Discussing education issues: Is being a teacher irrelevant?
Last February, there was a very lively discussion on this blog about what I described as the frustration teachers sometimes feel when discussing education with non-teachers. Matthew K. Tabor has had a couple of posts on this subject, but he takes it on from the opposite angle: he appears to be frustrated by being told that he is less qualified to discuss education issues because he isn't a teacher. Text Savvy also had a post on this subject. Matthew calls this a "truly excellent post on the irrelevance of being a teacher to contribute to education," and he includes Text Savvy's conclusion:
In my view, the conditions that exist in elementary and middle school education today–regardless of their exact nature or cause–serve to attract those most closely involved with it and those most directly affected by it away from inconvenient truths. So not only are non-teachers valuable to education criticism and reform, they are necessary prophets for an industry that can be frustratingly self-serving and unrepentant.
I have often argued that being a teacher gives one a feel for many education issues that others can't possibly have. I am not about to back off from that position. That does not mean, however, that I think that any argument any teacher makes is valid. And it definitely doesn't mean that the arguments and criticisms of non-teachers should be dismissed.
Speaking for myself, I can honestly say that whether or not one is a teacher does not determine how seriously I will take their views on education issues, or even on instruction methods. During the summer months, the education blog that I consistently turned to first every morning was Joanne Jacobs. Joanne is not a teacher. No book has influenced my views on education more than The Death of Common Sense by Philip K. Howard. Philip K. Howard is not a teacher. And amazingly, no one has influenced the little tweaks I've made in my teaching style over the last year more than KDerosa with his constant harping about Direct Instruction. KDerosa is definitely not a teacher. On the other side of that coin, during my career I have attended dozens of workshops put on by teachers. Some of them were worthwhile, but quite frankly, most of them were useless.
If Text Savvy, as he reports in his post, was told that he wasn't qualified for a job that he already proved that he could do simply because he lacked teaching experience, he has a right to be miffed. If anyone told Matthew K. Tabor that his views on education lacked credibility simply because he was not a teacher, he has a right to resent that. Considering their experiences, I can certainly see where they are coming from.
But my experience is different, and I think a lot of teachers feel the way I do. There are few fields in American life that have been the brunt of more criticism over the last few decades than public education. Much of that criticism has been very harsh, SOME of it has been unfair, and SOME of that criticism has clearly come from people who have no idea what it is like to run a classroom. That is very frustrating. I have witnessed panel discussions on television about public education that included media pundits, corporate leaders, politicians, and superintendents, but there hasn't been an actual classroom teacher in sight. I have watched as people on those panels made bold pronouncements about what should be done, and it has been clear to me that SOME of those pronouncements are totally impractical. That is very frustrating. Those of us in teaching have also had a number of policies imposed upon us by courts and legislatures, and some of those policies have made it more difficult for us to do our jobs. SOME of them were clearly devised by people who had no idea what it is like to run a classroom. That is very frustrating. When Text Savvy says that people in education are "frustratingly self-serving and unrepentant," I assume that he means we're defensive. He's probably right, but who wouldn't be?
I think the idea that non-teachers should not be able to participate in discussions about education issues is ridiculous, but the idea that being a teacher is irrelevant also leaves me shaking my head. Speaking as a teacher, I can honestly say that I have no desire to see teachers dominate discussions on education. But I do think our experiences are relevant, and I do think we should be included.