I vaguely remember an afternoon, whole-school meeting during my first week of teaching 12 years ago. I remember sitting on a creaky wooden chair in a cavernous auditorium in Brooklyn, trying to listen to a NYC Department of Education employee as he droned on about licensure requirements and the general standards and values for teachers. I’m not sure if it was the fan blasting in the corner or the million things I needed to do in my classroom that had me struggling to grasp the onslaught of projected bullet points coming at me, but either way, nothing stuck.
I knew why I had stepped in to a classroom to start my professional career, but I wasn’t sure what drew my colleagues to the work. I am sure we had some similar values that brought us there. I am pretty sure if asked, a few might have said something like “all students deserve to learn” or even more audaciously, “I am here to close the achievement gap,” but what did any of that actually mean in practice and how were we holding ourselves accountable to these values that we may or may not have shared? Moreover, how were we fighting to uphold them?
A recent lecture I attended about the Scottish teaching force has made me think a lot about the idea of shared values in my work back home – particularly given the chaos which is our current national dialogue on education in the United States. In response to the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, the gun control debate understandably has received more attention. However, now with a proposal to arm teachers! While taking in the pundits and think pieces that have engaged with this ludicrous proposal – which is now a reality we must contend with – I have grown increasingly frustrated and have struggled to engage with the mess myself. How are we talking about teachers wielding guns as a form of school safety when we aren’t even truly acknowledging the continued struggles of inadequate school resources or educator sustainability? Or school segregation… Or the overwhelmingly white teaching force working with a growing student population that does not share similar racial/ethnic backgrounds… (Insert various other real concerns, I’m sure you have your own.) And while we must fight alongside the Stoneman student activists, who are doing similar work communities of color have been doing for ages, we must also make sure that the crazy punditry in front of us doesn’t distract us from the fundamental truths of the work teachers are called to do everyday.
These truths were highlighted this past week while I listened to professor Rosa Murray. In addition to being a lifelong educator, Rosa Murray was a critical part of the team that authored Scotland’s General Teaching Council’s Standards for Registration. This document serves as a guide for the baseline standards a teacher must follow while in the profession. The first two “professional values core to being a teacher” listed are: Social Justice and Integrity. In the field, these words come up often, although, I was pleasantly surprised social justice was the first commitment listed. More importantly, each section is accompanied by what professor Murray calls learning dynamics. These learning dynamics offer further detail as to how an educator must fulfill each core value. For example, one of the ways educators must represent a social justice mindset is by:
“embracing locally and globally the educational and social values of sustainability, equality and justice and recognising the rights and responsibilities of future as well as current generations.”
And, in demonstrating integrity as an educator, you must:
“critically examine the connections between personal and professional attitudes and beliefs, values and practices to effect improvement and, when appropriate, bring about transformative change in practice.”
Furthermore, the document breaks down professional actions that highlight each value. Along with several professional actions that call for relationship building and community engagement (my favorites), in the Pedagogical Theories and Practice section it states that registered teachers need to:
“have knowledge and understanding of the ways in which natural, social, cultural, political and economic systems function and of how they are interconnected to professional practice.”
Having knowledge of the above systems as part of your baseline understanding, not just for the politically attuned teachers, but for everyone, certainly is a step in the right direction – one that folks could rally around when something like the politics of the NRA infringe on the safety of students in public schools, perhaps.
Professor Murray said they wrote these professional values as learning dynamics rather than “just platitudes.” She mentioned that they were eager to move away from the platitudes, passages void of action, that seem to frame most country’s shared values. When she said this I found myself thinking about that creaky auditorium chair in Brooklyn, wondering what platitudes I may have missed that day.
Several districts and individual schools in the States have aligned themselves with their own set of shared values, but what binds us as a nation or as a state even? New York state has a code of ethics written in 2003 that I had never seen before (or maybe the accompanied powerpoint is exactly what I saw in the auditorium that day). It was supposedly co-authored with teachers, but even so, could certainly be seen as an accumulation of platitudes. Furthermore, the National Education Association (NEA), a three million employee network, has a similar code of ethics that reads more like a poorly written classroom rules poster (e.g. “shall not…”) than a driving force of learning dynamics we can all get behind.
None of this is to say that teachers are not fighting for their work everyday. That is certainly happening across the States, much like anywhere in the world. The intensity of the day-to-day work of being an educator creates an informal shared belief and underlying understanding. This work does unite us. Additionally, as the neoliberal policies of the past few decades collide with even more extreme, segregationist policies of the present, pockets of teacher unions and partner organizations are further uniting and demanding national attention. West Virginia teacher unions are standing up for higher wages and it looks like Oklahoma teachers are right behind them. While the biggest voice in the dialogue back home still revolves around guns, grassroots organizing efforts continue to fight for fundamental needs in our profession.
It makes sense that as a 22-year old joining the largest school district in the country a shared professional vision may not have been so clear. And since then, working at traditional public and charter schools in two different states has made it even harder to thread together shared values. It was important for me to come back this past week to the foundation that grounds the work. I hope that even as a nation that is so often segmented by district, city and state we are able to keep coming back to why we joined the profession and fight for the values that matter. The scale may be different, but even so, we can learn a lot from how Scotland introduces and upholds their foundational values, none of which talk about arming school teachers.