I wanted to write the standard feel-good piece for Teacher Appreciation Week. I really did, but it just felt inauthentic. Don’t get me wrong. I love teaching and I love teachers. However, it’s hard to be optimistic as our profession is literally being turned into a pawn in America’s never-ending culture wars.
Teacher Appreciation Week comes on the heels of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell accusing Education Secretary Miguel Cardona of attempting to advance a “politicized and divisive agenda” in the teaching of American history. Political historian Heather Cox Richardson described McConnell’s accusation as another desperate attempt to “turn teaching history into a culture war.”
McConnel and 36 colleagues are adamantly opposed to “projects which incorporate racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse perspectives into teaching and learning.” Yes, you read that correctly.
With their opposition, the politicizing of teaching continues, fueling a distrust for teachers and their capacity to teach the full history of our country, including the parts that make those in the dominant culture uncomfortable. But their resistance also poses some additional problems.
For starters, it perpetuates the misperception that teachers are part of some collective political machine to promote a liberal agenda. I’m not sure when teaching the full history of our country—which includes both the beautiful and the horrific parts–became synonymous with liberal ideology, but I was under the assumption that educating our children entails providing them will all of the facts and helping them to develop the critical thinking necessary to draw their own conclusions. If teaching about the uncomfortable, horrific truths of systemic oppression in our country makes me a “snowflake,” then call me Frosty. Ultimately, we should teach the truth.
What’s worse, however, is that those seeking to protect existing power structures undermine the gains of critical race theory and the capacity of anti-racist teachers to facilitate difficult conversations in their classrooms, making it even more challenging for said teachers to do their jobs. Instead of combating the cultivating of anti-racist teachers who are fully equipped to facilitate tough conversations, and making the aforementioned synonymous with indoctrination, we should strive for collective autonomy and respect the professional expertise of anti-racist teachers, trusting them to act as skilled facilitators in their classrooms.
Are all teachers ready to engage in this work? No. And this is a crime, which results in harm being done to Black and brown children. Consequently, we should engage in conversations about how to best cultivate an entire profession of teachers who are prepared to engage in anti-racist practices, and who are knowledgeable about critical race theory. As it stands, few leaders are funding much-needed training on how to engage in anti-racist teaching, and many discourage teachers from engaging in the work altogether. But this vilifying of critical race theory and anti-racist teachers stifles progress, and it is a distraction from the conversations that lawmakers and school leaders should be having.
After all, engaging in anti-racist practices has the potential to bring about true, transformative progress. Failing to do so only perpetuates the status quo, which marginalizes large segments of our children, families and communities. When we equip and trust teachers to lead difficult conversations in their classrooms, the objective isn’t to solicit agreement on every single issue; it’s about developing a sense of understanding.
Democracy can only work if we are able to have civil discussions about that which we disagree about, and if we are committed to finding ways to better understand each other even as we disagree. By conversing, listening and disagreeing, we find shared humanity—which is a prerequisite for progress.
To understand how this plays out in the classroom, let’s look at a hypothetical example:
Imagine experiencing an excruciating, paralyzing sickness. It festers inside you, and you are desperate for treatment. Your family and friends debate the root causes of your ailment, and some even posit whether or not your sickness even exists, despite the fact that you’ve been exhibiting debilitating symptoms for weeks.
You visit your local doctor and learn that the government will only allow her to use treatments from a particular political ideology. Perhaps she administers some mercury, or perhaps leeches are applied. Meanwhile, the sickness continues to overtake your immune system and you make little progress.
We expect doctors to use their professional judgement, as well as their autonomy to make the best decisions about our care. We don’t criticize their agency as political. We don’t believe they are indoctrinating their patients when they prescribe a treatment plan or medication. They are doing their jobs the way they were trained, and we place our full faith in their expertise. Perhaps you see where I’m going with this?
Appreciating Teachers Every Day
If we truly want to support teachers for Teacher Appreciation Week and beyond, I have a few suggestions that will have much longer-lasting effects than a free cup of coffee:
Vote for public school advocates who are committed to ensuring equitable access to education for all children, and demand that politicians fully fund public schools so that teachers have the resources they need to facilitate learning in their classrooms.
Help to advocate for public education (because it is the foundation of our democracy) and support your school districts when they make their needs known to the public.
Include teachers with a wide variety of perspectives and life experiences in decision-making and, for the love of all that is holy, listen! (I’m looking at you administrators, BOEs, and politicians.) Teachers are the most uniquely positioned to share how policy impacts the students in their classrooms and this—in addition to their expertise—makes their voices extremely important in decision making (as well as the voices of students).
Insist that teachers have high quality training on critical race theory to prepare them to be anti-racist educators so that they are equipped to facilitate tough conversations in their classrooms—and support them in their efforts to engage in anti-racist practices rather than politicizing their efforts to do so.
Finally, and most importantly, trust teachers as professionals—as the experts they are—to do their jobs. Much like you would your own doctors.
Lindsey L. Jensen is the 2018 Illinois Teacher of the Year and the 2020 National Education Association Foundation for Teaching Excellence Illinois Awardee. She is Vice-President of the Illinois State Teachers of the Year Chapter, and she serves on the Illinois State Board of Education State Preparation and Licensure Board as an Illinois Education Association Representative. Lindsey is a Teach ...