A few weeks ago I had the chance to grab breakfast with an Arkansas teacher’s union (AEA) leader. I chose an adult breakfast of coffee and a chocolate chip cookie, and as she waited for her egg and sausage sandwich to cool down, we began our trek down an unlikely conversation. A simple breakfast date between two educators may not seem extraordinary, except that according to those keeping tabs of a constantly swinging political pendulum, union people and charter people (I guess that’s me) don’t get along. We agreed to meet to share ideas and as she told me about her work advocating for teachers and her love for her students, I soon realized I was dining with a true ally.
She told me about her own challenges as a young mother trying to earn a college degree. Later as a special education teacher, she stepped up to the role of a political advocate for teachers. I asked her what made her take on such an incredibly tough job of navigating adult politics- her students, of course! I shared a story about Miguel, one of my former 9th grade students on the Mexican border in Brownsville, Texas. Showing up at school each day and attempting to graduate was a struggle for most students in our high school with a 55% drop out rate.
Miguel spent many lunch periods in my classroom making up work he quietly refused to do in class. This soft-spoken young man, hiding behind long bangs and shrugging shoulders, would sit in the last chair nearest the door- always positioned for a quick escape. After a few weeks, he began to tell me about stuff. All of the men in his family were behind bars. When I asked why he wouldn’t work in my class- he at once became the teacher. He looked me in the eye and explained that he didn’t belong in my class. He said that earlier that day in his English class, when the teacher used the word ‘paragraph’- he had no idea what she was talking about. He believed he had been passed on to the next grade each year since the 6th grade because no one wanted to ‘deal’ with him. There is no happy ending to my story about Miguel, he like countless others disappeared from class during the school year.
I shared this story with my colleague to highlight why we needed to create a new conversation about how to advocate for teachers and students. Just as my friend in the union wants to make sure teachers are protected, we need the same attitude about all students. We shouldn’t need to ‘protect’ dedicated and effective teachers- rather we must trust them, compensate them and get out of the way- that’s how they serve our students.
We need to ask ‘What about Miguel? We don’t need test scores to know when a teacher is in the profession for the right reasons. This is what we focus on- a new conversation about the value of the teaching profession and the students we need to prioritize – not politics. We must find, cultivate and support teachers who are leaders in their profession. Being an excellent teacher is one of the hardest jobs in the world. I know many of them and in a school full of excellent teachers, Miguel’s plight would be unacceptable.