Politicizing (and Politicized) Teachers

7 Aug

On Thursday, I hooked up with my friend and compatriot in teacher organizing, Brian (visit his blog at teacherevolution.wordpress.com) and we made the trek from Montclair into New York City to meet Bree, a researcher on educational activism and a decade-long member of the New York Collaborative of Radical Educators (NYCoRE). As I have intimated elsewhere on this blog, we (a small group of educators and activists in New Jersey) are interested in starting a teacher activism organization in our area, and we wanted to speak to an expert about how to get started. Over lattes in a crowded cafe on Orchard Street, Bree shared the story of the conception, organization, and growth of NYCoRE.

The organization began with a small group of local politicized teachers who were brought together by a mutual commitment to enacting social justice in schools and with the common vision of organizing teacher activists throughout the city, creating social-justice oriented curriculum, and collaborating with parent, community, and student groups.  Over the years, the organization grew to include a much larger membership, began hosting an annual conference, run yearly ITAGs (Inquiry to Action Groups), and drafted 9 points of unity that serve as guiding principles for the organization:

Points of Unity

1. Racism and economic inequality in the school system reflect and perpetuate the systematic and historical oppression of people of color and working class communities. As educators in the New York City public school system we have a responsibility to address and challenge these forms of oppression.

2. In order to combat economic, social, and political systems that actively silence women and people of color, we are committed to maintaining majority women and people of color representation in our group.

3. We oppose the current policy of high stakes standardized testing because it reflects the standards and norms of dominant groups in society, it is an inaccurate and incomplete assessment of learning, and it stifles pedagogical innovation and active learning.

4. Punitive disciplinary measures such as “Zero Tolerance” further criminalize youth and are not an answer to crime and other social problems. We believe economic and social priorities should be toward education of young people and not incarceration.

5. We oppose the increased efforts of military recruitment in New York City public schools. These efforts unfairly target the recruitment of low-income communities and make false promises about educational and career opportunities. We believe that these efforts are an extension of an imperialistic strategy to maintain a powerful military force in order to protect and promote US world dominance.

6. New school funding policies must be adopted in order to ensure equitable resources for all. Current policies based upon property taxes discriminate against low-income communities and urban areas, which disproportionately affect people of color.

7. Schools must be safe spaces for females and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) individuals. Verbal and physical abuse targeting these groups is extremely prevalent in most schools, and cannot be tolerated and must be challenged by all faculty, staff, and administrators.

8. Schools should be places of questioning and critical thinking that encourage students to see themselves as active agents of change. The present educational system is derived from an assembly line model that stifles critical thinking by focusing on the regurgitation of facts and information.

9. Schools should provide a neighborhood space through which community voices are heard. Teachers are an integral part of this space and must be held accountable to the community by being involved in addressing community needs.

In terms of our own organizing, Bree offered the following advice: Whatever we do, it must be organic–that is, everything must originate from within the group.  For example, it wouldn’t work if Brian and I recruited a group of teachers and told them we had decided to adopt NYCoRE’s points of unity as our own platform; the teachers themselves must generate and own the ideas.  In addition, Bree shared that from her own research organizing preservice and beginning teachers (the group that I personally am interested in organizing), she found that activism occurred in stages. First, unless teachers are already politicized, we must raise consciousness about inequalities that are inherent in our society and reproduced by the school setting.  Without this step, teachers do not realize why they must become activists.  After become conscientized to educational inequalities and the need for educating for social justice, teachers may move to the second level, which means they will implement social justice oriented curriculum in their classrooms–but not necessarily take steps outside the classroom to act against the societal structures that support racism (and various other -isms); in Bree’s words, “They lack a deeper analysis of how inequality operates and how change happens.”  Once teachers are able to conduct that deeper analysis and come to the conclusion that addressing poverty and the structures that maintain and expand inequalities and the range of -isms is the only way to impact schooling inequality, they are then driven to act and advocate both inside and outside the classroom.  In a sense, these teachers become not only politicized, but radicalized.

It was rare, Bree conceded, to see politicized and radicalized preservice and beginning teachers.  However, after our meeting Bree led us across across the street to the basement of Lolita Bar, where she introduced us to that rarity–several beginning teachers who were very active and very committed to not just educating and acting themselves, but helping other new teachers become aware of current issues affecting them in their new positions.  This sub-group of NYCoRE (one of several specialized “breakout” groups within the organization), which included new and “alternately certified teachers, called itself the “New Teacher Underground” and had organized an impressive series of weekly discussions throughout the summer.  Speakers from all public arenas were slated to speak on topics including tenure and contracts, high-stakes testing, anti-racist classrooms and curriculum, unionism, and unpacking educational jargon like “the achievement gap,” “privatization,” and “accountability.”  The discussion I attended addressed “top-down policies” like mayoral control, and I was delighted to see that one of the speakers was no other than  “The Notorious PhD” (Mark Naison),  a professor from Fordham University and long-time community organizer in both the Bronx and Brooklyn, who offered practical advice on mobilizing community organizations in one’s school community for maximum organizing impact.  (I was delighted because I had been treated to his “Achievement Rap” at the Save our Schools March last weekend–see video below).

The experience of the New Teacher Underground was profound.  One of my main research interests–and my dissertation topic– includes novice teacher development, and the research shows that the first one or two years is a sink-or-swim time when teachers go into “survival mode” because they are overwhelmed with the newness of all the day-to-day responsibilities of teaching, largely isolated from other teachers, struggling with being socialized into an institution and culture with which they are unfamiliar, and dealing with the increasing demands of our fanatically data-driven accountability system–and despite the assertions by the research community that districts should be providing induction programs to help teachers with the transition to teaching, it often is not provided or ineffective when it is.  This factors into a shocking statistic–50% of new teachers will leave the teaching profession within the first few years.  However, these new teachers that I met in that low-lit underground space had taken their learning into their own hands, reaching out to the community at large, drawing on the resources of NYCoRE, and then inviting other new teachers to learn, discuss, and collaborate with them–all while fostering the spirit of activism and social justice in the teaching profession.  It was a revelation…and in these often dark times of increasing corporate/market-driven reform and teacher-blaming, the experience uplifted my spirits and fueled my hope for a new generation of teacher activists.

I will keep you updated on our progress in starting our teacher activism group–for details on our first meeing, please email me at kate_strom@yahoo.com.  For the time being, if you would like to find out more about NYCoRE, visit their website at http://www.nycore.org–the link for information about the New Teacher Underground is on the home page.  For more information about the New Teacher Underground, visit their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/NewTeacherUnderground?ref=ts&sk=wall.

Notorious PhD–“The Achievement Rap” (Save our Schools March, July 30, 2011)

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2 Responses to “Politicizing (and Politicized) Teachers”

  1. iteach4change August 11, 2011 at 3:34 am #

    a wonderfully eloquent summary of our afternoon/evening in nyc…and your description of the novice teacher issues are spot on – i’m glad you’re doing research on this…

  2. iteach4change August 11, 2011 at 3:35 am #

    *descriptions – plural

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