By Yohuru Williams and Steven Singer
Nearly 18 years ago in his 1997 State of the Union address, President Bill Clinton urged Americans to prioritize education. He suggested beginning with building respect for the teaching profession. To “have the best schools,” he observed, “we must have the best teachers.” He continued, “most of us in this chamber would not be here tonight without the help of those teachers.”
Despite Clinton’s eloquence, respect for the teaching profession steadily declined due primarily to a narrative of failure constructed by the proponents of corporate education reform. They consistently blame the power of teachers’ unions and teacher tenure for society’s woes. They use both as a justification to construct a multi-billion dollar industry to standardize and privatize our public schools.
For the most part, the mainstream media has been reluctant to challenge this narrative and point to the real obstacles that exist for teachers. Such is the case with a recent article in The Atlantic by Alia Wong entitled “Using the Restroom – a Privilege If You’re a Teacher” that completely misses the point of a recent survey highlighting some of the substantive issues facing the nation’s teachers.
Tens of thousands of professionals responded to the 2015 survey. The survey was conducted collaboratively by two groups: the Badass Teachers Association, a grassroots network of more than 55,000 educators, parents and students and the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers union. The survey yielded shocking results that powerfully illustrate the collateral damage of the “test and punish” environment engulfing public education. This includes such serious allegations regarding workplace conditions that it prompted a meeting between the authors and the U.S. Department of Education. A team of educators working with both BATS and the AFT launched the 80 plus question survey in April. Some 91,000 public school teachers responded and 31,000 completed the survey. The unprecedented response revealed that there are indeed major problems with our current education policy and its impact on education practitioners.
Perhaps, the most startling revelation from the survey is what prompted it to be conducted in the first place – the increasing incidence of teachers and administrators who committed suicide due to bullying and abuses stemming from national school policy and other work place stressors. These are often the hidden casualties in the war on public education.
In October of 2010, for example, a California elementary school teacher named Rigoberto Ruelas, Jr. took his own life after the Los Angeles Times published a report labeling him a “less effective teacher.” Despite the fact that students and parents praised Ruelas, who taught in one of poorest schools in his district and who also was born, raised and continued to live in area where his school was located, the Times targeted him among other so-called “less effective” teachers as part of a major propaganda campaign. Publishing their names and ranking them according to their students’ test scores was supposed to encourage “reform”.
The Ruelas case is far from an isolated incident. Just last month, a New York City principal under investigation for altering Common Core test scores, killed herself by jumping in front of a subway car.
If U.S. teachers are the proverbial canary in the coalmine, then we may already be too late. Pressures related to high stakes testing are not the only stresses educators face. Teachers also reported significant bullying and hostility from city officials and administrators. Equally disturbing were reports concerning the infamous teacher jails where educators can languish for months under conditions, leaving them “broken, depressed,” and “suicidal, according to one California teacher observer. Statements recently made by New Jersey Governor and Republican Presidential Candidate Chris Christie reveals the scope of the problem. He said he would like to punch the national teachers union in the face. Rather than enjoying esteem as valued members of the communities they serve, educators have become convenient scapegoats. They fight on multiple fronts to provide their students a superior education and make a stable living.
It’s no wonder 73 percent of teachers in the Quality of Work Life Survey said they often find themselves stressed at work.
More than half of those surveyed, 55%, highlighted the “negative portrayal of teachers and school employees in the media” as a source of stress. The pejorative portrayal of teachers in a publication like The Atlantic is especially problematic. That a national periodical elected to do a piece on the survey but limit its scope to toilet restrictions trivializes other results. It’s not that this isn’t an important factor, but Wong’s coverage of other pertinent issues get short shrift. In her words educators tend to be, “known for their tendency to complain about and perhaps over-exaggerate their stress levels.”
To be fair, Wong eventually deleted that remark from subsequent editions of the article. However, she cautioned her readers to be skeptical of the survey because of potential bias. It’s a survey of teachers conducted by teachers. This is an odd critique however given the survey takers expressed intent to use the data collected as a means to spur the Department of Education to conduct a full scientific survey of the profession and then take appropriate action to rectify these concerns.
Rather than reporting squarely on the survey, Wong picked over the evidence. Rather than heeding the call that there is a real need for a much larger and more focused study of these problems, she either ignored or debunked its claims. Rather than treat educators as professionals, she belittled them.
Wong is not a bad journalist. Like most people, she has bought into the notion that teachers don’t know how good they have it. The public still doesn’t understand why teachers have “summers off.” They still misunderstand tenure to mean “a job for life” when it’s really only a guarantee of due process. Instead of helping the public better understand these issues, Wong and other representatives of the media often become entangled in the snare of the same myths.
Once again those entrusted with the most important job of preparing the next generation through our system of public education are losing a public relations campaign that can’t or won’t distinguish truth from falsity.
In short, our problems are much worse than inadequate bathroom time. We’re turning our public schools into factories and blaming teachers when it doesn’t work. We’re allowing billionaire philanthropists to set education policy but holding educators accountable for the results. We’re segregating our schools, providing Cadillac funding for the rich and bicycle funding for the poor and minorities but expecting teachers to somehow make up the difference. We’re letting corporate raiders run charter schools with no transparency or accountability and when that proves a disaster, we point our fingers at teachers. The result is a nation of frustrated educators who are increasingly leaving the profession in droves. “The average teacher,” writer Robert Brault once observed, “explains complexity” while “the gifted teacher reveals simplicity.” The data collected from the teacher survey reveals the complexity of the issues facing public education but they also highlight a simple truth. For if the survey is indeed accurate in illustrating just how debilitating these issues are to adults, we can only imagine what it’s doing to our children.
Yohuru Williams is an author, Dean, Professor of History and Black Studies, and education activist. Steven Singer is a husband, father, teacher, and blogger, education advocate. Both are members of the Badass Teachers Association.