Teachers Must Speak Up Too

By Jane Mayer, Los Angeles Director of The Teaching Well  

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of voice: how we learn to speak our voices and use them effectively, both for ourselves and as change agents on behalf of the collective.

As a teacher for five years in public schools in Los Angeles (and the last three as a founding teacher at Westchester Secondary Charter School, whose Prop 39 battle made headlines, as you may recall), one of my highest priorities for all of my students was for them to learn to respectfully and powerfully use their voices.

To facilitate that, I created a unit that included Community I-Search projects. After we finished reading a book called Sold, about human trafficking in Nepal, I let all of my 8th graders select an issue that affected their lives and the lives of those around them. Over the years, student topics ranged from diabetes in South L.A. to air quality in Westchester to police violence against young black men across our country.

These aren’t easy topics to discuss or research. But it was always incredibly important to me as a teacher that my students faced that fear — academic or emotional — and that they practiced working up the courage to speak that truth into the public space.

“Anais,” I would say, “I get what that statistic says, but what do you think? How do we solve this issue?” It would take them weeks to get comfortable with trusting their intuition and having the courage to say what was true for them. In general, we don’t honor students as having something to say — and they internalize that relatively quickly.

Today, with an organization called The Teaching Well, whose mission is to keep powerful teachers in the classroom by reversing our current teacher burnout trend, I am constantly calling on teachers and administrators to identify and use their voices in the same way that Speak UP asks parents to speak theirs.

Our current education system is so federally and state-mandated (from budgets to curriculum to testing to behavior protocols) that we have completely devalued the voices of the people who work with our students on the ground every day: the teachers. And they feel it, too — 1 million teachers enter and exit the profession every year, while the national statistic for burnout is 40-50 percent in five years.

You can imagine the kind of instability that creates for kids and their families — both socio-emotionally and academically. It’s hard to keep driving forward with increasing success academically when you have to stop and retrain one-third of your staff each year. It’s hard for parents to commit to keeping their children in schools and investing in them (rather than “school shopping”) when the communities themselves are so unstable because of hiring issues and facilities challenges.

I spent the last year of my teaching career at WSCS fighting LAUSD for space for my school to stay open. We spent countless hours writing letters with parents and students, holding multiple rallies, creating a school-wide, day-long social media blitz to try to get the attention of LAUSD and even taking 30 of our stellar students down to an LAUSD Board Meeting to speak their voices. I spoke to countless individuals in LAUSD, including incredible staffers —  all of whom told me nothing could be done to give my school space in our community, which we believe was legally owed to us under Prop 39. Is it any wonder people stop speaking up?

So, when I ask teachers to speak their voices, it’s as hard for them as it is for my 8th graders.

No one has been listening to them for a long time. This is why we’ve historically resorted to aggressive unionization and hard lines — because we feel that we have no other choice. If we intend to provide excellent educational spaces for all students, we have to start by creating stable adult ecosystems on campuses. Then, we can begin to honor our voices before our frustration turns to rage and before we feel so undervalued that leaving becomes an act of self-preservation.

In a 2016 study, researchers from University of California, Berkeley and the University of Virginia discovered that the highest indicating factor for teacher retention is whether or not teachers feel that they are part of a productive and meaningful community — one where their voices are heard, valued and collectively used to inform practices and policies on school campuses.  

I believe at my core that when we begin to honor the expertise and wisdom of teachers and use their voices and experiences to inform policy, they will not only re-engage with the school sites where they work (and stay longer, instead of burning out within five years), but they will begin to see themselves as empowered individuals who have something to say about education. (Imagine that — a teacher who actually has wisdom to offer about the education system!)

Speak UP’s mission statement includes this line: “We believe that when parents understand the decision-making process and recognize that systemic change is within their power, they will raise their collective voices as advocates and voters.”

I believe the same — and I believe the same for teachers and administrators. It’s time for all of us to start sitting on the same side of the table and say, “No more.” We will no longer accept a system that burns out its experts within five years. We will no longer accept a system in which parents are disenfranchised. We will no longer accept a system that dishonors the humanity of students on campuses by denying them excellent resources, safe buildings and effective and valuable educational experiences. Our country has both the money and the intelligence to solve these problems.

Imagine what could happen if we allowed parents, students, teachers and administrators to be co-collaborators of educational environments — where teachers and administrators were honored as guides, parents honored as the invested partners and students honored as co-creators of their learning. 

My voice is here to tell you this: It is possible. It requires us rethinking and restructuring our educational system to honor teachers as experts and parents as investors. It requires us honoring the voices of all involved. Most of all, this change involves all of us doing the personal work to speak up – clarifying what we believe, believing that we are worthy of being heard, honoring what we know and facing the fear of speaking the truth in public.

Just like my 8th graders, it’s time for all of us — teachers, administrators, parents and students — to speak up.

—  Jane Mayer is a former Los Angeles Unified School District and charter school teacher, who now directs the Los Angeles region of the nonprofit organization, The Teaching Well, which is committed to transforming education by prioritizing teacher well-being and sustainability.