Carrie Gaffney is the managing editor of The Educational Forum. She spent 12 years as a secondary English teacher and is still active in The National Writing Project and Second Story, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit devoted to bringing creativity to underserved schools.
Think for a second about your work day.
As a teacher, where are the moments when you feel empowered? Is it in your staff meetings? When your email dings with the latest instructional calendar? When you’re giving yet another timed writing prompt about some totally bizarre and completely irrelevant topic because that’s what the district has decided counts as test prep?
Or is it when you’ve designed a lesson that you know meets the needs of your students, is relevant to their lives, respects their innate curiosity, and is pedagogically sound?
Teachers, I’m here to tell you right now: you are incredibly smart and talented at what you do, despite what your test scores (and subsequent evaluations) might indicate. I know firsthand that good teaching is one part skill, one part passion, and one part magic, and I also know how much of your hearts you put into what you do each and every day.
My last few years in the classroom, I struggled with the number of hours I felt energized by what I was doing in my classes versus the number of hours I felt bogged down and, quite frankly, mystified by district- and state-level initiatives that seemed plucked from anywhere except pedagogical theory.
This tension between what makes you feel empowered during your day versus what makes you unsettled about your career choice is at the core, at least in my opinion, of why advocacy matters right now more than ever. What is unsettling you is that people outside of education are speaking for you about what is and isn’t going on in your classroom. They are using your test scores to illustrate your incompetence and question your professionalism, while providing you with remediation “tools” that insult the individual intellect of your students and go against the educational theory you were taught.
So, how do you get your power back?
You start talking.
I know, I know. You talk all day to the people who matter most to you: your students. That’s how it should be. After all, they are the most important stakeholders in any teacher’s life.
But there are other people who need to hear your voice, and they will continue to make crazy assumptions about you unless you start speaking up to parents, district folks, and even local and federal politicians.
Speaking up can be scary, though. So when you’re first starting out, I encourage you to speak about the things that drive you on a daily basis: your students and your pedagogy.
What would happen if you wrote a letter to your local representative and detailed (without breaking any rules) the demographics of your students, and what your day-to-day activities looked like? Would there be an impact if you proposed in a staff meeting that instead of the three timed writing prompts your department is supposed to do this quarter, you dropped a couple and assigned a literacy autobiography instead? There is a host of research (Gendlin, 1966; Grumet, 1990; Pinar, 2004) that indicates students who engage in literacy autobiography take a more thoughtful approach to writing in general. You could even score it on the same rubric.
Think about it; what might happen if instead of hearing from multiple sources about what’s not going right in your classroom, you changed the conversation by talking about what is? Would it help you once again feel empowered?