Can you please support the soldier, but not the war?

A teacher’s plea.


Driving to work recently, Toby Keith’s “American Soldier” played on the radio. Although service in the military and teaching in public schools have distinct differences, listening to the song helped me draw parallels between the jobs of soldier and teacher.

Being the daughter of Vietnam veterans, I do not mean to disparage our men and women in uniform through my loose analogy. Actually, the lack of support that Vietnam veterans received during that decade-long war, helps to strengthen my comparison. Many of those veterans were called “baby killers” by war protestors, and there were no parades and flags flying proudly when these soldiers returned home. Similarly, in the war on education, teachers have been denigrated — their service to public education has not been valued or celebrated.

Listening to the song, made me realize that the war has been the unrelenting educational reform movement. To gain momentum, the movement needed to paint public education as failing and then offer ways to “fix” it. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, is the current leader of this war. The enemy is public education. It is an ideological war, but so were the Cold War’s hot spots. DeVos’s goal is to so weaken public education that school choice (and capitalist education) increase in popularity. She is selling market-based education much like her husband’s company sold Amway. I am not saying she is an effective salesperson, but she is marketing her brand of educational reform through the very American sounding word of “choice.”

Teachers are the soldiers in the educational reform war. Teachers might not face a tenth of the danger soldiers do, but those teachers in Sandy Hook took bullets for their kids, and I would too. Every time I participate in a lock-down drill, or when my daughters tell me that they pretended to hide in their school cubbies, I recognize the possible dangers of my job.

Teachers are expected to defend, feed, nurture, counsel, guide and, oh right, instruct their students. Like the U.S. military, teachers are required to do all of these duties with public funds, which are not distributed equitably. The struggle reminds me of Michael Keaton’s epic failure as a dad dropping off his kids in the movie, “Mr. Mom,” because teachers are constantly told: “You are doing it wrong!

Experts, politicians, and business leaders send similar messages to teachers, when they say: there are not enough students graduating in four years; students need more technology to be engaged in their learning; traditional instruction is boring; the content is not relevant; graduates are not prepared for career and college; American students perform lower on international exams, and that teachers need to move into the 21st Century, already!

DeVos promotes vouchers and charters as an alternative to public education. She paints public school teachers as outdated and programmed to receive instead of act. Charter and private schools, her supporters say, will offer spaces where teachers can be more innovative — the learning more personalized and relevant. After DeVos visited a school, Emma Brown, of The Washington Post reported that DeVos told a conservative online publication:

“They’re waiting to be told what they have to do, and that’s not going to bring success to an individual child,” DeVos told a columnist for the conservative online publication Townhall. “You have to have teachers who are empowered to facilitate great teaching.”

Is DeVos saying that public school teachers are vapid and uninspired? Is she saying that teachers do not know how to be innovative and creative? I would invite her any day of the school year to come and see the public school where I am proud to teach. I want her to see the Humanities in Action students taking field trips to local businesses, and presenting a “Shark-Tank” economics project to teacher judges. I want her to see how my colleagues are writing curriculum, collaborating with one another, and designing dynamic lessons. I want her to see how we care for all children, from the severely disabled to the highest achiever. I want her to see the enthusiasm and the creativity that is happening down the hall in the foreign language class. I want her to witness the dissections and experiments taking place in our science labs. I want her to see how two social workers attempt to meet the needs of over 2,000 students, doing so with grace and humor. I want her to go to the nurse’s office and see how those women care for children. I want her to witness the extremely long hours our administrators clock — attending every function so that if someone divided their time by their salary, the number would reveal that they are making pennies. I want DeVos to see the many clubs, sports, and activities our students engage in. I also want her to see how my school is aging, how my desks are peeling, and how our classrooms lack air conditioning. I want DeVos to see what public school teachers do — she has no idea how empowered we are. Betsy DeVos is not “rooting” for our schools. She has no vision for how to reform our schools because she doesn’t want that socialist model to dominate.

Teachers are but cannon fodder in DeVos’s war on public education. The war did not begin with her, and it will continue to wage long after she is gone. My plea is that when you, the average American, reads another story about “those teachers,” you will recognize it as an attack on the soldiers of education. I hope that you will see it as propaganda. Yes, schools have problems. Not surprisingly, teachers have the answers to those problems. If anyone is willing to give credit to our expertise, we will tell you what schools need. Public school teachers are not the enemy.

My plea to my fellow Americans is for you to support the teachers, but not the war on public education. By supporting teachers, these professionals will become empowered, the teacher shortage will decrease as more young people will gravitate towards the profession, and realistic solutions can be entertained. But, if Americans continue to buy into the rhetoric and the propaganda of the educational reform war, the future of public education will be very bleak. So please, support the soldier, but not the war.

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