“Teacher Voice”: Reflections on This is Not a Test by Jose Luis Vilson

Teaching is such an underappreciated profession. The pay sucks. I can’t go to the bathroom whenever I need to, you know, use the bathroom. I sit in meetings that are the exact opposite of best practice when it comes to learning (sit in rows, listen to one person talk at the front, etc). I have timed lunches. Bells tell me where I’m supposed to be and when. At any given time, someone is unhappy with me. Politicians make decisions about how my classroom should look without asking me. Heck, they don’t even know me! I am expected to give up an occasional Saturday night to chaperone a dance without extra pay. The list goes on…

In fact, when people make comments to me along the lines of “I could never be a teacher” or “I could never do what you do”, I usually tell them, “No, no, you couldn’t. That’s why you don’t.”

I often feel like I must have some sort of strange addiction to helping people (I do, actually, have this hero child complex from my childhood, and often have to interrupt the whole white-savior complex too…). But simply working in the education system is not the same as working successfully in the education system. I personally feel that to be an effective teacher, I’m sort of asked to be a missionary of some sort. Instead of taking my passport to a foreign country to spread the good news of the gospel, though, I’m asked to enter a large community that I am not necessarily familiar with and care about it with all of my heart, brain, and skill.

So I am left with this tension of “do the best that I can from 7:30-3:30 with on average 150+ student interactions, limited resources, and a jaded spirit” or “do the best that I can, recognizing that some of the hours I put in every week will be unpaid, I will fund some of the needs I see in my classroom with my teacher salary, and I will do it with a sense of joy as much as I possibly can.”

I’m human too.

This month, my SEED class read the book This is Not a Test by Jose Luis Vilson, an Afro-Latino math educator and blogger. I like that his book functions as a educational tool book and memoir at the same time.

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At one point, he talks about what I call the “sour teacher attitude” that inevitably creeps through (probably) every school building. He says,

“The more experienced I have become as a teacher, the more I have started to filter out people who don’t bring any solutions to the table- even those whose educational ideologies match mine. It’s important for teachers to come together and air our frustrations. But some people seem to love swimming in quicksand, hoping others will join them, as if the movement downward is an actual movement… When sarcasm and vitriol are the only ways of discussing educational policy, we all lose… Teacher’s lounges ought to feel like places for educators to recharge our batteries, not drain them out” (p. 171).

The year after I graduated college, I substitute taught all over the Twin Cities. Since I wasn’t from the area, I made the habit of eating lunch in the lounges to network with other teachers and hopefully get more sub jobs or even better, a real one.

In my experience, it didn’t matter which school I was in or who was around the table, attitudes were sour. I felt like a fly on the wall in the living room of an unhappy family. It didn’t make it easy to go back and somehow motivate a bunch of pre-teens to want to enjoy their lives and change the world somehow for the better.

So, why do so many teachers stay in the profession when there is justifiably a lot to complain about, a never-ending amount of work to do, and a reality that it’s a customer service job with a lot of unhappy customers, employees, and bosses. Why don’t teachers just call it quits and look elsewhere for fulfillment? (Sidenote: some do.) Vilson comments on this as well:

“When people see us as complainers, we lose the chance to use our most effective teacher voice. Obviously, lots of this is gendered too: patriarchy has a way of making women look like whiners when they voice legitimate complaints. Let’s flip the image. Instead of waiting for someone to hand the mic to us, let’s take it. Instead of just reiterating what others have said, let’s speak from our own experiences. Instead of complaining about why teaching sucks, let’s talk about why we stay. For most of us, why we stay is the students- even the ones who don’t reciprocate. The most important reason to listen to teachers is that we see our students more than anyone else does. We are their most powerful agents; we know what is in their best interests in ways that those outside the classroom do not. Anyone who claims to represent us should either come from our ranks or keep their fingers on the pulse of what teachers think and experience in schools every day” (p. 176).

I spent a lot of time reflecting on “teacher voice”- like, what even is it? My building rightfully spends a lot of time and energy talking about amplifying student voice, but I had never really heard of teacher voice before reading this book.

It’s pretty rare that I am asked for my opinions or ideas for making policy changes in my own building, let alone district or state. The district office can be somewhat of a far-off island that doesn’t know much about me, but sends me a modest paycheck twice a month and makes sure I attend professional development sessions. In all honesty, this is probably the root of why I turned to blogging as a means of processing my profession, because even if one other person reads it, then at least I feel like someone is listening.

Ann Byrd, COO and partner at the Center for Teaching Quality, wrote on Vilson’s blog one time about the subject of teacher voice. I adore her comments:

“Teacher voice” suggests placing limitations on the extent to which teachers are involved- SAY things but do not DO things. Sit at the table but do not SET the table. The powers that have called you in will HEAR you but then those powers will be the deciders and influencers, not the teachers…Bottom line: “voice” is not nearly enough. It has to be the teacher voice that communicates action and influence and decisions and impact” (p. 174).

While I pondered how I want to be at the proverbial table and set it too, a question bubbled up: What if my students, when thinking about how I lead the classroom, feel the same way I tend to feel about how administration leads the building? Do I spend enough time asking my students what they believe would improve the class, what they want to see changed, what they want to learn about? Or, do I believe that I know what’s best when it comes to how the course is run, and then when they give me their opinions on my decisions, I somehow am labeling it a successful attempt to “amplify” student voice.

What if I taught students how to be solution-oriented instead of complainers because I modeled it first? What if I actually heard students ideas and let them try them? What if I made sure they had a spot at the table and got a say in how the table looked? What if I not only heard their voices, but ultimately gave them the power to decide? It would look like a student-run classroom.

I think as teachers, it’s too easy to just say “hand me the mic, I have plenty to say.” I think our students need to see us model brainstorming instead of bitching.

Which leads me to ask: what could a teacher-run school look like?

 

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