.

    It’s your call.

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