Saturday, September 7, 2013

My Name is Claudia and I'm a "Managed Teacher"

“A book is meant to be read, but to haunt you, to importune you like a lover, or a parent, to stick in your teeth like a piece of gristle” —Anatole Broyard

Blogs can do the same. My friend Nancy Flanagan wrote a piece months ago that has haunted me, and forced me to examine my career with new eyes. I’m eternally grateful. She wrote about ‘teacher management,’ the fake invitation to educators to work toward education policy. She gave examples of teachers in her home state being manipulated by the press or policy makers. Manipulated by using the teachers’ good name, reputation, integrity, credibility, to support the policy makers’ point of view.
This struck home for me as I looked back on 39 years of teaching, working with education leaders, trying to make a difference in the bigger world outside my classroom. I came to the ugly realization that I’d been managed plenty of times, and I was able to see once I became vocal, my worth as a managed teacher disappeared, as did ‘opportunities’ to participate in the work outside my classroom.

It went like this: principals needed a group of teachers to go to a conference, participate in professional development and share with the faculty, serve on this committee or that committee. The teachers asked to do this were teachers who had strong reputations in and outside their classes. They had that credibility with their peers. They were known to work hard for positive changes in the profession. I was honored to be included in this group, active and vocal for the changes and reforms my bosses were pushing…Outcome Based Education? I was there. Learning Styles? I came back and did workshops. Reading in the Content area? You bet. Ruby Payne? I was a trainer. Blue Ribbon application committee? I did the writing. Student Leadership Groups? I was the sponsor. I’ve written here about reform fatigue, but didn’t understand it for what it was: manipulation fatigue.

One of my principals knew the right button to push: “Claudia, the kids need you to do this.” And I was sunk…didn’t matter how busy I was, the kids needed me.

Then, after I got vocal about education reform, found like-minded friends online and in professional groups, those opportunities began to dry up. I was actually invited by our State Department to be part of a cadre of teacher-trainers to barnstorm the state giving presentations on Common Core – I was going to reserve my concerns and see if I couldn’t learn to love CCSS. Well, I heard from a friend who worked in the SDE that people read the programs, saw my name, and had a great laugh. I’d been highly critical of our new Superintendent, and had shared my criticism far and wide. My friend laughed at the idea of the new Superintendent having to introduce me at the conferences as a presenter. I contacted the woman who invited me…managed me…used my credibility and integrity to bolster the reputation of the conferences, and sent her some of my public writings. I gave her the opportunity to ‘uninvite’ me if she felt my presence would harm her standing in the office. I was uninvited.

Those other opportunities to be a teacher leader – read ‘manipulated teacher’ – began to dry up. Other teachers were invited to go to this workshop and that one. This conference and that conference. It wasn’t until I read Nancy’s blog that I realized my usefulness to reformers and education leaders who have to play nice with reformers was at an end. I’d damaged myself in their eyes by being opinionated, loud. I hadn’t played nice. I’d spoken up. And the price I paid was no more invitations.

I saw those invitations for what they really were…an attempt to legitimize reforms with my name and my reputation. Shoring up their plans with my and other teachers’ credibility. Ours were the friendly faces that allowed the salesmen to get in the door. They pretended to be equal partners with us, but they were using us.
I know why I jumped at these ‘opportunities’ and I can guess other teachers felt the same. I loved my job. I didn’t want to leave the classroom, but I wanted to contribute to the profession. I wanted to continue to learn, to share what I’d learned with my students and my colleagues. The way to do that, I felt, was to participate in those ‘teacher leadership’ opportunities. I could lead from the classroom. I could make a contribution to my profession, I could be a teacher leader while staying true to my commitment to my students.

I was played. Big time. I stood up for New Math, for Multiple Intelligences, for OBE, for Framework of Poverty. I played the good soldier. And as each of these fell out of favor, or was repudiated, my credibility took a hit…but I plugged along.

Until I didn’t.

I see now, with the wisdom of hindsight, how slick the manipulation was…how I wasn’t a partner, a leader. I was a pawn. I was the token teacher…the classroom practitioner who lent my good name to someone else’s projects. I was the frontman...the face of the trusted neighborhood teacher, know my many in the community. And I was left holding the bag when these ‘someone elses’ lost interest, got distracted by the next shiny, new idea.

As I look at the current landscape, no longer a manipulated teacher, I see the next field of play: Common Core. Anthony Cody proved without a doubt that teachers were frozen out of the process of creating the Standards. We weren’t important enough to be partners at that point in the process, but teachers are being beckoned into the process of implementation. ‘Reformers’ are holding seminars, conferences, state and national meetings. Teachers are being invited to planning sessions for CCSS. They are invited to prepare presentations for other teachers – to be the face of Common Core. Even though we had no hand in the writing or the planning for Common Core, now the ‘reformers’ need us. Now we have to take the mess and make it work in the classroom. Now teachers are being included…uh, managed…to implement.
Too often teachers who are invited into the process end up taking the blame when this reform, and that one, bomb. Reformers seem to be severely ADD, and can’t stay with an idea long enough to give teachers…and teacher leaders…enough time to make things work. And too often when this happens, teachers are the ones blamed for the failure.

I fear for my friends who are being managed; I hope they enter this bargain with strong skepticism, and an escape plan. I know ‘reformers’ are using them, using their credibility, their integrity, their passion for their profession, to hawk CCSS. I know my friends will be in the classroom, with students, long after the 'reformers' have pointed fingers and left for greener pastures.

So, what's a teacher supposed to do? These 'opportunities' often come with great opportunity to learn, to return to the classroom invigorated by new ideas. I would never suggest teachers turn down these invitations. Only go into them forearmed with the truth that our ultimate motivations are very different. They want to manipulate us; we want to find something important to take back to our classrooms. They want to turn a profit; we want to turn a student's heart and mind.

My beloved National Board and National Writing Project have been bought and paid for by Pearson and Bill Gates. Does that mean I stop participating in these two worthy projects? Never. It just means I approach with the knowledge that someone may be trying to use me. Since I know that, I can choose not to be used. I approach these encounters with my own goals, and, remember what that blow-hard, Polonius said, 'To thine own self be true."

One of the many reasons I treasure my profession is the friendships and relationships I've forged. One such treasure is my friend, Michale Gentry. She has taught two of my granddaughters, and we have one more who needs her. Michale has a way of seeing the big picture, and the little one framed therein. " Reformers can steal advanced degrees, stipends, titles, programs, funding, public school reputations...but no one can take the joy or the good, deep, authentic and creative spin we put on whatever lesson, reform,program, class, or piece of the big machine we touched. Going forward, we'll be wiser...think of all we've learned."

We learn when we participate. We choose where we lend our name and integrity. We must look carefully at these partners and keep our own name and integrity intact through these endeavors. 

I was lucky to leave the profession with only minor scars from my run-ins with teacher managers…I hope for my younger colleagues don’t suffer any more than I did, and that their eyes are opened to the dangers sooner than mine were.

Nancy’s final paragraph is important:

"Way too much of what passes for dialogue and scholarship around teachers' professional work has been managed, packaged and sold as authentic. It's not teacher leadership or advocacy. It's slick marketing, using the friendly faces of teachers."


  1. Polonious was a blow-hard, wasn't he? (smiling)

    Thanks for delineating the "teacherpreneur" syndrome beautifully and in such detail. And your friend Michele is right--they can't take away 39 years of teaching and touching kids.

    My experience over the past four decades is that the reformer-users are getting more clever about taking teachers' ideas and good names. The language ("Opportunity Culture," for example) is upbeat--"We want to know what teachers think!"-- but in the end, teachers are still objects of, not partners in, reform.

    Well-done, Claudia.

  2. It always cracks me up that Polonius actually DOES say something profound! :)

    I remember a student who said, "Mrs. Swisher, I'm trying to BS it working?" To which I replied, "I'm 'snowing' you faster than you'll ever be able to 'snow' me, so don't think I'm not wise."

    There's the whole conflict in a nutshell...we're being BSed...IF we realize it and go into the encounters knowing they'll try to use us, we're already ahead of the game.

    Michale is a genius and I rely on her clearheadedness all the time, as I do yours.

    Thank you for making me think and be honest with myself and reflect on my career!