How Kansas teachers can avoid a summer of self-improvement gaslighting

How Kansas teachers can avoid a summer of self-improvement gaslighting

“There is an entire industry devoted to telling educators they’re OK — or telling them they’re not and then offering to fix them,” writes Aaron Schwartz. (Getty Images)

As the worst school year in most teachers’ careers comes to an end and summer begins, some much-needed reflection is not happening.

Contrary to popular belief, most teachers continue to work throughout the summer. Most teachers’ summers include professional development and continued learning. This year especially, crucial reflection about the state of education is being stifled in a rush to return to the status quo.

There is an entire industry of reinforcing the status quo in education, an industry devoted to telling educators they’re OK — or telling them they’re not and then offering to fix them. Best-selling authors and other motivational speakers are paid handsomely to tour districts and speak at conferences. They tell us to be “relentless” in our work with students, to “live our excellence,” and that “no matter what happens outside the school walls,” we can help students. Different speakers, different keynotes, but the message is effectually the same: you the educator can change all of it.

How can we change it? They tell us it’s largely a matter of strategy, pedagogy, attitude and corporate climate. They tell us these problems can be identified and solved within the pages of their newest book, or by purchasing a T-shirt, coffee mug, PowerPoint package, online course, calendar set, phone case, sticker bundle, wall art. I’m not exaggerating.

Some of them even spent time teaching. They’ll brag about their “five years of experience in the classroom. …”

This is the insidious nature of the status quo in education: that with a little attitude adjustment to your workforce, you can change the state of a dated system by making said workforce feel empowered. To do what? One side of the political spectrum blames teachers for a host of societal ills; what good does it do, then, to bring in life coaches and gurus to do a different dance in the same mirror? It still places the impetus for change on the individual teacher.

These hucksters ask: How can you do more? How can you do better? What can you change about yourself to make the students’ lives better? What can you, the limited individual, do to make systemic change beneath the weight of the unaddressed societal ills that you’re combating? How can you be happy in a system that is built for efficiency rather than efficacy without demanding that the system — from the highest levels down — change?

These questions should be answered thusly: How much more am I getting paid to do more work? How will the system concretely help me be more effective? Smaller class sizes? More prep time? Less pressure on the students to perform on tests? More flexible scheduling for students? Later start times? These are not selfish questions; they are natural ones that are more self-respecting than a slogan on a coffee mug.

Schools and teachers do help students. We teach them, feed them, sometimes even house and clothe them. We make them feel loved and accepted and valued and important. And we should never, ever stop doing this. We should always take care of kids, but we don’t need talking heads telling us how to change ourselves to better help our students.

Let me encourage my fellow educators: If a person speaking to you has less education experience than you, and if they are no longer in the ever-changing world of the classroom, you are the expert in the room. Is our self-esteem really so low? We don’t need to be told by the system to be happy and uncritical within its flawed confines. We preach rigorous debate and critical thinking, but our insecurity causes us to flinch at the first word of genuine, productive criticism.

Here’s a line that won’t get said by a conference speaker, and I’ll give it to you for free: You are not a bad or selfish teacher for advocating for meaningful, concrete, systemic change.

If Kansas truly wants to educate and care for our kids, we need to change the system of education in a tangible way. Fully fund it. Retroactive bonuses, such as those approved by the Legislature this year, are nice, but they’re afterthoughts rather than the proactive work of change.

Kansas should invest in staffing and salary for smaller class sizes and better teachers. Invest in mental health professionals and social workers. Invest richly in special education programs and educators. Invest in the ongoing work of inclusion and equity. Make education a system where happiness and success are products of a highly functioning organization that values the individual.

Carnival barkers at big tent revivals aren’t the answer, and Kansas teachers shouldn’t buy their snake oil.

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