When I was a bit younger, I thought Madeleine Albright was a bit harsh in her often-quoted proclamation for every female wrong having ever occurred, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.” I thought this was particularly harsh, as it pertained to working women, who slave day in and day out in various vocations that are pretty thankless. I have had the opportunity to be a part of two fairly thankless (albeit thankless for different reasons)
vocations in my life, teaching and corporate law. I am kind of an expert in thankless, exhausting careers and luckily an expert in special needs, so without reservation I will say:
Your child’s teacher will never be your child’s best advocate in school. Never.
In my twenties, I vigorously defended the ability of teachers to advocate on behalf of their students. I was a lover of Paolo Friere and those who studied and incorporated him. To this day, almost every day, I think about the “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” and what would happen if it were meaningfully enacted in this country. So with that said, I will quote this founder of popular modern educational pedagogy when he said, ““Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” Yes, my main man Paolo (and many many others), said that ignoring power dynamism in our schools, and yes, he means our teachers, is so problematic that it makes the teachers the oppressors.
Okay, you may be now questioning me and think I am out of my mind. And I may be, but I am about to say something that many will find upsetting, chilling and wrong to their very core, but I think it needs to be said:
Teachers, as a group and as it stands, do not have the bandwidth, toolbox, time or energy to change the way marginalized students are routinely treated in their classrooms.
Yes, there is the occasional teacher who treats the job with beyond vocational, nun-like devotion and has some results for the marginalized. But as it stands, teachers, generally, are not able to be part of the solution for students with disabilities, English Language Learners and others who suffer on a daily basis from antiquated policies and procedures in our nation’s schools. They don’t because they can’t. And that is okay.
Understanding that your child’s teacher probably can’t be your most profound ally is important.
Understanding that he or she is unwittingly part of the problem with our nation’s schools is important as you plan for your child’s academic future. It is preventive to act from a place of knowledge and make the unfortunate assumption that your student’s teacher cannot give the special care, advocacy and differentiated instruction your child deserves, because your child’s teacher is exhausted, overworked, underpaid and unequipped. Your child’s teacher is a cog in the wheel. You child’s teacher is ritualistically told not to make noise, not to make trouble and to keep doing her job until one day she either stops making noise or quits. Trained teachers leave this vocations at record rates, often citing lack of autonomy and lack of ability to institute meaningful change.
I believe so strongly in teaching as a vehicle for advocacy that I knew within the first few visits into a classroom in my Masters of teaching program, that I could never be a classroom teacher. First, I would probably get fired within a month. I would be constantly questioning, advocating for change and wanting to help each and every student succeed wildly. I couldn’t be restrained by standardized tests, feedback forms or evaluations. I do understand vocational distress and duress: I worked as a corporate lawyer for many years, including working for school districts. I understand the desire to change and understand the shame associated with not being able to change anything and having to consistently quiet your own conscious until you forget to question and you lose your voice. I empathize with the teacher, he or she doesn’t have it even close to easy.
My voice still stands firmly with the student, so I still am here to tell you, the teacher is not going to be your advocate.
Freire said a lot of amazing things. But this is one particularly relevant to the efficacy of pedagogical restraint, “True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity. False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the ‘rejects of life’, to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands–whether of individuals or entire peoples–need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world.” Currently our education system has students who don’t completely comply with cultural, social and physical normatives, constantly at the system’s mercy, begging for supplication. As a parent, I know you must find yourself “begging” all the time for your child, and that is not the way it should be. The power dynamics of education needs to be acknowledged, identified and changed, and sadly comes at identifying your child’s teacher as a member of the middle management of the big, bad company that is education.
“The educator has the duty of not being neutral” and we live in a system with neutrality as a necessity for job security and survival. Know that as you look for allies and advocates in education.
Of course, this doesn’t mean your child’s teachers shouldn’t be respected and honored for their commitment. They should have your gratitude, but just like the kind and well-meaning manager at Time Warner Cable, they still work in a not-so-good organization with epically bad customer service and not-that-great outcomes. So with that said, learn to fight back. Your child’s education may be the hardest-fought battle of your and his or her life, but it will pay back dividends.