According to a recent Pew Poll, Americans feel increasingly threatened by people who hold different ideological views. Many teachers could have told you this long ago, as finger pointing and mistrust are regular practices on the educational landscape. Unfortunately, such an atmosphere means a lot of posturing and puppetry, and not a lot of meaningful change for schools and kids.
In the past year, several Minnesota teachers and education leaders have denounced this negative atmosphere. In May, the 2014 Minnesota Teacher of the Year, Tom Rademacher, penned an op-ed, urging us all to collaborate to strengthen public schools, and powerfully asserting that every day we spend not working together is “reckless and irresponsible.” Minneapolis teacher and Minnesota Board of Teaching member Jim Barnhill, as well as Pam Costain, CEO of AchieveMpls, have also suggested ways to end the education blame game.
A year ago, on a panel about great teaching, I cautioned that we educators need to have nuanced conversations about change, rather than over-simplifying issues. I also encouraged my colleagues to approach education and improvements to the system with courage, rather than making excuses for our profession. At the end of the panel, a few community members approached me because my perspective—which did not jive with their assumptions of what a teacher would say—took them aback. I realized then that many people make assumptions about what all teachers believe, when in fact, each of us has a different story to tell and different solutions to offer.
There is not just one “teacher voice” and we must let go of the myth that there is.
In an attempt to offer a new teacher perspective after the recent Vergara ruling in California, I wrote a blog post, which I very intentionally titled, “Vergara: Let’s change the conversation.” I invited others to join me in a more nuanced, productive and forward-thinking interpretation of the case and its aftermath. And yet, a few comments on my blog suggested that some people would prefer to continue to have the same conversation—full of labeling, ad hominems and false assumptions.
But I remain hopeful. Here’s why: whenever I actually sit down with someone, tell them my story and listen to theirs, we both uncover new solutions and ways of thinking. Though we may disagree about priorities or approaches, most people, regardless of political persuasion, can rally around some common goals. We want to keep Minnesota great. We believe every child deserves a good school. We want to find out what’s working in great schools and use those lessons to develop solutions for struggling schools.
As a teacher policy fellow at MinnCAN, I am not interested in labeling or categorizing other adults and their ideologies. Instead, I am interested in talking, working and organizing with anyone who believes these five things:
- What works for some students doesn’t always work for all students.
- What’s best for students can also be what’s best for teachers: these are not mutually exclusive concepts.
- All teachers have different stories and unique experiences and therefore, have different ideas for improving education.
- It is possible to be engaged with and supportive of our unions and also be interested in changing the status quo.
- We haven’t discovered all the solutions yet, so we need to be receptive and diligent readers and listeners.
I am confident that Minnesotans want to deconstruct the myth of false dichotomies and that we are capable of more nuanced viewpoints than being “pro” or “anti” _______________ [fill in the blank: union, teacher, charter schools, reform, Teach For America, etc.].
I am confident because in my school and community, I work with progressive Minnesotans who believe the five points above and who want to improve education through honest and intelligent conversations. We know that it’s possible to support teacher tenure but also support reforming tenure so that it’s a more meaningful professional milestone; to support unions but also want to broaden the base of voices and issues that unions represent; to support seniority as one factor in determining teacher layoffs, but also advocate for additional factors, such as classroom observation scores and student achievement; and to advocate for classroom teacher rights and also be willing to work side by side with administrators.
I look forward to spending my time with people who can see beyond false dichotomies, recognize that there is no monolithic teacher voice and focus—really, focus—on improving schools for all kids.
Holly Kragthorpe teaches seventh-graders at Ramsey Middle School in Minneapolis, where she is a union steward for Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, a school captain for Educators 4 Excellence, and a teacher blogging fellow and teacher policy fellow for MinnCAN.