Will the U.S. Ever Like Educators?

Back in 1970, the AFL-CIO-affiliated American Federation of Teachers became the first major union to stand against discrimination against lesbians and gay men. In 1974, its larger national rival, the National Education Association added sexual orientation to its anti-discrimination policy.

Both unions have struggled with right-wing forces from within and without to maintain and expand these stands they took over a quarter of a century ago. In 1999 both joined nine other educational and psychological organizations to condemn the aggressive right-wing promotion of conversion “therapies,” as potentially harmful and ineffective, and to counter harassment of gay and lesbian youth.

Such advocacy has been a part of the professionalism that has contributed to the conservative criticism of public education in the US and its scapegoating of teachers’ unions for any problems it wants to lay on the public school system.

The final goal of economic conservatives is to privatize education so that children become lucrative moneymakers 24/7 for multinational corporations. For the religious and social conservatives, represented recently by the Texas Board of Education, it’s to guarantee that our kids conform to their right-wing, sectarian Christian agenda, not affirm LGBT people.

The major enemies of this sectarian and corporate agenda, who are motivated by the stake they have in education as well as the fact that most become educators out of their love of teaching, are the teachers’ unions – the organizations that represent the actual trained professionals who are really in the classroom with America’s kids.

In contrast, how long has it taken their bosses – the motley crew on elected school boards, the managers who are CEOs, and the scared school systems – to stand for “safe schools?”

It’s not as if the teachers are in it for the money. With their educational backgrounds they could make more working in front of computer screens or in some investment firm betting on people losing their homes.

Teachers are responsible for one of our nation’s important resources, our children. But their value to us is reflected in how they’re treated compared to our bankers, armament dealers, informational techs, and corporate executives.

We talk a good line about education in this country, but anyone can see what we really believe. When we talk about more funding for our schools you can hear people say: “You’re not going to throw more money at it and think that works, are you?” If it were the Pentagon, who can’t account for one-quarter of its expenditures, we’d call it allocation.

That little kid in the inner city school knows what it all really means to us. As he listens to our lines about how important an education is, he knows what his teacher makes, where she lives, and how she’s treated in the media. But he also knows how much those sports stars make, in what kinds of homes they live, and how people idolize them.

That little guy is too smart. He can see through all the American talk about the value of education to the truth good ole Jesus underlined: “Where your treasure is, there your heart is also.”

When it goes beyond appearances, we do everything to put our teachers down. We hold them suspect. We pile them with responsibilities way beyond their expertise and passion.

We place these professionals in a system run by people who have never been in a classroom. Imagine the standards of the medical or legal profession set by boards of people with no qualifications other than the fact that they got the most votes in an electoral system where most qualify as “low information voters.”

Then we hire superintendents and downtown office beaureaucrats who couldn’t run a classroom who think schools are businesses. Even our Secretaries of Education are managers, not educators.

In keeping with this business-model obsession, Obama’s Arne Duncan has never taught in a classroom. He’s a CEO who was appointed by a mayor to be chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools. No wonder his programs perpetuate the philosophy of the Bush administration that’s dictated by corporate America.

I’m surprised more teachers suffering through these people who think they know better, how to manage education like a factory, aren’t bitter and disheartened. What must it be like to be blamed so that the fault is always: you’re not a good teacher; and the solution is some sort of “merit pay” based on criteria set up by the non-professional corporatists and their hand-picked “consultants?”

Union busting is on the agenda of numerous superintendents around the country. But if it weren’t for our teachers’ unions, teachers, those professional educators, would have no voice at all in the way we teach and nurture the students they, not the policy makers, interact with every school day.

Teachers know what works. Teachers know why education isn’t always working in the US.

We know that smaller classrooms work. We know that the happier teachers are, the better they teach.

We know that education is not an assembly line where products can be measured by a single test. We know that students come from different places (family backgrounds, emotional needs, talents, motivations, and abilities), and that the measure of a good educator is a student’s progress from that individual place along a path, not their conformity to arbitrary standards such as those behind a No Child Left Behind law.

We know that, yes, throwing money at education will actually go a long way to solving our problems. How about 1/10th of what we can’t account for in Iraq as a start?

But we’ll also have to start thinking about teachers as a national resource. We’ll have to think of our schools and colleges as more than training institutions for some corporate agenda.

In Taiwan where education is highly successful, September 28th is not only Confucius’ Birthday. It’s a national holiday to honor teachers.

People there actually stop working to honor teachers.

In the US there’s a National Education Week, but I bet you don’t even know when.

That illustrates our real problem.