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NLU taking a lead in 'Teacher Voice' movement

uploaded 10.5.12
October 4, 2012

by Mark Donahue

The public debate about education has become more heated than ever: from parents sparring with school boards, to politicians confronting unions about contracts, all the way up to presidential candidates giving their top-down views of what's best for American kids.

It seems more people than ever have a strong opinion about what teachers should be doing to increase student success. And lately it's often the teacher who is being portrayed as the problem — even the villain.

In response to this wave of "teacher bashing" in the U.S., two NLU professors — Steve Zemelman, Ph.D., adjunct and director of the Illinois Writing Project, and Harry Ross, Ph.D., associate professor in the secondary education program in the National College of Education (NCE) — are leading part of an effort around what they call "Teacher Voice." And they've launched a new Web site,, to help spread the word.

The idea is that teachers need to get their voices into local and national debates about education, letting the public know what they do and how that's helping children. In an atmosphere of increased finger-pointing, teachers must take on this task, Zemelman said. Even if they've never done it before.

"In previous generations teachers were highly respected; they didn't need to explain themselves," he said. "But we're in a culture and society now where marketing is essential. Everybody needs to have a brand, and strategies for doing this have not been part of teachers’ training. That means that other people end up controlling the conversation."

Seeds of a Movement

The idea of Teacher Voice isn't a new one, Zemelman said. Books from a decade ago touched upon the subject of teacher advocacy, and he and Ross wrote their own book — "13 Steps to Teacher Empowerment: Taking a More Active Role in Your School Community" (Heinemann, 2009) — which contained seeds for the work they're doing now.

Ross said that no matter the debate, teachers are often working against an old stereotype held by many that has long dogged the profession: that teachers go home at 3pm, have summers off and do all their work behind a closed door in front of students — as well as the "If you can't, teach" perception.

Many teachers have done a good job of strongly advocating for specific issues, but they haven't really informed the public about what teachers do on a day-to-day basis, Zemelman said. He and Ross are asking that when teachers begin to spread the message about their work, they focus on what happens in the classroom and the whole school community.

It's a deeper, more holistic view of teaching — one that goes beyond what's required on the standardized tests that have risen in importance in recent years. Teachers continue to help students develop life-success skills, such as persistence, which don't show up on any test.

Zemelman and Ross, along with many researchers, believe these more intangible — but essential — aspects of teaching get lost both in the larger debate about education and, more dangerously, when policy decisions are made that could adversely affect certain groups of students.

And though they admit negative policy changes more often hurt poorer students in struggling neighborhoods, the push for teachers to be heard isn't limited to big city school systems. Changing demographics in the suburbs can lead to new areas of need. And even prosperous suburbs have their challenges, Ross said, like when parents pressure administrators to make faculty concentrate on tested subjects — "teach to the test" — to ensure better college placement for their children.

A teacher's voice can easily be lost in this kind of wrangling. That's why Zemelman and Ross said it's more important than ever to get the word out. And do it in a strategic, sensible way.

Learning How

So how exactly do teachers get their voices heard?

One place to start is the excellent Teachers Speak Up site that Zemelman and Ross launched this past summer. Here teachers can find resources on ways to reach out to their school's administration and the greater community.

Strategies such as one-on-one meetings with principals and community leaders are borrowed directly from methods used by community organizers, Zemelman said. He was first exposed to this while responding to the undermining of Best Practice High School starting in 2004 — a small public school on Chicago's West Side that he helped to launch and that NLU extensively supported.

A meeting during Best Practice's final days with Kim Zalent, of Business and Professional People in the Public Interest, led to a subsequent three-year collaboration with the former community organizer during which Zemelman and Ross learned many strategies for public outreach that had never dawned upon them with their education backgrounds.

One key to Zalent's strategies — and now to Zemelman and Ross's — is for teachers to be proactive, inside and outside their schools.

"I think it's essential for teachers to speak out before they have an issue," Zemelman said. "And to tell their story and build relationships in the community, so that when they have an issue they have built understanding and support and will not just be seen as doing special pleading.

If the first time you talk to a principal is when you have a problem, you may be in trouble, Zemelman said. Instead, checking in every couple of weeks to talk to an administrator without an agenda can foster a healthy, continuous conversation built on trust.

Ross also saw how proactive action by teachers can work in the wider community. He cited how a decade ago teachers worked with community members in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago ahead of the opening of Social Justice High School (in 2005). Teachers asked what people in the neighborhood wanted out of the school for their kids, and after it opened, faculty stayed in constant contact with them. When Chicago Public Schools recently fired two popular Social Justice teachers, the community spoke out and the teachers were rehired. Ross said it took a long relationship-building process to get this kind of protection.

Zemelman believes that a multitude of such voices rising to one issue is powerful, but it becomes particularly meaningful when they are individual voices. He added that what really got him energized about moving the Teacher Voice idea forward was the reaction by thousands to the Susan G. Komen Foundation's announcement earlier this year that it was cutting its funding for Planned Parenthood. The outpouring of opposition stopped the Komen Foundation's plan. Zemelman wondered if teachers could do something similar.

Taking the Next Step

It's understandable that a teacher might feel hesitant to voice an opinion in a public forum, whether it's social media, a Web board or a letter to the editor. Building trust beforehand with school administration is key, Ross said, but teachers always need to double-check the message they're putting out there and proceed strategically.

"Our focus is more on telling your story, telling what it's like in your classroom, telling the needs that may be there but then the good work you're doing to meet those needs," Zemelman said. "It’s rare that a principal or administrator would hesitate to support that."

In contrast, Zemelman and Ross said that the recent Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike was an example of an opportunity to speak up that, while very much touching on the lives of teachers, runs on a different energy. It's heated, passionate and issue specific, with its own set of strong voices ready to take up the fight.

Zemelman and Ross are advocating the more even-tempered work that happens before and after such cathartic moments. They noted that Karen Lewis, the outspoken president of the CTU, did a lot of quiet behind-the-scenes cultivating of relationships with community groups up to two years ahead of the strike. This strategic, intentional action paid off in community support once the teachers hit the picket line.

Strategic relationship-building is key to any Teacher Voice campaign, Zemelman and Ross said. It's the glue that holds things together when greater stresses hit schools. Teachers must always be looking to cast as wide a net as makes sense for their efforts.

"Teachers need to start talking not just to their friends at the school, but to principals and other colleagues — and to do so without an agenda," Ross said. "They have to start by sitting down and finding out what they have in common in order to work toward their future goals."

Beyond this, teachers need fresh thinking, Zemelman said, as well as strategies for how to get their views into the public sphere and concrete examples of how others have done it before them. The challenge as always, he said, is getting the word out to teachers.

Spreading the Word

In addition to the new Web site, Zemelman and Ross have begun a series of podcasts and Webinars on the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) site. But the Internet is only one channel to spread the word, as both work to make connections in person at meetings and conferences. They'll be doing a session at the NCTE convention November 17 in Las Vegas.

Ross said his work on Teacher Voice has also informed his instruction of student teachers in his classes in the NCE. And he's received a grant with NLU professors Carlos Azcoitia and Brad Olson to propose strategies for advancing school-community collaboration in Little Village.

"What I'm trying to do is work on some of these skills that have not traditionally been taught in teacher education," Ross said. "It's important if you're going to be a teacher that you learn the skills of one-on-ones, developing networks, working with parents and community, so if you do have to organize to protect a school from destructive forces, you'll have laid the groundwork for it."

Zemelman and Ross stress that they can't possibly claim to represent the Teacher Voice movement in total, citing other organizations, such as VIVA Teachers and the New Teacher Center, that are working similar ground. The goal for all is to get strategies out to teachers and get them energized about having their voice heard. In the end, it's a group effort, and it could be argued that the direction of American education is at stake.

"This is a big country," Zemelman said. "This is about changing a set of cultural attitudes, and we're one little piece of this."


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