What Can We Do as Educators?

There is just so much news. Have you noticed that? It is around the clock, on repeat and remix, and some of it is fake, and some of it is so horribly, unbelievably real. There are inequalities that seem too numerous to categorize and analyze, and instead we start to find ourselves distracted because it is just so much. Instead of becoming overwhelmed with this moment, as it seems so easy to do right now, I’m taking these events as a wake-up call. I have a job to do.

I am a unionist. I am an educator. I am a woman. I am an advocate for children. I am a mother. I am a wife. I am often at odds with myself. I am often shocked. And then, sometimes, I am really sad when I am not shocked at all. This is who I am. I am a part of a powerful union, one that is made up of people who are the same as me, and those who could be categorized as “other.” And I am not going to let politicians lead me to believe that the union operates homogeneously, because when I look around I see a diverse group of professionals. It’s this diversity of people that pushes the union to operate as a whole with multifaceted, different parts.

That’s the rub of this constant frenzy of information and oversaturation: We’re more inclined to read what we agree with, and scroll through the parts we don’t necessarily align with. We must recognize that there is so much of “us” in the “other,” and know that as a union we are more than our own individual stories, but rather an anthology of related stories, bound together because we are a union of professionals. Instead of becoming overwhelmed, I’m going to celebrate all of those parts that make this union who we are, just as I reconcile all my own diverse pieces.

We all have important work to do, and until we reconcile the fact that our stories aren’t the same—but are inextricably linked—we will be held back from the potential power we have. When teachers get together, and we start to share our stories, I’m always floored by what “teacher” means depending on your contract, ZIP code, family involvement, poverty levels, administrative support and local union leadership. Even though I don’t work in a high-poverty district, it doesn’t mean I can’t speak up for teachers like those in Baltimore where the reprehensible conditions in some school buildings caught the attention of the nation with freezing temperatures, damaged classrooms and the teachers’ absolute loyalty to their students. And, even though standardized testing and the opt-out movement may not be king in your district, it doesn’t mean we can’t collectively support one another via social media, and most important, the collective power of voting for politicians who are on the sides of students, teachers and families—not corporations and self-interest. We must not become complacent in our own classrooms, but instead remember that we are a union of professionals, all with stories to tell and students who depend on us.

That potential power lies in valuing those who are not like “us,” whatever that means to you at a particular moment in time. Throughout my career, it has meant many things. When I first had children, I remember thinking that we needed more young mothers on our negotiating committee. Now though, as retirement is on the horizon (with binoculars anyway) I’m glad for those who were negotiating for sick-day buyback and retirement incentives when I was up to my ears in diapers and so singularly focused on one issue that I was most definitely not able to see the big picture. More recently, I’ve been thinking about the brazen young teachers who come to work today with a very clear picture of what they want for their careers, when I had simply been glad to have a job. I need to appreciate these young teachers who are bold and willing to push some buttons that some of us “veteran” teachers might not feel are a necessity. But, I have a 12-year-old who already has picked out where she’ll go to college to become a teacher, and when she and I are teaching together, I’ll bet she will be glad for those who fought for her. This “collective voice” is far stronger than the individual.

As we think of the future, both for our own children and for our union, we should ask ourselves: What can we do as educators? What messages can we provide our students that will help prepare them to vote in the not too-distant future? AFT’s “Worthy Wage Day” is a good reminder for educators that we do hold a tremendous amount of power in our hands, and we must stand our ground in our contracts and negotiations to protect the future of our profession. One of the most profound lessons we can teach our students is the history of labor, beginning with “13 Labor Events And Organizers Who We Should Teach About During Black History Month” and also teach them about the biases that exist in the world around them, in lessons like “When Perception and Reality Collide: Implicit Bias and Race” from the Anti-Defamation League. ShareMyLesson’s Immigration Resources Collection is another great place to begin looking for the lessons that we need to embed in our day-to-day teaching.

If this all sounds daunting, then I’ve done my job in this blog. It is daunting to look at our own identity and to lovingly and knowingly reconcile who we are; and it will be more difficult to look at ourselves as a union and know that we are both converging and diverging parts, organic, and real, and alive, and not always able to be fully known. However, we must recognize that if politicians can make us all “other” to each other, we will fail, and we will fall. I challenge you to value your fellow union members, trust in the power of the collective voice and, most important, not be blinded from seeing who we really are: a union of professionals.