In an effort to promote my writing, I created a Twitter account. I didn’t feel great about doing so. I’d been avoiding social media. Getting started turned out to be more or less painless. After I got over my petty hang-ups about Twitter being a cauldron of vanity and insincerity, I discovered a connected community of warm, welcoming educators. I met teachers who described themselves as passionate, dedicated, and creative. I anticipated this. Similarly, I expected many of them to be positive and outgoing, eager to share ideas and promote effective tools and programs. Most of those I met exemplified this. What I didn’t expect was to find a burgeoning army of educator-activists. Without seeking them, I found hundreds of teachers claiming to be rebels and radicals. This struck me, because I’d never thought of teachers as being either.
Social media has helped open my eyes to trends I hadn’t otherwise noticed. Not noticing had much to do with the insular nature of where I worked. I spent most of my career working for a dysfunctional school district. The school at which I taught was somewhat of an oasis, but I wouldn’t say it was at the cutting-edge of contemporary education. It had ample technology, but methodology was specific to the highly needy and atypical population. Many currently popular practices just weren’t appropriate for these students. Consequently, I often dismissed trends after giving them perfunctory consideration.
The concerns of teachers around me were immediate to their situations. Those who worked in the building with me tended to concern themselves with issues limited to the physical needs of students, which were exceptional to say the least. Teachers were more concerned with keeping parents happy than they were with overarching issues in education. As the special education liaison in this school, I spent my days fretting over compliance issues rather than contemplating anything more esoteric. Across the district, primary concerns among teachers were the lack of a contract, the possibility of schools closing, and the real threat of getting assaulted by students. Everyone feared getting cut from their schools or laid off. No one trusted administration. Concerns were very here and now.
During my last few years, I’ll admit being so jaded that I deliberately tucked my head in the sand and ignored national trends. Looking at the field from the outside and through the lens of social media, I’m getting to see some of what I’ve missed. Apparently, teachers have been growing increasingly irate. I’d always thought of teachers as being somewhat of a whiny bunch, but what I’m seeing now is outright anger among them. I’m accustomed to complaints about working conditions. Such complaints often prompted me to sigh and roll my eyes. I’m accustomed to criticisms of paperwork and even testing. Among my peers, these had rarely gone deeper than lamentations over volume. What I’m seeing among educators nationwide is more pronounced. Teachers aren’t just exhausted and annoyed. They’re ballistic and demanding change.
The venom seems to be directed towards corporate-sponsored educational reform. Much of it is focused on standards and related high-stakes testing. Teachers have united with parents and advocates under the opt-out banner. Ubiquitous opposition is thriving against almost any federally mandated or corporate-backed initiative. Educators across districts and states are vehemently opposing charters, vouchers, and anything resembling the monetization of education. I knew some ire had been brewing, but this organized opposition developed without me noticing.
The phenomenon intrigues me most at the individual level. Many teachers have aligned themselves with branded movements. The teachers doing so describe themselves as being something akin to insurgents. Some claim to be lateral thinkers. Others state they are revolutionaries. A few teachers insist they will do anything to make their voices heard and to defend public education. A few go so far as to say they are pissed off and not going to take it anymore, whatever “it” is. All of this oppositional energy surprises me.
As a teenager, I thought of teachers as perfect examples of conformist drones. To me, they symbolized everything I questioned about adulthood. My angst-ridden teenage mind wanted nothing to do with the complacent lives the adults around me led. Teachers in particular appeared to seek the safest, most stable possible path to earning a living. They had job security, routine, and no need to do anything daring. Teaching seemed like the opposite of a career for a radical thinker. Beyond any of this, teachers were authority figures. How radical could they be if they were part of the faceless establishment?
Age and maturity altered my perception, but experience reinforced some of what I’d thought in my youth. The teachers I’ve known haven’t exactly been rabble-rousers. My high school teachers led banal lives, at least as far as I knew. The prospective teachers I met in college partied like typical college students, but their interests and desires were portraits of middle-class status quo. Most of my actual professional colleagues have been dedicated and effective educators. However, I’d describe precious few of them as rebels of any sort. The ones who have been oppositional have also lived slightly unorthodox lives. The bulk of teachers I’ve known have lived lives filled with cars and televisions, children and soccer practices. They’ve been provincial and traditional, occasionally complaining about their comfort, but far from bent on changing anything.
This probably still describes the majority of teachers. The aggravated ones I’ve found through social media represent those who feel angry enough to post their vitriol online. Social media tends to exaggerate trends this way by giving such a platform to those most driven to use it. I’ve chosen to follow some angry teachers, which leads me to discovering still more of them. Sites like Twitter fuel this tendency. Far more teachers are likely busy trying to earn their livings and raise their families. They aren’t concerned enough with large-scale trends to bother battling them. The self-described radicals probably would call these teachers sheep.
I might be seeing an unrepresentative sample, but the anger within it points to bitter undercurrents. Teachers are angry. They are at odds with administrators, district officials, and state departments of education. They are disillusioned with corporate interests invading education to an unprecedented degree. I’m not certain how widespread this really is, but it’s undeniably there.
My guess is a bandwagon has helped this anger spread. While most teachers I’ve met have been complacent, many also have been unusually emotional people. Current threats to education have elicited an emotional response. I think of teachers as followers every bit as much as I think of them as leaders. Seeing masses of teachers follow emotion-fueled trends seems fitting. The recycled rhetoric they use might demonstrate uniformity of voice, but also it might demonstrate subscription to trendy adult angst.
Despite what I’ve seen firsthand, history is filled with firebrand teachers. A new and vocal coterie is channeling the defiant educators of yore. Some teachers definitely are angry. People usually don’t get angry just so they can feel angry. Conditions are pushing teachers this direction. Maybe they feel cornered. I had felt cornered, but for different reasons. When I felt this way, I simply left. The teachers I’m meeting online seem poised to stay and fight.
I’m not clear what fighting will entail or accomplish. I suppose they can complain on social media and vote for political candidates they think will support their causes. While protesting corporate involvement in education, most will continue to permit corporate involvement in every other aspect of their lives (what they eat, what they wear, how they get electricity, etc.). At least these angry educators are digging in their heels and getting fired up where they feel it matters most. The image of a teacher as a rebel or radical will take some getting used to for me, but good for them. Maybe I’m less of a radical than they are.