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Commentary: Why aren’t we listening to our teachers?

Ellie Herman | May 14, 2014

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Listening to our teachers LAUSDI’m fed up with the inefficiency of the judicial system! I’m going to become a judge. I may not be a lawyer, but I’ve been a law-abiding citizen all my life, I mean, how hard could it be? I have 20 years of business experience in the TV industry. When I blow into the courtroom demanding accountability, I am going to shake things up! Who needs legal experience when you understand the bottom line?

Wait—no. I’m going to be Surgeon General. Sure, I’m not a doctor, but I’ve seen a million of them! You should have seen the pair of “specialists” who nearly killed my grandma. It’s time for me to roll up my sleeves and set some standards. Patients first, dammit!

No, you know what? I think I’m going to be a Rear Admiral in the Navy. I grew up right near Lake Michigan, a large body of water, and with my business experience . . .

Okay, all of these ideas are preposterous. Common sense and business savvy are no substitute for a lifetime of training and expertise. What’s crazy, though, is that in education, the opposite view prevails. I cannot think of another profession in which major policies are set by people with little or no experience in the field.

Look at who’s driving education policy these days: Arne Duncan, Bill Gates, Eli Broad, Wendy Kopp. None of them has ever been a teacher. Three years ago, I participated in a roundtable discussion led by one of the U.S. Department of Education’s Deputy Secretaries. His years in the classroom? Same as everybody else high up in the DOE: zero. He had an extensive background in . . . improv theater. That was gonna be your next guess, right?

The Stanford economist Eric Hanushek, who is continually testifying that he has evidence that it doesn’t matter how many children you pack into a classroom because an “effective” teacher will just keep raising test scores, has never spent even a single day facing down a classroom of squirmy, perspiring, cranky, hormonal children.

The Broad Residency, which places people with business backgrounds in administrative positions at urban schools and state departments of education, does not require any classroom experience. In our era of rampant teacher layoffs, TFA’s entire raison d’etre is based on the belief that an energetic person of no experience from an elite university is better than an experienced teacher who, implicitly, is regarded as burned out and, well, less elite.

And, in case you’ve been under a rock for the last two years, the Common Core standards were developed by a consortium of 60 people that included only one teacher.

Why do teachers have so little voice in our profession? I suspect it’s a relic from pre-feminist days when teachers were young women who took low pay and unprofessional working conditions that most men with post-college degrees would find unacceptable.

The image of teachers is still suffused with a sexist disdain that regards working with children as inherently demeaning. To this day, a surprising amount of a teacher’s labor is menial: photocopying, creating filing systems, mechanical low-level grading, picking up students’ garbage, moving furniture and an absolutely mind-numbing assortment of mechanical procedures that, depending on where you work, may dictate everything from how your students enter your room to how and where you write on your whiteboard.

There is no career path. There is no incentive for receiving an advanced degree in your field. Because of the overwhelming class load, there is no time in the work day for study, reflection or collaboration with colleagues on anything other than how to handle the fallout from the most recent state-mandated change in standards.

Teachers are not victims here. We need to start demanding professional working conditions, professional pay and power in policy decisions. The real work of teaching is creative, challenging and rewarding. It is enormously complex, as complex as every student in the classroom, and teachers need to demand the respect we deserve for mastering this work.

But as a country, we need to treat teachers as people whose experience we trust and whose wisdom we seek. Real education reform starts with valuing teachers. If we want to improve the quality of our nation’s teaching, let’s listen to the seasoned experts who are actually in practice.

Ellie Herman is a guest commentator. Read more of her thoughts at Gatsby in LA.

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