True: My Quest to Reclaim My Voice

Eight months. That’s how long I went without writing.  I lost all confidence after joining some teacher “collaboratives” that purported to empower teacher-writers. Instead, I found my voice silenced by a subtle and patronizing attempt to co-opt authentic teacher voice as a tool to promote the corporate education policy agenda.

stealing our voice

I joined these collaboratives because of my understanding of the word “collaborate”. Collaboration suggests to me mutual support and growth, like I experienced in the teacher blogging community when I was writing in the UK. Teacher bloggers there have formed collective blogs like The Education Echo Chamber, and use dedicated education forums like to post ideas and extend their dialog through long streams of comments and responses. Then, they share and discuss each other’s blogs on Twitter, engaging in honest, funny, and often rancorous debates about education issues.

The edublogging community has influenced UK education policy, and even been accused of exerting too much influence on the political process. I think they were able to do this because their community was formed by teachers without the “support” of corporate donors and foundations.

Here’s my story of what can happen when teacher voice is being “elevated” by a corporate sponsored entity, with a surprise twist ending that contradicts everything I’ve said so far:

One such collaborative asked me to share a draft post with one of their mentors, so that she could give me feedback. I was dubious, since mentorship does not fit my definition of collaboration, but I was compliant, as a good teacher should be. I shared a draft of a piece I’d written that detailed how I had been passed over for a SCORE teacher fellowship in favor of candidates with less experience, and included my overly-honest and not-in-line-with-the-corporate-agenda answers to the highly leading questions on the SCORE application.

One of the collaborators, whose role was to elevate my voice, suggested: “Consider writing full posts like this and sharing them with a trusted colleague or friend (or one of us at NBC). Then, consider revising the post to make your points without being accusatory.”

Sorry, but censorship is not part of my definition of collaboration, either.

Another advised: “Since your expertise is with special education and advocacy, we’re guessing you would have stronger pieces if you stick to topics on which you are clearly an expert and remind yourself of the purpose of every post.” and “Additionally, if you decide to provide solutions, think about extremely realistic and reasonable suggestions that any reader could walk away and take action on. This is how we will bring change to the issues in education that we value the most.”

In case you didn’t catch the meaning, here’s my translation: “You are just a teacher. Your decades of experience in your field give you no authority to comment on larger issues of education policy and reform. Leave that to the big boys, like Bill Gates and John King. Stick to the minutiae of your daily teaching activities. Your readers should only be teachers, who should be realistic about their limited ability to affect change, who should only be interested in small, reasonable changes within their capacity.”

The mentors then stopped replying to my follow-up questions. Put squarely in my place, I quietly retreated to my classroom for the next eight months.

Remember that I promised a surprise twist ending:  Recently, I took those same SCORE application responses and reworked them for a teacher voice fellowship with America Achieves, expecting the same results I had from SCORE, especially since, while I have never (until now) publicly criticized SCORE, I have included criticisms of America Achieves in my past articles and blogs. To my surprise, I was accepted into their statewide fellowship, and attended a supportive and informative convening to learn how to more effectively advocate and elevate my voice. The America Achieves organizers were shockingly open to diverse opinions, and I have to give them some credit for helping me to recover my voice.

So, I guess the “extremely realistic and reasonable suggestions that any reader could walk away and take action on” are:

1. Stay true – there are some entities that now seem to be receptive to authentic teacher advocacy, and I suspect it’s happening because others didn’t succumb to the self-doubt I did. Teachers who have elevated their own voices and refused to parrot the talking points of the reform machine have not let up, and the message is finally getting through: We don’t need anyone to tell us what’s wrong with current education or how to change it. We just need some of those wealthy and powerful non-educators to quit undermining our voices.

2. Be wary – doublespeak abounds in the education policy world and it’s easy to fall victim to false teacher elevation claims. Despite my recent positive experience, I wouldn’t have lost my voice in the first place had I been more wary early on.

and, above all:

3. Collaborate – no sponsors needed. Let’s create our own forums and meet-ups to elevate our voices and share our expertise without corporate sponsorship or guidance. I welcome honest and open comments here, especially if you’ve had experiences with sponsored teacher elevation groups that have been different from mine.

I’d like to hear your voice.



Notes from a Sometime Superhero

Super Teacher Deviant ID by Dreamerzina on DeviantArt

I returned to school this week committed to becoming a “Well-Being Superhero”, the moniker created by Martyn Reah for his #teacher5aday New Year’s challenge.

I had envisioned my origin story: Formerly harried teacher rises from the depths of the toxic testing sewage, where she was buried for years by the avalanche of an impossible workload, to find that she has developed superpowers manifesting in a laser-like focus on the purpose of her work, the ability to balance her personal life and workload with a mindful composure, and the strength to raise the status of her fellow teachers along with her own as she staunchly defends all that is right for her students and community.

I was golden. Nothing would stop me. I joined a gym. I spent quality time with my son, who was home from college for the holidays. I made and prioritized lists of the goals that I felt were most important for my classroom this semester.

And then the week began. It should have been an easy one. Monday was a professional development day and Thursday was cancelled due to frigid temperatures. Not exactly speeding bullets and tall buildings…or so it would seem.

The professional development session began with a description of recent changes in Tennessee’s teacher licensing requirements. In order for experienced teachers to renew a license, we must jump through a variety of new hoops to prove that we are worthy. Never mind that there are teacher shortages in special education and a sharp drop in applicants for new teacher training programs. Never mind that Tennessee’s value-added teacher evaluation model has been under criticism for poor validity in measuring teacher quality. The message in the licensure requirements is clear. We teachers must show that we need our jobs desperately enough to prove our worth to schools, instead of schools demonstrating that they need teachers with experience and commitment desperately enough to provide us with resources and support. I think teacher accountability may be my kryptonite.

But I was ready for my students on the first day of school. Our first semester grading period had been extended into the first two days of January due to a flu outbreak during final exam week in December that had caused many students to miss exams. I had quite a few students who needed to take makeup exams, but I made individualized grade improvement plans for each student to work on so that everyone would have a chance to remediate problem areas. The students seemed to have returned to school calmer and more focused than they were at the end of last year. Or was it my newfound superpowers helping to motivate them?

And then school was cancelled on Thursday. Had my superpower strengths even willed this gift of a full day to mark papers and complete grade spreadsheets? Who can say? With time to carefully analyze student papers, I was able to identify gaps in prerequisite knowledge and misunderstandings of procedures that might explain some of their difficulties learning the standards. I was impressed with many of my students’ progress toward meeting their course objectives. I was making the most of my laser-like-focus superpower and it felt good.

Most of my students had transferred into my class during the last grading period because they were not making progress in the general education setting, so the school’s computer-based spreadsheets included their transferred grades. And while all of my students are working behind grade level, they must still pass standards-based coursework to earn a general education diploma. Despite extensive accommodations and small group lessons to address deficit areas, I was disappointed with the low grade averages that resulted for a number of my students. Maybe it’s grade averaging that is my true kryptonite.

So what about my personal well-being efforts? There’s that gym I joined. I’ve been 5 times since the beginning of the year.Screen Shot 2015-01-11 at 10.40.42 AM

 (In reality, I have to admit that I have a terrible attitude while I’m there and really don’t challenge myself. And I’m pretty conscious about wearing gym clothes in front of people. Shhh… but Lycra might also be my kryptonite…just a little.)

I prefer working outdoors, and had hoped to follow the lead of Hannah Norton, in her commitment to spending time in wild spaces every day. After all, the wild spaces begin in my backyard and work wonders on my well-being.

Into the Wild: The view from my back yard.
Into the Wild: The view from my back yard.

But then this… Screen Shot 2015-01-11 at 10.36.16 AM  Polar vortexes are definitely my kryptonite.

Flawed superheroes are all the rage right now, so maybe there’s still some hope for me. I read that the Green Lantern is even weakened by exposure to the color yellow. So, as long as I can still head past a line of school buses as I stride toward my classroom, I’ll stay in the game…tune in next time for the exciting conclusion.