Sunday, September 24, 2017

HOW TO BE HEARD -- or Reading is Complicated When You Make Connections

I am intrigued when a book reconnects me to favorite activists, to my own writing, and to concerns I’ve struggled with for most of my career. Celine Coggins is founder and former CEO of Teach Plus – more about them later. Her book, How To Be Heard: 10 Lessons Teacher Need to Advocate for their Students and Profession is that book. My National Board trainer, brilliant advocate, Nancy Flanagan, and my online friend, Doug Martin, author of a cautionary tale about education in my home state of Indiana, have prior experience with Coggins’ work. Their insights put Coggins' book into context for me, and expand my understanding well beyond these pages.

The ‘big idea’ that brings all this together in my eclectic mind is teacher leadership. Nancy has written often and well about teacher leadership sometimes being nothing but cleverly-constructed ‘teacher management’ – using the name and credibility of a respected educator to promote others’ agenda (Notice the fact that Nancy refers to Coggins in her post).  She points it out, and she challenges the concept thoughtfully and reflectively.  Her piece inspired me to think about the ways I’ve been managed in the past.

I was drawn to the book because I know I need to become a better advocate for schools and students and families…I’m missing the boat somehow. When I visit with legislators one-on-one I ask them for advice about advocating, and I get advice like, build relationships, bring your passion, focus on issues not personalities. OK…I can do that. I’m a teacher. But there’s got to be more.

How to be Heard has a kernel of what I’m searching for. Educators and legislators use the same words, but mean something completely different, and we must recognize that fact, and use it. “Equity” for teachers is making sure every student has an opportunity to thrive in our classrooms, and in our schools. For policy makers, it means systems are in place that might close the achievement gap; it means improving teacher quality in some measurable way (read test scores).

When we use “students” or “kids”, we can conjure up a sea of individual faces, our kids. Our classes. We are advocating for those students. Policy makers, because their sphere of influence is so much larger, these same words have an abstract, generic meaning. Their “kids” are all the students in the state, or in their district. Educators who advocate should be aware of that shift of meaning, and know it goes with the territory.

Coggins also analyzes other language differences between educators and legislators – our knowledge base (content, management, development vs. research on systems, rules of education policy), our influences (direct vs. indirect), the process we focus our attention on (inputs vs. outcomes), levers for change (relationships vs. legislation), our vision of professional success (impacting lives vs. re-election), and the pressures we encounter (scarcity of time, factors outside our classroom, and the needs of our students, vs. resource scarcity, a desire to measure accountability, and that equity I described above). Teachers are practitioners; policy makers are social scientists and researchers.
This, I think, is the piece that was new learning for me…and important for me to think about as I work with legislators.

When we understand policy makers’ concern with scarce resources, we understand how teacher salaries seems to be the most useful variable in forcing change. In any district’s budget, teacher salaries make up the majority of dollars spent. That is why we’ve seen such a push to do away with the traditional teacher salary schedules, to add schemes to pay teachers for high student test scores. Legislators are tinkering with the largest lever they have.

One more part of Coggins’ message I will enfold into my advocacy is the idea of coming with solutions. I need to come to conversations with ideas, a ‘third’ way to help solve the issues and problems facing education policy makers. Have ideas, not just “No”. I often enter the process after the legislation has been written, too late to have influence. I feel like I’m always behind the curve. I need to be involved earlier in the process. I need to bring education research to conversations to help craft legislation, not use the research after the bills are presented to show how bad they are. Easier said…

Coggins' ideas of advocating from a position of limited power,  a position when I am building power are useful: learn patience, help find that new plan, meet one-on-one, be creative, write and research, build coalitions. As I look at that list of actions, I see the work that teachers do every day. We are the experts, and we have the skills to reach out to influence policy. We need to remember this.

One of Coggins’ ten rules is this: “Accountability is inescapable.” I agree, and support that…but part ways with her when she says testing will always be a part of accountability, even as she admits that testing is broken. She suggests educators help policy makers make ‘better’ tests…I need her to spend more time talking about broken tests, and broken accountability based on broken tests. She fully supports the idea that achievement tests measure learning, a typical policy-maker stance. 

She believes teachers should be evaluated on student test scores, on value-added measures. She believes that incentive pay should be based on student test scores. She believes that student attendance should be used in accountability measures for schools. She believes teachers associations should be challenged, and sees her work as the catalyst. She seems to side with disruptions that seem to benefit education reformers.

Her examples of how her teacher leaders have participated in policy making gave me that twitch between my shoulder blades that I always feel when I’m being managed. It seemed like her teacher leaders came to the conclusions policy makers is it leadership? Or managed teachers?
Her vision of ‘teacher leadership’ really seems to be that managed leadership Nancy talked about. It’s ‘we have the good ideas, and when you come onboard, we’ll let you talk about these great ideas. We’ll use your reputation and your credibility to sell our idea.’

Here is where my friend Doug’s work comes in – here, and here linking Coggins’ work with Bill Gates. Her stances are suspiciously similar to Gates' goals for disruptive reform. Doug’s book Hoosier School Heist is one of the most important books I’ve read about how ideological school reform can affect our students. She and her ‘teacher leaders’ used Gates money to write legislation that changed teacher employment practices in Indiana.

In my mine, she is a managed teacher herself. She’s bought into reformers’ narratives about schools and teachers. Her work at Teach Plus seems to be focused on creating more managed teacher leaders who will go out and preach her message, funded by Bill Gates’ grants.  Go back to that list of her beliefs, and connect the dots with Gates money.

She begins and ends her book with the power of stories…and this is where we both are on the same page. Her first rule is ‘Advocacy begins with your WHY,’ without crediting Simon Sinek’s book,  Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.  In my work with teachers, I will ask them to begin here…and, I’d love to ask policy makers their WHY. This could build those relationships educators need to be successful advocates.  Her tenth lesson is, “Your story has to meet the moment,” and she includes tips about creating your story, and using it to build your credibility. So, we agree about stories’ power.

We also agree with her ninth lesson, but my point of view is much more cynical. “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” I can’t help but think she’s carefully grooming her teacher leaders to be at the table as the entrée. That they’ll agree with and support policy makers’ views without challenging. I don’t want to be at the table in this scenario.

Bottom line? I’m still looking for a book that will show me how to take my reputation and my credibility to the table and hold on tightly to them both, and not relinquish them as the price of admission. Does anyone have some ideas?

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