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Exhausted, Discouraged, and Thankful

September 28, 2011

I don’t know how many people noticed, but I haven’t posted in a while.  I know a few people noticed some comments I made on Twitter recently about my current state of mind around education politics and media coverage, and it’s that state of mind that has contributed to my writer’s block.  Add to that the adjustment to a new school year and new work arrangements (I’m now doing two part-time jobs), and well… it’s been an unusual few weeks.

student book

While we're busy in the classroom, the debates go on without us. (photo by the author)

What’s bugging me is the sense that education reform debates and policy wrangling are constant and in high gear, while the people I want most involved in those matters are classroom teachers, who rarely have the time to learn enough about these groups and issues, and whose jobs may prevent them from doing very much about these issues.  We’re facing waves of media coverage ready to lay accountability primarily on schools and teachers, as if we could control the dominant factors in students’ lives, or school funding and governance.  We hear politicians using terms they don’t understand to set up scenarios that don’t exist in hopes of beating us down politically and cutting our pay and benefits.  We’ve got education advocacy groups wrapping themselves in righteousness by claiming that their organization is standing for children and putting students first, and then investing their time, energy, and money in divisive battles with educators.  We’ve got hedge-fund investors building school portfolios, voucher advocates and charter management organizations, and technology and publishing companies all increasing corporate and shareholder earnings by chiseling away dollars from classrooms that they have helped present as failures, and therefore in need of higher standards and competition.

Now, if you might be one of those people (corporations… same thing) that I’m alluding to above, and you think you’re doing good, I’d love to hear from you.  I painted with a broad brush there, with the intent of capturing an impression I have more than a detailed summary of specifics.  But let me get to the broader point here: what’s frustrating me even more is that those people are collecting a pay check to come up with new and better ways to undermine the good work that is being done and could be done in public schools, while teachers are ill-equipped to fight back with their own stories, expertise, and advocacy.  We don’t have the time or the access to stand on even footing with our detractors and question them as they denigrate us.  While they’re on television or webcasts, speaking at various conferences and forums and policy events, the vast majority of teachers are busy working at schools and unable to respond.  (I should note that I’m currently teaching part time, so I am one of the few teachers who had time to post comments on an Education Nation panel on Monday afternoon).  For teachers, our main option is reliance on our unions to represent us, but unfortunately, even when they’re right, unions are heard and understood in a certain way that limits their effectiveness; we need to diversify the voices of teachers presented in various forums.  Partly, that can happen through groups like ACT, Teacher Leaders Network (and the New Millenium Initiative), and others, but even then we rely on funders to give us the time and resources to compete in the marketplace of ideas and information.  My prefernce would be for teachers to rise up en masse and much more organically to resist the trends that undermine public confidence and investment in education – but we’re not there yet. Just thinking about getting there, and fending off disaster, left me exhausted and discouraged.

Trying to turn that feeling into something more productive, I want to use the rest of this blog post to will myself back towards optimism, and to thank some of the people who help me maintain energy and motivation.  The silver lining on the education “reform” cloud is this: because of the internet, and good people who put considerable effort into putting useful material online, we have access to great information and communication tools that enable us to stand together.  When a politician makes inflated, distorted claims of success, we can call them out.  When they give out half-truths and bury inconvenient ones, we can dig up what they’re trying to hide.  When they cherry pick examples to support unwarranted claims, we can serve some warrants and indict their cynical propaganda.  There may be an exhausting and discouraging series of contentious debates going on, but if it were 20 years ago, it would be so much harder to recognize and respond to the problems, and harder still to build our support networks around the nation and the world.

Here are many of the people I want to thank personally for the time and effort they’ve dedicated to presenting outstanding information, examples, analysis, and arguments that help resist the tides working against public schools, teachers, and students.  These are the people I lean on.  Whether they know it or not, they keep me going: Anthony Cody, Nancy Flanagan, Linda Darling-Hammond, Barnett Berry, Diane Ravitch, Larry Cuban, Renee Moore, Valerie Strauss, Ken Libby, Jose Vilson, Rita Solnet, Leonie Haimson, Larry Ferlazzo, Mary Tedrow, Bruce Baker, Matthew Di Carlo, Sabrina Shupe-Stevens, Ken Bernstein, Brian Crosby, Rachel Levy, Bill Ivey, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, and Bill Ferriter (whose encouragement helped this blog come about).

It should be a longer list (I could come up with another 15-20 names pretty easily from Teacher Leaders Network and another dozen from ACT, but to make it useful to any readers who might want to follow up, maybe finding themselves in a similar mood sometime, I focused on people with an online presence so you can pick up a quick dose of excellent thinking and writing on education.  Maybe some readers would like to add comments below to share information about who it is that keeps you going.  I know I could use it.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. September 28, 2011 6:14 am

    I would like to comment as I share your frustrations. You described the dilemma in education system in the US. I don’t believe the situation is as difficult in Canada but nevertheless the attitude to teachers, schools and administrators is generally the same for many of the uniformed public who rely on the media to form their opinions on education.

    Despite the number of parent critics there are many parents who do support teachers but usually one on one with their own child’s teacher. Communications with parents is the number one issue in gaining parent support. I’d like to suggest that communications directly with individual families could be increased and sharpened. Phone calls home although time consuming and often frustrating tell parents that the front line educators are supportive of their child. To many parents report cards are a series of numbers which are confusing and seen sometimes as arbitrary. As a parent I went to the comment section to really see how my child was doing in school. Parents want to know what is going on in the classroom: is their child behaving; are doing their school work; is the classroom teacher demonstrating their skills as a professional and can they trust the teacher to look after their child.

    If the teaching professionals can nail down the answers to these questions the cloud of incompetence will lessen. Happy parents are supportive. But is takes more than phone calls to help parents help their child succeed. A child is a part of a family (many shapes and sizes) and a family’s life circumstances dictate the kind of support they can give. If schools change their expectations of parents and empathize with the pressures that parents face, the bond between school and families will be strengthened and more good news stories will be created.

    If we want parent support, we need to give them the tools to communicate online so they can hear our message. If they aren’t online – and many of them are not – they won’t hear your message and will believe what the media is saying. I would like to suggest that schools channel their energies on training parents and giving them the tools as Larry Ferlazzo did in his community. Larry has had great experiences with giving families, whose first language was not english, a computer at home to learn english along with their child. They understood that people cared. If we want more good news stories like this one, it is important to meet the needs of families and not just students. The reputation of schools will be strengthened and families will call on corporations to put the money in the right place.

    My suggestions for doing things en masse.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      September 29, 2011 4:16 pm

      Thank you, Lorna! Good reminders there, that those small, local efforts, every individual contact and conversation, can make a difference. I’ve found that those contacts are the most rewarding, too. I can write a blog post, and if I’m lucky, a few hundred people will read it, but that doesn’t mean it changed anything. Parent contacts can be much more rewarding in that regard.

  2. Chandra Goodnough permalink
    September 28, 2011 7:41 am

    David keep up the great work and don’t forget to lean on your support. Educating others (about education) is important and, just like teaching our students, you never quite know when you are reaching them. I am a union representative for our site and am constantly amazed at how hard it is to mobilize people to help themselves even after you have gone to the meetings and have taken time to sort out the main ideas. At least you have some pretty awesome support people in your reach! And, you do make a difference. The alternative, ignoring it, isn’t any better.

    Chandra Goodnough, NBCT

  3. September 28, 2011 8:05 am

    I understand your frustration and exhaustion. After fighting this fight, even via Federal Court with NYC District 2, famous in Ravitch’s “Death and Life of the Great American School System”, I am now scrambling to re-enter teaching near my home in rural PA. And I am hearing the same frustrations here about NCLB, data collecting and teaching-to-the-test, even from teachers in Head Start and mobile therapy for special needs students. School boards stress about funding for extra tutoring to get grades up to AYP. Oh, to be in Finland! While the corporations and media spend millions on all the hype about priorities in education, evaluating teachers, accountability, testing, use of technology for teaching and all the other buzz, life hasn’t stopped in the classroom. Teachers don’t have time to attend or watch Education Nation. But the kids still need us grown-ups because they still have runny noses to wipe, and need help with learning to spell, figure their math, remember where countries like Libya and Iraq are located on the map, etc. Kids still line up to wash hands before lunch in the cafeteria or to get on the bus at the end of the day, with teachers overseeing their safety. We teachers have to show up, stay-the-course, and keep a smile on our faces for the kids and our colleagues. So we will! And we love it when we are with the kids. And then pack our bags of paperwork, go home, and get up at the crack of dawn tomorrow and do it all over again, whether someone in an office or corporation thinks we are up to the job or not, in their opinion. Because that is the job that we chose to do. And we want to keep on doing it because someone has to teach the children. Let’s all hang in there. Life runs in cycles, and even a bad season eventually will pass. Best to all you teachers who are trying…… Diana Lee Friedline

  4. September 28, 2011 9:36 am

    I share these same frustrations, and unfortunately, the same writer’s block about expressing them as of late. This post succinctly states where my mind is at today. I have had many conversations lately about the policies versus the practices that are happening right now with parents, teachers and administrators.

    When listening to Linda Darling-Hammond last week, the one piece that resonated with me and cut through all of the conversations and thoughts I have been having, is when she described the need for “enlightening the populace” about what it truly looks like in schools for the teachers, administrators and parents working under the conditions they face today. I feel like what you are doing in your posts, and what I attempt to do in mine – or more recently – through daily conversations with people, is make the realities stand out and explain why they exist. By having these conversations, giving people more information and thus empowering them to go have their own conversations in an informed way – we start the ripple effect. I think of all of the points LDH made about what we can DO right now, every day, to help get on the right track in schools and districts – this is one thing I have been doing, and will continue to do.

    I appreciate very much your list of people that you mention. I have read and followed many, and they too inform my practice. Teachers may not have the luxury of time to do that – I know I am in a privileged position that way. I keep reading and being inspired by the thoughts they share, then have one conversation at a time about my understanding of it, and what it means for individual students and schools they attend. We can move forward and support our teachers and our students – even if it is one step at a time these days!

    Thank you for the post…leaves me hopeful! Jennifer Sommerness

  5. Sarah K-G permalink
    September 28, 2011 2:50 pm

    Thank you, David, as always for articulating what so many of us feel. There is much to be frustrated by right now, and the work you are doing now is so very important – thank you for being a voice during times when the rest of us are busy with our students.

    Together, we can all be a powerful force, but too often the day-to-day work gets us so busy there is little left to give. This is an important reminder that we, as educators, need to reach out and communicate/share with the public on a greater scale…otherwise our stories don’t get told.

  6. ken libby permalink
    September 28, 2011 7:02 pm

    Hi David,
    I’m honored to be a part of this list – and I’d like you to know I lean back on you.

  7. Bill Ivey permalink
    September 28, 2011 7:38 pm

    I spent much of the summer feeling much as you felt the other night and at the beginning of this blog. You may remember me reaching out to you?! Indeed, your list of go-to people shares a great many names with mine, except I would include you.
    I pull my energy partly from the kids (as hopefully they do from me), but also from a sense that I’m not alone. People like you, Nancy, and José who speak your truths both directly and respectfully inspire me. People like Leonie Haimson and Rita Solnet give me a sense of solidarity with parents. People like Diane Ravitch let me know there are people on the national stage commanding attention for their ideas. People like Laurie Wasserman with a heart the size of an urban middle school. And then there’s my family, too, who believe in me even when I don’t and who share my sense of impatience on wanting to build a more just world. I need all of these people in different ways to keep going. Like you, I am grateful.

  8. September 29, 2011 6:14 am

    What a great post. I share your frustrations and optimism. I so appreciate your ability to present complex topics in clear and accessible prose. You’re a great writer and a superb, fact and knowledge-based activist.

    Thanks for the shout-out. As Ken said, I lean on you and on the people on your list, as well. Even more important, I learn from you.

  9. David B. Cohen permalink*
    September 29, 2011 4:18 pm

    I’m touched by the positivity that has come out here, and glad that I’ve served a useful purpose for some terrific people. Thanks to all who read and commented.

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