Steve Zemelman, Illinois Writing Project

 Chicago is a scrappy place for education these days.

Teacher strikes, school closings, new standards, new standardized tests, new teacher evaluations, too much testing, unequal resources between neighborhoods, charters vs. traditional school advocates, increasing childhood poverty, lack of recognition for schools that are doing well, reduced resources overall–so where are teacher voices in all of this?

Some teachers speak out bravely. Some complain angrily. Some moan mainly to each other. What we lack is a wider sharing with the public about effective classrooms where teachers are creative and inspiring and where kids are engaged and learning in depth. Teachers feel undervalued, misunderstood, not heard. Yet it’s not in the tradition of teaching in America to sound our horns in public.

Increasingly, though, some educators are calling for more exercise of teachers’ voices. And teachers can begin simply and effectively by telling their stories – not complaining about challenges we face, real as those can be, but telling what our classrooms are like, at our best. Without this understanding, it’s impossible for citizens, parents, or policy-makers to know how to support our work. If we want people to understand and value what we do, it’s up to us to tell them. Think of this as “building our brand.” That’s what Coca-Cola does; it’s what Ford Motor Co. does. And in America, that’s what we must do.

(Note for hurried readers: Of course I want you to hear all my reasoning. But if you already agree with me and are short of time right now, I still want you to go to the end to see what I’m asking – namely for teachers, as well as appreciative parents, to write your own great classroom story and send it to me to see about getting it into print.)

Wonder whether teachers’ stories can really get heard? Here are a few excellent examples from other parts of the country:

  • Teachers connected with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project provide monthly feature articles for the Hampshire Gazette, a local newspaper there. The teacher who facilitates this says that area superintendents love it.
  • University of Georgia Professor Peter Smagorinsky writes portraits of outstanding teachers, published regularly by journalist Maureen Downey in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
  • Atlanta TV station WXIA features a weekly video portrait of an excellent teacher, nominated by parents and moderated by reporter Donna Lowry


Building public trust

We’re not saying that all schools are wonderful and all teachers excellent. We know there are struggling, alienated, burned-out teachers in some places, and schools that have become dysfunctional organizations. But improving them means not simply judging and firing teachers–and where would all those supposedly better teachers come from, anyway?–but helping them, starting with a clear view of what a great classroom looks like, in its many forms and styles. It means understanding a school as a complex social organization where each adult influences the others – rather than just a disconnected collection of separate classrooms. And we can best start on this with our stories.

Certainly unions and teachers organizations can contribute to this informing, this education of the public. But while these groups play an important part, unfortunately their voices are too often perceived as “special interests.” However, when large numbers of individuals speak out from their own experiences and expertise, change can begin to happen.

True, the positive approach I propose will not solve all of our problems in education. But if it helps build public trust and support, it will lay the groundwork.

Now, there are obstacles to teachers speaking out more publicly, even when speaking positively:

  • Lack of specific skills. Writing effectively in public forums, on blogs and websites, in newspapers, requires particular kinds of rhetorical skill that many of us have not had an opportunity to learn.
  • Lack of time. A teacher’s first responsibility is of course to his or her students. The work is intense in any educational setting. Most non-educators, having no idea how intense, are shocked, if they change careers, when they first step into the classroom. And with new mandates, larger class sizes, and little time for planning or collaboration, teachers are more stressed than ever.
  • Fear of administrative reprisal. Many teachers worry they’ll anger their principal if they go public in any way, except perhaps through informational messages to parents. This worry may or may not be justified in specific schools or situations.
  • Believing no one will listen. Some teachers have described attempts to communicate in their schools on some issues, only to be rebuffed, or worse, ignored. Others feel that decisions are made by powerful voices with money and influence, leaving them helpless.

New strategies from organizers

However, some of us have been learning from community organizers, who, having faced similar obstacles in many struggles over the recent course of American history, have learned how to overcome them. (I’d like to especially credit Kim Zalent at Business and Professional People for the Public Interest, an organizer with whom I worked for several years, for what I’ve learned about this.) Organizers have explicit training in how to strategically inform and energize people, and how to thoughtfully exert influence in a community or organization.

Here are some strategies I’ve learned from this thinking: 

  • Hold one-on-one discussions with key people – the principal, supportive fellow teachers, active parents – not to argue for specific actions, but to build trust as a basis for later collaboration. Talk with teachers who are like-minded so you aren’t acting alone. But also meet with and listen to people who don’t see things your way.
  • Build connections with parents, community members, and groups by finding common ground, involving them in the school, and visiting them on their turf. People outside the school can often be more believable spokespersons for your work than you.
  • Document meaningful data about students’ learning in your classroom, to concretely show the important learning that takes place.
  • Get your message out through newspaper articles, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, e-mail, letters to parents, etc. Craft messages to share ideas positively. Messages must be well-crafted so we don’t become defensive or self-serving.

I’ll share just a few thoughts on the first strategy for now. It’s not directly about speaking out publicly, but creates the base for it. Ask almost any organizer about his or her most valuable tool, and you’ll be told: “The one-on-one meeting.” When you sit down with an individual over coffee, not in a public forum, it becomes possible to non-defensively exchange stories about how you came to the work you do, what each of you values, and how you think about your situation. Doing this even briefly, but repeatedly, with a principal can build trust and understanding. Then later on when you approach him or her about writing an article on good things happening in your classroom or the school, the principal can trust your motives.

For more detail on the strategies I’ve outlined, plus good examples of teachers’ public writings, check out my website, .

So here’s the point: I’ve talked with a number of news editors and reporters in the area who are strongly interested in teachers’ stories. I urge teachers – or parents, principals, or interested community members – to write and send me, through the website, stories about vivid moments of great teaching and learning. I can work to get some of them published in local newspapers and/or online. (This could include Catalyst Chicago, we hope, but also more general media.) I’ll be happy, too, to give feedback to writers who wish it. I’m not just seeking the nodding of heads here. I want action.

Steve Zemelman

Director, Illinois Writing Project

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