In the national classroom that is the ed reform debates, I am that student who sits quietly at her table. Attentive and invested, I have not yet found a place for my voice in the shouting match of education policy. Big-voiced, eager hand raisers have created an atmosphere that feels more like a sporting match than a dialogue. There will be winners and losers and no one wants to be a loser (though I am not quite sure how we are keeping score).
In my 10 years in the classroom, one of the truths that has remained consistent is that not one of us is very far from our own adolescence. Like every one of my 9th grade students, we want to be loved and accepted for who we are. We want to feel heard. We want to be inspired and be inspiring to others. We want to feel like we understand “the game” and can be successful in it.
As adults, we have learned to mask our insecurities in much more creative ways and have learned how to use other people’s insecurities against them. We have learned how to use our bodies and our voices to claim spaces in conversations and to ensure the silence of others by doing so. I have been guilty doing this on more occasions that I would like to admit and likely still use them when I feel cornered or powerless. Yet, I also see how they are at work against me. I see how words/names are used to mute the voices of others. I hope I am getting better.
I have been called naïve (it’s actually one of the nicer terms used) by my teacher colleagues for believing that many people in the reform movement have the best intentions in mind. I have been called a traitor for trying to see the issue from other sides (there are so many sides). When I disagree with efforts of what has been labeled “corporate ed reform,” I am seen as an obstinate teacher afraid of the inevitable–an education luddite. All of the labels are meant to end the conversation. All of them are some form of “you just don’t understand.”
Another truth I have to keep reminding myself of is that loud does not necessarily equal majority, that claiming majority does not necessarily equal majority, and that the “majority” has consistently been wrong on some pretty big issues (see: slavery, women’s suffrage, Civil Rights, gay rights, ___ rights).
To quote one of my least favorite presidents, Richard Nixon, I believe there is a “silent majority” of teachers who work hard to teach students to listen to multiple perspectives in order to understand before trying to be understood. Teachers who are seeking information and genuinely building our own understanding and position on the issues (just like sides, there are so many issues).
In a poorly managed classroom, the shouting students reign. But there are a lot more people sitting in silence waiting for some wait time and chance to raise their hands and enter the conversation.
I am involved in two organizations that are “calling on” these teachers and asking what they have to say. The first is Teachplus. As I end my 18 month cohort, I am beginning to reflect on the wonderful experience of sitting in a large group of diverse teachers having respectful dialogue about the policy issues that make their way into the classroom. It is rare in Chicago to have the space to talk and listen to educators with whom I disagree. (Most education events gather the converted. Proselytizing is so much more rewarding when people already believe.) Even when I hold on to my position, I am better because of the conversation. But, more often than not, my position shifts, if only slightly, to accommodate the new perspective I’ve gained. The complexity of the issue demands it.
The other organization is the Yale National Initiative. This is a teacher-led professional development model that assumes on the front end that the participating teachers are the pedagogical experts and the Yale professors are the seminar content experts. The program carefully chooses language to establish a hierarchy-free, collaborative environment and the national office charges Yale fellows in each city to do the work of creating and sustaining a local institute. It is both daunting and invigorating and the Chicago fellows with whom I work are some of the most amazing, inspiring educators I know.
We need more spaces like this in Chicago. More rooms where the education agnostics or those in constant reflection about their beliefs meet to listen and talk and listen some more.