Teaching: Assessing Reality and Imagining a New One


In case you hadn’t noticed yet, I’m a teacher. By profession, I teach English, philosophy and even a bit of religion. But I was a teacher long, long before I got paid to do it. Education is, if you’ll pardon the expression, my calling. It’s what I was made to do.

And so, next to my family, education is the most important thing in this world to me.

As I tell my students every semester, I’d do it for free. (But yeah, that family of mine is glad that I don’t have to.)

I tell you all of this to share with you a realization that I’ve had thanks to a posting on a new friend’s Facebook Wall. She wrote,

Teaching is more important to me–feels more substantial and lasting–than “organizing.” I recognize and respect the importance of organizing–gathering numbers of people for specific goals–but lasting change comes from thinking, not through numbers–and so, it is back to quality over quantity, for me.

Um, yeah. That.

Education Is . . .

My purpose in life is not to start a movement. My purpose here is simply to do my best to educate. Because real, sustainable change does not come from mobilization but rather from assessing reality and then imagining what that reality could be.

I think this is what education is.

We Bear Some Responsibility

If that is indeed the job of the educator, then this current educational crisis (where teachers have become the favorite scapegoat for all that is wrong in the country, even though we’re doing a fairly phenomenal job according to The Washington Post’s article, “‘We’re Number Umpteenth!’: The Myth of Lagging U.S. Schools“) that we find ourselves in both here in Huntsville and across the nation is at least partly our own fault.

Please understand, it is not my intention to kick teachers while we’re down. But if education is about understanding the nature of reality, we have to be willing to look at ourselves.

And the truth is that if our educational system is as screwed as it seems here in Huntsville, if our public schools have become a funnel to move public money back into the private hands of the few, if our schools have ceded education to the robber-barons, then we teachers hold at least part of the blame for the seemingly hopeless situation we’re in.

The portion we hold is small, but we are responsible for failing to clearly communicate what education is to our students, our students’ parents, our communities and especially our legislators.

Since nature abhors a vacuum, The Gates Foundation, The Broad Foundation, The Walton Foundation and hundreds of other companies have stepped in to define education for us.

Their Answer is Wrong

Their answer is simple: Education is a zero-sum game with winners and losers. In other words, education should operate exactly as their businesses operate: focusing on the bottom line and winning at all costs. We’ve failed to communicate that education is not a business.

We’ve failed to communicate that even if we have some students who will do far, far better than others on any given test, that all of our students are benefitting from the education they’re receiving. We’ve embraced the latest and greatest, “get-edumacated-quick” scheme that some politician have pushed onto our kids. (If you want to read the history of this, and it’s a long one, take a look at Dr. Diane Ravitch‘s book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System.)

We’ve bought into the argument that testing is education rather than something that takes place after education is over, and that it really doesn’t hurt the education process. We’ve celebrated when those tests results are high as if that means that we were successful. We’ve failed when we’ve participated in turning a child’s natural sense of wonder to tears when they’re stressed over the endless testing we’re subjecting them to. We’ve failed when we’ve participated in the schools-to-prison pipeline that exit testing aids and abets.

We’ve failed to partner with our students’ families sufficiently to develop trust so that when we have to tell them that their child is not putting forth sufficient effort that they will trust us not attack us.

Perhaps the most damning of all, we’ve failed to impress upon our students the critical notion that we’re students too; that we’re in this process with them as fellow learners. Perhaps more than anything else this failure has led to the nation seeing us as adversaries rather than partners.

As a result, we carry some part of the blame for the environment that is antithetical to education.

How to Respond

So what can we do about it?

  1. We need to realize that since we played a role in at least allowing this abusive environment to rise that we still have the power to change it. We know how to communicate difficult, complex ideas in a clear way. While it sounds great for the “reformers” to claim that they’re on the side of “accountability,” “rigor,” and that “data,” and “research” support their claims, when we know that these claims are snake-oil with no basis in reality, we need to say so. We need to teach what real education looks like so that we can call out the “reformers” when they spread their baseless claims.
  2. We need to realize that we still have the power to fight. Despite the attacks on our unions, our professional associations, and the protections of due-process that previous generations have fought for, we are not voiceless unless we allow them to silence us. Even here in Alabama tenure still matters. And now more than ever we need our senior teachers to stand up and speak out when abuse of teachers, or worse, when abuse of children occurs.
  3. We need to force our unions and professional organizations to stand up and fight for us. They’ve been bought off. Gates’ billions go a long way toward turning opponents into allies. We can turn this around by pestering the hell out of our representatives, and if that doesn’t work, we can walk away. Somehow I doubt that Gates will bother to buy off the union leaders when they don’t actually represent anyone.
  4. We need to publicly document everything. Every time the district puts an ESL student in our classroom at the end of the year–often mere weeks before the summative exam–and yet still holds us accountable for a full year’s worth of “growth,” we need to keep copious, detailed records. And while protecting our students, we need to go public with these records. Details are crucial. If we have them, people will believe us.
  5. We need to trust and speak clearly and openly to our students’ parents. Look, I understand that every teacher has been burned by a parent at some point in his or her career. I know that sometimes opening up to even well-meaning parents leads to trouble for us. But parents are our allies. And they have a power that we don’t as employees. They can speak when we cannot, and if they’re on our side, together we can form a real PTA: one that cannot be bought off by Gates as the National PTA has been.
  6. We need to prove to our students, everyday, that we love education enough to learn with them. If we’re excited about learning ourselves, despite all the shit being dumped on us, we will communicate to our overwhelmed students that education is its own reward. We don’t go to school to make a living, we go to school to make a life worth living.

I am completely convinced that teachers are the most powerful people on the planet. The billionaires wouldn’t be attacking us so often and regularly if they weren’t afraid of the power that we hold.

We have knowledge, and as Schoolhouse Rock taught all of us growing up in the 70s, knowledge is power.

It’s past time that we remember this simple truth and begin acting on it. Despite our exhaustion, despite our depression, despite our fear, we’re the ones with the power to fight for the future of education in America. We know the bleak reality that the Broads, Gateses, Waltons, Rhees, Duncans, Obamas, and Wardynskis of the world are seeking to create. We’re living it everyday.

But they’re the ones who are afraid because if our understand of reality is correct then we have truth on our side.

As Atticus Finch taught us, “Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.”

"Children see magic because they look for it." --Christopher Moore, Lamb: The Gospel according to Biff, Jesus' childhood pal.


  1. Well done. I’ve echoed many of your sentiments, although I think you stated them more eloquently. I hope this piece gets picked up nationally. People need to hear it. Love this Atticus quote.

  2. But….don’t the numbers and the organizing help reach those that AREN’T thinking,(Meaning uninformed) but are being affected none the less? Yes…to create lasting change you have to educate…you have to change the mindset…but when it comes to social and constitutional injustices doesn’t it take groups organizing to advocate and influence the mindset? I agree with the responsibility you speak of and with your suggested responses, I also understand that organizing and mobilization is not your thing and of course, respect that. I respect everything about you. I just think to say:
    “sustainable change does not come from mobilization but rather from assessing reality and then imagining what that reality could be.” and leaving it at that is not taking into account the difference between the changes that could be made and the amount of influence wielded between just one person doing that and a group of 1,000. We aren’t alone in the problem, and we shouldn’t be alone in the solution.
    Thanks for all that you do for the students here in Huntsville!!

    1. Terri,

      Thanks for the kind words and all that you’re doing both locally and nationally to organize, motivate and inform people. You’re right that getting the word out is important. And yes, mobilization is important.

      My point was to first and foremost talk about myself and who I am in this post. (Yes, I’m that full of myself! :)) I deleted a bunch where I explain that in greater detail. (The first draft was about 2000 words long!)

      But I do think that long term social change has to be based on education. Mobilization can bring people together, and there is value in that, but there has to be education as well for real change to take place. Otherwise once the immediacy of the issue wanes, the groups that have been mobilized will fall back into their older patterns.

      Education can alter that in a more lasting way.

  3. Thank you for this post. There are many of us who do not like the misplaced emphasis on the “business of education” but also are not willing to be part of the organized and mobilized opposition. I am particularly convinced that the war between factions is really what is destroying education. You are absolutely correct that defining and modeling what education really is and enthusiastically participating in it is the key to the real reform we need – and God knows we need that. When teachers are all about educating, quality flourishes and the moronic criticisms are rendered powerless. Go Russ!

Comments are closed.