Seven Thoughts on Education Policy


I created the eCard above and somehow it went viral. It's not all that clever or really all that funny. But somehow it struck a nerve. In the process, a teacher at my school e-mailed it to the staff and another teacher, in passing, said, "I really don't like when teachers post political stuff on staff e-mail. Actually, I don't think we should be getting involved in politics at all. Maybe privately, but not publicly."

It left me with some lingering questions: Should teachers advocate for or against policy? Is teaching inherently political? What do we gain and lose from political neutrality? Is it okay for teachers to talk politics in the staff lounge? In a staff e-mail?

Here are my all-over-the-place thoughts:

  1. Be an Advocate: Teachers need to advocate for or against education policies. There's a myth that we can just shut up and focus on our classrooms. However, the way we teach, what we teach, how the classes are organized, etc. all stem from codified policies. We need to offer an educated stance on policy issues and prove that nuance and intelligence can be more effective than fear and talking points. 
  2. Share the Human Side: Some of the hardest policies aren't directly education-related. I've seen what a broken immigration system has led to among my students. I'm most likely to alienate fellow teachers when I mention social and political issues that affect my students. However, I've learned that people will listen if I can share the human side of the issues. 
  3. The Context is Tricky: I tend to stay politically neutral on-site. I rarely get into education policy among colleagues when I'm hanging out in the staff lounge. However, I wonder what's lost in being neutral. 
  4. Offer Solutions: It's important to criticize bad education policies. However, we need to share things that will work as well. For example, in criticizing homework, I also offer some potential solutions, such as extracurricular academics, making homework optional and expanding tutoring. 
  5. Attack Policies, Not People: I've made this mistake often in my attacks on Arne Duncan and Michelle Rhee. However, the real issue isn't whether or not they are good people, but whether or not their policies are helping kids. 
  6. Local Influence: It's easier to criticize national education policy than it is to criticize local policy. If I hate Success Maker (which I do) or a lesson plan format, I hate to be careful on how I express myself. It's easy for it to come across as insubordination. However, there are often channels that will allow for feedback. Sometimes it means joining a committee or talking one-on-one with a leader. But the local level is often where  you have the most influence. 
  7. We're All on a Journey: The truth is that I'm a hypocrite. I am against the test and yet I proctor it anyway. I claim that listening is important and yet I am too quick to advocate my solutions without listening to others. So, I'm left with the thought that I need to show grace toward those who are buckling under the pressure of the system or staying too quiet or buying into the company line too quickly. 


John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler.
He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard
and the co-founder of Write About .

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