Reclaiming the Table

Published at The Huffington Post on March 3, 2011

Over the past few months, I’ve started to feel cautiously hopeful that things might be taking a turn for the better. It started when I read and signed the Declaration of Professional Conscience for Teachers earlier this year, and continued as I watched groups like Parents Across America pick up steam, and as I got more involved with the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action.

The feeling really got a jolt when public workers — many of them teachers — steadfastly defended their rights in Wisconsin, and were joined by citizens across Wisconsin and the entire United States. I’m encouraged and excited to see that all over the world, people are rising up and resisting the forces of oppression.

As these movements grow in size and power, let’s all resolve to stop doing one thing: Let’s stop asking for a “place at the table.”

I hear this phrase way too often when I talk to teachers, parents, and the organizations that (are supposed to…) represent us. It’s not just that the metaphor itself is tired. It’s the way of thinking that underlies it.

If I cooked a meal from scratch, in my own home, with ingredients I supplied, and some unexpected guests stopped by, I’d welcome them in for something to eat. I’d try to make them feel comfortable, share some conversation, maybe open a bottle of wine.

What I would not do, is ask if it was OK if I sat down. (And I certainly wouldn’t quietly tolerate them coming in, rearranging, or even destroying my home!) After all, it’s my home and my table — though it is my responsibility to be a gracious host, I am still very much in charge. It’s not their place, or their right, to tell me what to do and how to do it while in my space.

That is how families, students and teachers need to start approaching the matter of education reform — “Nothing about us, without us.” These are our children, our tax dollars, our schools, our communities, our careers and our futures. We cannot accept being pushed to the margins of our own domain.

Of course, all parents, teachers, students, and community members are not going to agree on every detail of what they want schools to look like, and as I’ve always said, that’s OK. The real problem is that right now, we have to struggle just to have an honest conversation about what is going on in our schools and what we need to do to strengthen them (or keep them strong, as the case may be).

What’s more, in our quest to avoid ruffling feathers, or stay on good terms with the political and economic powerhouses currently calling the shots, we’ve conceded so much ground that we’re at risk of losing basic things — like a truly professional teaching force and the very idea that schools should be public and open to all.

Though the majority of us are satisfied with our own neighborhood schools, many of us have fallen victim to a deceptive narrative that suggests most American schools are inadequate or “failing.” Astroturf organizations have capitalized on our ignorance, using it (and some parents‘ well-earned dissatisfaction) to promote their own political, economic and ideological agendas.

Because too many regular teachers, students and parents have been silent, we hear constantly about “failing” schools and bad teachers, but little about why these schools are so poor, what it will take to build schools that work for all kids, or what it takes to create systems that develop, support, and retain good teachers. We hear about how we should be adjusting to the “New Normal” of austerity and inadequacy, but we never get around to talking about how our budgets got so lean in the first place, or how it’s possible that so many of us are struggling while a few of us are living quite large.

We fight “education wars” over curriculum and pedagogy, without stopping to question why this is so political in the first place. If we all care about children, and America’s future, shouldn’t the conversation be about making sure we marshal all of our resources to support them? We know that one size doesn’t fit all, and that different approaches will work for different children; we know that most questions have more than one right answer. Instead of trying to find the “one right way,” shouldn’t we encourage teachers to learn as much as possible, so they can have a wealth of skills and knowledge to draw on as they respond to children’s different, and rapidly-changing, needs?

To use the metaphor once more before retiring it: Since the “table” is ours, why are we still having the same tired menu that leaves their stomachs full, but ours empty?

Note that when we focus on “bad” teachers, “failing” schools, or fake “wars”, we don’t end up with better education. We end up leaving all teachers vulnerable to unfair (but potentially cost-cutting) treatment, losing neighborhood institutions and investing in scripts and tests instead of strong, effective professionals.

We deserve better. Here’s hoping that the sleeping giant continues to stir, and that we all continue to find– and raise– our voices for justice.

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