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On Underestimating Teachers

November 17, 2019

For my entire life mainstream Liberals, the Right, and even some Leftists have bagged on schools and colleges of education.

Smart liberals and conservatives have talked about what a waste they are—how only poor students gravitate to the field of education.<This trashing was a regular feature in my home state of Missouri, and persisted well past my undergraduate education. I heard it in graduate school in Illinois. I might have been foolish enough, at certain points, to believe the rhetoric. It was normal in the 1980s and 1990s, and even into the early years of this century.

What the bipartisan smart set didn't see was that the desire to be an educator was about a different value set, not any capitalist perception of social or individual worth. Those "poor" education students were looking for an area to work, to labor, and to give service that valued others, even while the objects of an educator's profession were difficult to evaluate against social norms. They were resisting those perceived norms.

This difference of values is why, I think, we’re seeing deep calls for change, and movement politics, from our educators. #RedForEd and the Chicago Teachers Union represent that. The moral compass of those groups has long been right. Their teachers are fed up with austerity, testing, and the devaluation of so-called inadequate/damaged individuals. They are sick to death of the constant pressure to implement K-12 educational shortcuts and the deprofessionalization of their work. They have felt our economic inequality up close, and for too long. They see the damages wrought upon our students and families.

It’s teachers who have known, the longest, that our “meritocracy” is not working. Political and capitalist forces have worked to tear down their profession and the American Dream around them. It’s perfectly natural, then, that they would turn to labor solidarity as the antidote.

I hope this surge of progressive teacher activism continues for the rest of my life. It will take that long just to recover some of the social gains made until even the 1970s.

The 1980s and 1990s bipartisan smart set was wrong. The portion of their cohort that “fell into” education had a superior moral compass—precisely the kind human sensibility that profit-seekers routinely overlook and devalue.

Our teachers have been underestimated for too long. That’s precisely what has made these educator revolts surprising to this decades-old bipartisan smart set. Third Way Democrats, American-style neoliberals, Reagan Republicans, and libertarians will, I hope, continue to pay the price for their market-oriented blinders. It’s time these “achievers” learned a lesson about humanity they missed during their schooling. As this article notes, #RedForEd is a warning shot about the devaluation of others.

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