What Campbell Brown Got Dead Wrong About Teachers and Our Unions

I learned recently that I don’t live in the real world: before that, I’d assumed that if my degrees, certifications and teaching career didn’t qualify me as a resident of the “real world,” then the taxes, rent, car payments and student loans that I am dutifully paying off certainly would. But each time my eyes wander into the comments section of an education-related article, I’m told that my fellow educators and I inhabit an alternate universe in which we are the villains, responsible for all of society’s ills.

In the “real world,” I’ve been informed, the singular solution to the problems with education in America is to get rid of the teachers’ unions and even to just fire and replace all teachers, which would magically transport us all to this vaunted real world in which no educator should be entitled to pensions, affordable health benefits or due process. (In it, I’m certain I’d be wealthy enough to start using phrases like “job creators” and attending Chamber of Commerce events, instead of just standing outside of them to protest corporate tax breaks and cuts in education funding.)

In the “real world”, I didn’t choose my profession because I want to help my students develop into productive and successful citizens or because our neighborhoods and societies will flourish when educational opportunities and systems are strong – and, certainly, the union for which I work cares about none of that either. In that world, people entrust their children exclusively to grasping, greedy monsters and criminals who became teachers because of the massive salaries, premium benefits, minimal work hours and the joys of lording power over impressionable young people. (Nothing makes one feel more powerful than a room full of adolescents calling you “Miss!”)

But that sort of finger-pointing isn’t limited to those hiding safely behind screen names.

Take journalist-cum-teachers’-union-warmonger Campbell Brown, who has been busy on the talk-show circuit this summer spewing false research about “bad teachers” and bemoaning how impossible it is to fire them while refusing to disclose her funders or links to special interest groups hell-bent on privatizing public education and de-professionalizing educators.

Or there’s Whoopi Goldberg feeding into misconceptions about teacher tenure, telling us she is all about teachers – but only the great ones.

And let us not neglect Alec, the group that with backing from the omnipresent Koch Brothers creates model legislation that’s serving as a how-to manual for dismantling and privatizing public school districts by using school closures, mass firings and vouchers – all in the name of “accountability”.

Closer to home (for me), the governor of Pennsylvania cut over $1bn in education funding – then watched as districts crumbled, schools closed, budgets got slashed,
staff got laid off, and woefully inadequate educational programs popped up in their place ... and then Governor Tom Corbett dared to tell Philadelphia educators that by not taking pay cuts we haven’t “stepped up” to solve the crisis he created.

Instead of talking about new best practices for the classroom and ways to improve teacher training and mentoring programs; instead of discussing innovative school and community partnerships that can enrich student experiences; instead of waging a real war against the insidious poverty depriving many of my students of the advantages and opportunities their peers in wealthier, better-funded districts enjoyed ... teachers now have to convince “real” people (and their very real, very secret monied backers) that we, as professional educators, actually know a thing or two about education.

But that is just how the Campbell Browns, the Tom Corbetts and the Koch brothers of the world want it: they want the conversation skewed, and teachers and our unions on the defensive.

Because, let’s not beat around the bush – teachers and our unions are the same thing, which is why the folks who hate unions want to make you hate teachers. You cannot be “for teachers” but “against the union”, because we are our unions. We make our decisions, drive our agendas, elect our leadership and are the most qualified experts to make decisions about our profession. The most powerful “union work” I do comes when I am in my classroom, teaching. And there has not been a day I’ve spent as a rep that I haven’t taught.

The ham-handed union-busting and privatization schemes that exist at the core of all these “save the kids” campaigns is clear – but we’re not all that easily fooled by their so-called experts’ tales (possibly, because we had great teachers who taught us to question what we’re told). They can spin their stories and fly in the face of established facts and research, and set up their straw-man arguments about Teflon-covered bad teachers who can never be fired because, when they do, they lay bare their true motives.

When reformers are handsomely paid by anonymous rich donors’ money to demonize us, our students, their families, and our friends and neighbors realize that monsters they’re describing don’t resemble the teachers they have known.

When Brown went on Colbert the other day, they saw her evasions and realized that her inability to cite accurate research was less because she’s bad at her job and more because such research simply does not exist.

When Whoopi talked about tenure and bad teachers having the gift of a job for life, we got this gem of a video breaking down the truth about tenure and why it is crucial for educators and students.

When Corbett took direction from a secret poll suggesting the path to re-election lies in attacking the teachers’ union and using the school crisis in Philadelphia for political leverage, the electorate saw behind the curtain – and he made it easier for people to cast their votes for his opponent.

The more these myths – and the people paying to propagate them – are exposed, the more professional educators and our unions can do the real work of having tough conversations about what works and what doesn’t (rather than who shouldn’t) in education. We can stop defending our right to have jobs at all, and get back to partnering with families and communities to ensure equal, excellent educational opportunities to all children. There’s no spin in the world that can touch that.

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