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Public School Teachers: It's Time to Speak Up


I'd like to make an argument that might sound self-serving, or even audacious, but which is actually quite defensible, and, I would argue, indisputable:

Public school teachers are the linchpin of the American Dream.

Your reaction to that statement probably has a lot to do with your background, your career, and maybe even your political beliefs. Some of you will zero in on the word "public," and notice that it excludes private school teachers. This is intentional, but not because private school teachers aren't important. It's intentionally exclusive because private schools aren't accessible to everyone, and universal accessibility is crucial to the American Dream.

Others of you might focus on the word "linchpin," and think I'm over-stating the case. You might agree that public school teachers play an important role, but you might disagree that their role is essential. Or, you might argue teaching is one of many professions that are important to the realization of the American Dream. You might be right, but I think public school teachers have the strongest case.

Some of you will stumble over the last part of the sentence, and think in your mind about all of the ways that the American Dream has felt like a myth throughout our country's history. Why even talk about an "American Dream" when there are so many examples of egregious inequality in the pages of American history? If that's your response then please take a moment to remember that you are reading a blog about teaching, and teaching is a profession that literally cannot exist without optimism, without hope that the future can be better.

So, now that I've parried any immediate reactions, let me make my case.

First, let me explain what I mean by the "American Dream." I am referring to the fairly remarkable idea that America can be a place where anyone, even a child born into the toughest of circumstances, has the opportunity to work hard and achieve great success.

The key here is the word "anyone." That's why public schools are so important. Some schools, many of them great schools, are only accessible to kids who win a lottery -- either a literal enrollment lottery, or the figurative lottery of being born into a family with a certain income level. Children in our society have a right to a place in their local public school, regardless of how much money their families have. In America, no one is guaranteed success, but everyone is guaranteed access to an education.

Now, how important is that education? I mean, we've got the internet now! Perhaps that eliminates the need for public schools. First off, the internet isn't free and access isn't universal. Secondly, while there are certainly cases of tech zillionaires who dropped out of college, the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world wouldn't have succeeded if they didn't know how to read; if they didn't know basic math skills. Public schools ensure every child learns to read and solve equations. And furthermore, those tech zillionaires are ushering in a world where computer literacy is an essential skill. Many children don't have the opportunity to use computers -- much less program them -- except in their public schools.

Public schools are open to everyone, and they teach the skills everyone needs in order to have the success envisioned in the American Dream. Without public schools, many children simply would not have anything close to a fair shot at achieving the American Dream.

Put another way, without public schools, the American Dream is impossible.

If public schools are the cornerstone of the American Dream, then public school teachers are the bricks built up around that cornerstone. Public schools literally cannot function without public school teachers. And if public school teachers fail, then the American Dream fails.

Now, some of you reading this might be thinking that this post is making a rather obvious, almost quaint, point. It might be obvious, but it needs to be stated. Over and over again. Loudly.

If you believe in the American Dream, then you need to understand that it can't be a reality absent a concerted effort to uphold the institutions that enable the dream to exist. And even if you think the American Dream has always been a myth, you still ought to want the American Dream to be a reality. If you do, you need to support strong public schools and public school teachers.

Too often, we pretend like the American Dream is some kind of autonomous spirit that will always exist. It's not. It's an ideal our country came up with, and which will live and die based on the real-world policy decisions we make. If we don't support public schools, if we don't adequately fund them, if we don't revere them, then we will lose the American Dream.

Last week, I attended a conference of teacher leaders from across the State of South Dakota. One of the things we talked about was the lack of teacher voices in the public discourse. Our voices aren't heard because we don't always speak up for ourselves, and because our lawmakers rarely ask us for the view from the front lines. Why don't we speak up for ourselves? One reason is that we're extremely busy forming our next generation of leaders. But it's also because we don't feel like we should have to speak up. We're doing good work -- critically important work -- and it doesn't seem right that we should have to self-promote. Shouldn't people just respect us because the work we're doing is so obviously important? Yes, they should. But too many people don't. Or, at least, they say they do but they don't support policies that support us.

So, let's stop taking for granted that teachers will be supported because teachers do good work. I know it's uncomfortable for many of us to advocate for ourselves, but if we don't speak up for ourselves, it's the children who will lose out. If we don't speak up for ourselves, solid pedagogy will be obscured by standardized testing. If we don't speak up for ourselves, public school funding will be funneled to schools that aren't accessible to every child. If we don't speak up for ourselves, the success of our public education system will be drowned out by headlines about the few-and-far-between "failing" public schools. If we don't speak up for ourselves, our public school system will be dismantled.

If we allow the dismantling of public education, we teachers can find other jobs and we can get by. But without a healthy public education system, what will our children do? How will the next generation achieve the American Dream? Maybe the better question is, to which country will they go to find opportunity?

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