The classroom and the boardroom are often seen as dissimilar spaces. In classrooms, there are students and teachers; two groups of people that have the most insight on the current debate about what to do with the broken education system, but whom have rarely been invited to engage in the discussion. Students are often framed as empty vessels that have no say on how to improve schools, and teachers are viewed as low-level workers whose sole responsibilities are to ensure that tests are being passed and order is kept.
In boardrooms however, the businessmen in the room are viewed as experts; their opinions are valued, and together they make policy decisions that affect the institution in which they work. These differences set the stage for a battle of sorts between educators and policymakers.
As I watch the Occupy Wall Street protest grow from a few isolated voices into a national movement, from a media side-story into politicians' central talking points, the number of public school teachers that are occupying Wall Street have increased exponentially. The silenced voices within the classrooms are pushing to have their voices heard by those boardroom decision makers.
The search for a voice is one of the powerful themes of the Occupy Wall Street movement, but beyond that, there are 5 specific reasons why such a large number of public school teachers have joined. Understanding these reasons can help us all improve public education in America and support our teachers.
One of the chief goals of teaching is to open students' eyes to the possibilities that there is a more beautiful and equitable future than the present. For urban school teachers who work with students that are socioeconomically deprived, and the victims of many societal ills, teachers tell them every day that working hard in school, getting a good job, and being able to provide for themselves and their families is the natural order of things. Unfortunately, many of these teachers realize that this is far from the truth. As teachers struggle to pay off student loans and live from check to check, they realize that the stories that they were told about hard work and determination do not always pan out. Teachers are well aware that if things remain as they are, they would be lying to students when they tell them to work hard, graduate and they will be successful. These teachers occupy Wall Street to ensure that the messages they bestow on their students can someday become a reality.
In the aftermath of the public forums spurred on by Waiting for Superman, and the many public conversations about how terrible public schools are, teachers have come to realize that marketing and public opinion can shift money and attention from supporting public schools to untested, and oftentimes, ineffective investments. Teachers see that decisions that are being made about schools are focused less on the needs of their students and more on measures that do not produce a substantial outcome. Teachers see investors "getting in on the education market" because they want to make money, and fear that they are doing so, at the expense of the public schools. They recognize this threat to public education, and are fighting against it.
Many urban public school teachers realize certain issues that make teaching and learning challenging happen outside of the school's walls. As they spend hours writing lesson plans, developing innovative ideas, and teaching with passion, they realize that poverty, challenging living circumstances, and an unjust criminal justice system go unaddressed. They occupy Wall Street to bring attention to these issues and to push the wealthiest people in the world to realize that also important factors that affect the ability of students to learn.
Many teachers realize that others are facing the similar struggles and want them to join forces. They see college students as their students in a few years, college graduates without jobs as the outcome of an education that does not have much value, and exploited civil servants in fields other than education as their allies. Teachers who are occupying Wall Street want these people to understand their struggles, and want them to be able to see how their experiences in schools have ushered them into the places they are today.
As American youth deals with the effects of poverty and inequity, they become disenfranchised within society, and start questioning the power of democracy. Teachers feel like it is their responsibility to let the youth know that the democratic process is alive and well. By occupying Wall Street they are teaching students to be civically engaged, showing them how to protest non-violently, how to fight for what they believe in, and they are doing what they have the responsibility to do... TEACH.
Photos courtesy of Sam Seidel.