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GIFroux: In Defense of Public School Teachers in a Time of Crisis

Let's talk about teachers

This is a GIF-loaded adaption of Giroux, H.A. (2012) “In Defense of Public School Teachers in a Time of Crisis in Education and the Crisis of Public Values” in Challenging the Assault on Teachers, Students, and Public Education. New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

Let’s talk about teachers, and what we think about them. But first, let’s tell a story. All stories start with, well, you know:

Teachers were considered as invaluable resources for democracy and the social good.

Teachers taught students to take responsibility for their future, and for their community’s future as well. Students were expected to develop a sense of social justice and build their ability to evaluate rigorous arguments–and tell them apart from opinions. Education focused on developing the values, skills, and knowledge to become critical citizens capable of questioning official knowledge, public opinion, and the dominant media. Students were seen as change agents for shaping and expanding democratic institutions.

Sounds lofty, right? Then came the 1980s.

Since then, teachers and schools have been attacked by forces that want to remove the “public” from public schools and their association with teaching civic values, courage, and a respect for the common good–all incompatible with the rise of corporate control of our democratic institutions. Market fundamentalists seek to turn our schools into corporate clones that “compete” (choice schools) for limited markets (vouchers) based on quantitative measurements (tests) for as broad a population as possible (standards) as cheaply as possible (union-busting).

Accordingly, teachers have been removed from having a say in how schools are run and what is taught. Treated as technicians, the decisions on “content” is now determined by politicians who want to privatize schools, push “jobs training” over education, reduce measures of achievement to simple test scores, and push poor white and minority children into prisons or dead-end jobs. are now deskilled, removed from school governance, treated as technicians or security guards. Those right-winters want to privatize schools, push vocational training instead of education, reduce achievement to test scores, and push poor white and minority children into prisons or dead-end jobs.

No wonder teachers are angry and demoralized.

A good example of this shift is the rise in high-stakes testing, a trend which seems unstoppable despite everyone’s best intentions (seemingly so).

Those are used to measure teacher quality. High-stakes testing limits autonomy and undermines the possibility for critical teaching and learning. Teachers just implement pre-determined instructional procedures and standardized content, while students, instead of learning critical skills, learn the art of taking tests. Pedagogy has been stripped down and is no longer about making knowledge meaningful. Observe how a student prepares for a standardized test:

And of course it all goes wrong when the test isn’t exactly like what the student was practicing with:

And you know, this attack on how and what teachers are supposed to teach is made all the weirder since we still idealize teachers as our children’s all-omnipotent educators. We imagine teachers having eyes in the back of their heads or having Chuck Norris-like powers…

And we keep making movies that recycle the same “white savior” teacher trope:

Soberingly, in the real world, we ignore and devalue teachers’ ability to support those children in becoming critical transformers of society. Is it any wonder teachers are feeling beaten down these days?

Indeed, the power of teachers to run classrooms has been removed; a range of student behaviors are now criminalized amidst harsh mandatory rules that push students into the criminal justice system with their behavior handled by police or security forces creating a school-to-prison pipeline.

With knowledge now being reduced to materials on mass-produced tests, teachers and schools are now more alike fast-food places where teachers function as minimum-wage workers serving uncomplicated ideas.

Accordingly, the worth of a teacher is increasingly measured by those standardized test scores. Any previous experience is irrelevant, while quality credentials are rendered meaningless.

What needs to happen? Massive public opinion and policy overhauls that reposition teachers as engaged intellectuals whose jobs are to shape students into change agents who can participate in critical dialogue with their society, question authority, and act as active, engaged citizens on a global level. Teachers deserve the respect, autonomy, and power, and dignity that is demanded of academic labor.

The crisis of schooling and teaching is linked to the crisis of democracy itself. Students should see in teachers a model that all can make a difference, to expand democratic possibilities for all groups. If we continue with the current wave of reforms, we turn our country into a society where a highly-trained white elite commands vast financial and technological resources, while a growing low skilled majority of poor and minority workers fill the McJobs proliferating in the dead-end, low-skill service sector (think of the rise of the “sharing” economy which really permits the poor minority to serve the white upper class by doing low-cost menial tasks via TaskRabbit, Uber, and InstaCart).

“College and career ready standards” actually limits students’ possibilities and prevents them from imagining a more democratic society and a better future that does not just replicate the present. Teachers provide the opportunity for re-imagination, for a better world.

A fair, just democracy necessitates a class of quality teachers. Any movement for social change must put education and the rights of students and teachers at the forefront of the struggle. We must take teachers seriously by giving them the autonomy, dignity, labor conditions, salaries, freedom, time, and support that they deserve.

Reflection: Giroux echoes Freire in his opening chapter of Education and the Crisis of Public Values by arguing that education is essential to a democratic society. Attacks on education are ultimately attacks on democracy itself. Let’s think of social justice–it’s been a “buzzword” on social media lately, but it’s ultimately rooted in critical pedagogy in which teachers and students engage in dialogue, questioning their world and circumstances, imagining how things can be improved, and then acting to do so (praxis). This type of engagement in critical consciousness is precisely what Giroux hopes to see in America’s schools. Instead of teaching students “job skills” for college or careers, he’d like teachers to have the pedagogical freedom to engage their students in critical thought, learning all the important skills of the world through dialogue and action. With the current wave of reforms, teachers are increasingly rendered incapable of constructing classrooms of critical thought, with all sense of autonomy lost. Discussions about social justice cannot flourish in a climate of test preparation led by poorly-paid and poorly-protected educators who have no say in standards or curriculum. The end result of such a disastrous educational environment is, quite alarmingly, the erosion of basic democratic rights enjoyed by all.

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