Quickwrite: Rough Thoughts for A Teachers’ Movement

I am reluctant to critique the BATs any further, having done so in two posts so far, and stirring up a fair amount of debate. To be fair, my views on this still emerging group should be tentative. Honestly, I hope the best for them, but I will work differently for the shared goal of a humanistic, child-centered and egalitarian educational system. Repeatedly I have been told that my departure from the BAT forum on Facebook is premature, but so be it. I am still around and keeping my eyes open. That being said, I will not come knocking on their door in the future if it seems they’ve changed to my liking. I am not a fair weather activist. But I digress. One of the criticisms thrown at me yesterday in a thread was that I was criticizing without putting forth any viable alternatives. So, some rough thoughts in that regard.

Generally speaking, the BATs approach to organizing makes sense: get people together online, quickly raise numbers, then establish an official website. The next stage, establishing state level forums is probably their best idea, and I hope it works out. Since the group is so widely inclusive, they need to devolve to be effective. Having once helped found an online teacher activist group myself, I know that establishing a platform, or at least clearly defined talking points early on is crucial. The BATs, by allowing such a prolonged free-for-all talking space on Facebook (a limited platform for mass one-on-one engagement), have delayed the establishment of a guiding focus for their group. They then compounded this problem by prematurely launching actions. The phone blitz on the NEA was particularly divisive since many members of the group are either union supporters, or on the fence, and so felt marginalized by this action. But here I am critiquing again!

Whatever approach an online group takes, it needs to be very intentional. Leaders need to set the group’s tone and focus from the very get-go and solicit input from the group members as comprehensively as possible. With dynamically growing groups as large as BAT, this can only be done through voting and quick devolution of the group to regional or state levels. But prior to this development, a general platform must be established and its sticking points ironed out. Again, intentionality on the part of the groups’ facilitators is crucial.

Essentially, BAT suffers from a lack of effective leadership, without which participants’ negative characteristics come to the fore and dominate. This tendency toward negativity isn’t the case with any emergent group, but it certainly is when you bring together people who feel disenfranchised and devalued by forces beyond our control (hence my use of the term wounded birds in yesterday’s post). The very idea of a teacher activist group bespeaks the need for good structure and tight focus.

Assuming such a well-organized online group can be established, what is next? As readers may have gathered, I am a proponent of engaged dialogue. Moving forward, such a group–having successfully devolved from a nationally centered forum to a network of local activists groups–should hold meet-ups to engage in discussions with one another as well as members of their local communities. For teachers, this could mean bringing in parents and talking about standardized testing, its ill effects on their children’s education and the need to opt out. Imagine countless small local discussions nationwide with public school teachers encouraging the parents they serve to opt their kids out of testing? This would bring with it a host of challenges for the teachers involved and would require a strong leadership line from group to local to regional and national levels. It would be great if the unions could support such actions, but most likely they would become opponents as much as the corporate ed reformers. Ultimately it would require a great deal of courage on the part of educators to pull this off, but with structure, focus and committed leadership it could be done.

My proposal here lacks the glamour and anonymity of blitzing Arne Duncan’s office with phone calls. It requires steady, persistent efforts on the part of educators, risking their jobs and professional reputations. It also focuses on face-to-face encounters that can transform the hearts of even adversaries and build a lasting movement. These are just some of my rough thoughts. I will elaborate in whatever comments thread may follow.

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14 Comments

Filed under education general, K-12 public schools, teachers

14 responses to “Quickwrite: Rough Thoughts for A Teachers’ Movement

  1. I agree with you that we have to do more than vent or preach on Facebook. I am an activist who is working on educating parents, teachers, and the general public in small groups, at forums, panels, protests, etc. etc.. What I like about BAT is that it shows the millions of silent teachers that they are not alone. They don’t have to be afraid because they are 20,000 strong. I think it is great place for them to start their activism. Am I going to spend time there? Probably not. Am I going to post things I think they should know? Yes. Am I going to post some provocative things to get a conversation going or push their thinking? Yes. For me, it is about expectations. I do agree that at the next level of activism, we need to figure out how to map out our networks so we can rally when we need to on a national level.

    I learned a new word this Spring. It is heterarchy. This word (probably newly made up, but you can google it) refers to a structure between individuals that is sort of leaderless. The role of leader is more fluid. Different members of the network come together or drift apart depending on their interest. There may me many leaders, but not one leader. Decisions are made situationally and not through a rule governed process. It is an interesting concept to consider.

    In a country as large and diverse as ours, there may be some value to this concept. There may be dangers as well.

    • “Heterarchy”, I have not heard this word before, but what you say makes a great deal of sense. My thoughts in my post this morning are very rough and I was hoping the comments thread would help me expand my thinking. You have certainly done that! Thank you! I am aware of the decentralized leadership model you describe, but I didn’t have a name for it until now. I agree, however, there can be dangers as well. Another point that you make that resonates with me is that BAT is a starting place for teachers, and perhaps, as I observe in another comment, it is the place for teachers to rediscover their self worth in many respects. After what we’ve been subjected since the turn of the century, we truly are wounded birds.

  2. I am still hanging in. Partly for the shared angst which I find akin to the AA meetings I’ve attended for 30 some years, partly in hope of seeing positive change somewhere and partly for the fun of pipe bombing the prissy sanctimonious teacher types who give us all a bad name when they correct grammar, call themselves great teachers and try to micro manage the stars. I know I’m a badass, no teacher group is going to confer that on me. And as a badass I also understand that it takes all types to teach kids. In the state run Psych center where I teach I am on top if my game and I have never loved any job more than I do this one. What happens on the
    Big stage in the words of Alan Ginsberg is just drunken dumbshow but its entertaining as hell. I lived up in Leadville in late 70s early 80s if you ever get up there. My brother’s been there since 1977. Peace my friend.

    • You and I would get along famously in real time! If you ever make it to Colorado by all means contact me! I hear what you’re saying, esp. when you note that “it takes all types to teach kids.” So, so true. Yes, you are a badass, and you give me pause to think: perhaps a good deal of the “drunken dumbshow” is about teachers finally deciding within themselves that they are not bad people, that all their weakness, quirks and uncertainties are part of what makes them uniquely capable to foster the children they serve. I may have to expand on this in a future post. My wheels are turning as it were. In the meantime, thanks so much for quoting Ginsberg!

  3. Shannon Ergun

    I posted the following to the BAT page because I think the suggestion is a good one.

    “Iain Mavro Coggins who writes the Lost Apple blog has left this FB group for a variety of reasons and has written to critique our purpose and direction in the last couple of days.

    “However, in his blog today he shared this suggestion which I would like to proffer as a goal:

    “‘Moving forward, such a group–having successfully devolved from a nationally centered forum to a network of local activists groups–should hold meet-ups to engage in discussions with one another as well as members of their local communities. For teachers, this could mean bringing in parents and talking about standardized testing, its ill effects on their children’s education and the need to opt out. Imagine countless small local discussions nationwide with public school teachers encouraging the parents they serve to opt their kids out of testing?'”

    • I am honored that you would share this with the group. Thank you so much!

    • Deanne

      I would be interested in the groups’ response – especially the founders.

      • Thank you again Shannon! Yes, Deanne, I would to connect with them about my thoughts as well.

      • Shannon Ergun

        Here’s the only reply so far:

        Great idea to encourage parents to opt out, but I would be scared for my job security which is kind of important to me.

      • Thanks for getting back to me about this! This reply doesn’t surprise me. I have been hesitant to step out so visibly myself for the same reason. As I said in my post, it will take a great deal of courage to do so.

      • Shannon Ergun

        I suggest to parents to opt out all the time and I have opted my own children out of testing. They go to school in the same district in which I teach. I know including test scores in our evaluations has become an issue, but if parents opt their kids out, that affects everyone so it would have a negligible effect on variation in evaluations. The only way to get rid of this sort of assessment is to get the parents on board.

      • The challenge, however, is to get enough parents in a given location to opt out such that it has a noticeable affect on the system. One, two, five or ten parents here and there opting out does little good for teachers, schools or kids.

  4. Sandra

    My favorite from this blog:
    “Honestly, I hope the best for them, but I will work differently for the shared goal of a humanistic, child-centered and egalitarian educational system.”

    My second favorite was your suggestion for teachers to partner with parents. There is substantial parent opposition to high stakes excessive testing mandates nationwide. Even though painfully underreported, parents are organized in many places and developing organizations in more. Several states are “pausing” implementation of CC, in part in response to parents complaints.

    Your suggestions speak from experience. Generally, teachers are not experienced activists. As such under the current conditions, the learning curve is steep and efforts occur on top of full time teaching positions and duties to family. There have already been some organizing failures in the last couple of years, not to lack of heartfelt wishes, but the skills to keep large groups focused on effective actions. Ed reformers have had the advantage of paid staffers and a tightly scripted game plan and narrative followed in notable unison. However, time is short and all individuals in an organized group, organizing group, or as individuals must take constructive actions and take advantage of this “pause.” Why waste time on decisions individuals make when there is so much to do.

    • A wonderful response to my post! Thank you so much! I think your assessment of the challenges teachers face in organizing is spot on. As for my own role in all of this, I am finding myself moving into a less direct activist role, and more of supporting research role, for lack of a better explanation. Like all of us, my views and actions are also a work in progress. Concerning direct action activists, there are so many out there who are so much more connected and capable than I am, that I don’t feel I will contribute a great deal in that arena. Rather I am focused on the historical and philosophical underpinnings of education reform, and the perspectives such knowledge can bring to a teachers movement.

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