By Jim Barnhill
Let’s face it. We are all exhausted from the education wars between education reformers and teachers. It’s time to end the polarized debates and find a new way to dialogue. This is not going to happen in the current climate unless we all do something radical. The ongoing battle has had harsh consequences in districts around the country, as evidenced by massive school closures, attacks on collective bargaining, and an unprecedented testing-industrial-complex. Caught in the middle of it all are kids of color in the ever-widening opportunity gap. The longer labor and management fights, the more students suffer. But they aren’t the only ones because we all suffer with them. Every player in the education conversation—teachers, administrators, board members, reformers, and community activists—has handed out and been on the receiving end of verbal bullying, hostility and misrepresentation. We all say we are on the side of students, but are we willing to put down our agendas just long enough to listen to one another?
Before I became a teacher, I worked in family counseling. In any family conflict, identifying one person as the “sick” individual is a recipe for family stagnation and dysfunction. Focusing on the one person allows the rest of the family to deny any responsibility for the overall patterns of dysfunction. Worse, when a family tries to force that “sick” member to change, it often backfires miserably. And so it goes with our education debates. Depending on who writes the article or who testifies before the legislature or who rises to speak, a “patient” is often identified in the debate. It might be the bad teacher, the incompetent district administration, the uninvolved parent, the self-interested teachers union, or the corporate-backed education foundation. However, when we talk about each other in such a way we create resistance to change and make it nearly impossible for others to hear our very real concerns. In effect, we all become tone deaf.
There seems to be no shortage of blame and shame going around, or an end to efforts to force change through legislation, contracts and local elections. The inability to see that we are all a part of an interdependent system ‑ with mutual responsibility for the failures and the solutions in education ‑ is a communal failure for our children. The way forward must start with an acceptance of our mutual responsibility for the education of our children and a focus on how we can change our part of the system. Put simply, the more time we spend pointing fingers at the “sick” member of the system, the more polarized we will become.
The Way Forward
It’s not an easy thing to do, but we won’t see an improvement in the quality of our national dialogue until educators and our unions take the unilateral step of naming our responsibility for the improvement of public education. For example, as a teacher in this multicultural society, I must be culturally competent in my classroom. I need to be aware of the positive and negative ways in which my teaching impacts the diverse students in my multi-national classroom. I also must be aware of, embrace and implement research-based teaching methodologies without remaining stuck in techniques that are past their prime. Moreover, I have to learn to become a collaborative teacher. Gone are the days when I can just teach behind closed doors in the ways I see fit. Today’s profession requires that we collaborate with teams of educators, and support one another in the goal of improving our craft.
My responsibility does not end in the classroom. Like so many of us, I have more than one role in education.
As a union member, I have to ask if we as teachers are willing to hold ourselves to the highest standards of the profession by asking for support when I need it, offering support when others need it, and embracing a fair evaluation process as a path for professional growth. Knowing how important it is to communities of color that their children also be taught by teachers from their own race or culture, I have to be willing to find ways to help our district attract and retain a racially and ethnically diverse workforce. I will also stand up for my profession and remind others that the best and brightest teachers come to and stay in this profession when we pay them enough to provide for their own families.
As the parent of three children in public schools, I will read to them nightly, volunteer in their schools, and offer homework support. For the sake of equity, I will also advocate for those schools that need more resources in communities with greater needs. I will assume responsibility as a taxpayer to write my elected officials urging them to sufficiently fund public education so schools don’t have to rely on Target or General Mills Box Tops to pay for critically important programs.
Responsibility for the improvement of education in our country is in everyone’s hands. By accepting our own responsibility for finding solutions for improved educational outcomes, we are not accepting all of the blame for what ails our schools. We are, however, creating the climate in which others can start to own up to their own responsibility for this very complicated public good. In this way, we stand a chance of breaking out of polarized education debates for the sake of our children.
Jim Barnhill is a special education teacher at South High School in Minneapolis, Minn. He’s a member of the Minnesota Board of Teaching and served as the Recording Secretary of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers #59 from 2008-2012. He was a member of the VIVA Minneapolis II Writing Collaborative on teacher evaluation.