They Won’t Drive Us From the Trenches – Dr. Michael Flanagan
Get a group of veteran teachers together, and before long you will hear someone praise a talented, effective colleague by saying he or she has been “in the trenches”. This signifies that an educator has served on the front lines and experienced the sometimes harrowing, exhilarating and often unfathomable challenges only a public school teacher can know. In the current world of education reform, where people who have never set foot in front of a classroom decide major policies and protocol, seniority and experience are derided. To real teachers, working in the trenches is a badge of honor.
Teachers who came up through the trenches share similar knowledge and experiences. We intuitively know when a situation calls for tact, empathy, humor, or just plain truth. Veterans of public education understand the power of a phone call home, and more importantly, when that call should or should not be made. We see when a student is having a bad day, or needs our attention. We know our students face unrelenting pressures ranging from depression and bullying to racism and poverty. Our students arrive with their book bags full of these burdens on a daily basis and unpack them in our classrooms.
Back in the days, the challenges our students faced commanded our full attention. They were the very nuts and bolts of our profession. But now, the education reformers are forcing public school teachers to look away from the fundamental components of our craft. They are driving us out of the trenches, and infringing upon our ability to concentrate solely on our students’ needs. They have diverted our talents and shifted our energies from educating children to fighting standardized testing, charter schools and the venomous attacks on public school teachers.
“So, now you want to be an education activist”? No. Actually, that is the last thing the average teacher wants. Most of us just want to go to work, do our best and try everyday to make a difference in our kids’ lives. We seek to be a positive influence, and help them learn, to think for themselves. Yes, we are educated professionals who demand fair wages, workers’ rights, and the protections of collective bargaining agreements. We believe in the right to unionize, because the effects of wealth inequality are so pervasive that unions are the only recourse the middle class has. But the vilification of experienced public school teachers has gone too far. Through the use of high-stakes testing and the Common Core, corporate privateers have turned our students into weapons to be used against their own teachers. We can no longer just close our doors and teach. Our daily struggle is now includes the battle for our profession against corporate education reform.
However, as any public school teacher can attest, we are used to challenges. That being the case, now many of our best and brightest teachers have had to become education activists. They are stepping out of the classroom as advocates and organizers, raising their voices at the state and national levels. They are haranguing politicians and school board members. They are creating grassroots networks such as United Opt Out, Save Our Schools and the BadAss Teachers Association to wage social media campaigns and calls to action. They are speaking at panels and forums. They are marching and giving a voice to parents, teachers and students against formidable opponents: the money of Wall Street, the power of Washington, the reach of corporate media, and the capitulation of our leadership.
We must end the distracting narrative that focuses on testing, VAM evaluations, failing schools and the “bad teacher”. The reformers’ message allows them to distract the public from the ramifications of income inequalities, and the greed of privatization that spurs the education reform movement. So for now, in addition to educating, we will fight against those who marginalize and ignore our students and their teachers. We will stand against those who want to disregard our truth and shift the blame to test scores, while ignoring the real problems of poverty and racism. We will not be driven from our schools, for those are our trenches. ^0^