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April 27, 2009

Where are the Teachers?

By Adam Bessie

Not a single community college teacher was on the panel, a panel focused on problems facing community colleges. Huh? This is like not asking cardiologists to join the discussion on the heart, or holding a cooking show without a chef.


Amidst the morbid titillation of the "Craigslist murderer" and Octo-Mom's new purple pantsuit, I couldn't believe that this Friday morning, an entire hour of media was devoted to a topic as boring – and "socialist" – as the plight of the California community colleges, which serve millions of students looking for a chance at higher education and more marketable skills to compete in an increasing cut-throat global economy.  Now, granted, the segment was on public radio, and it was a local broadcast covering only Northern California and not the nation, but still, the knotty intricacies of funding, class sizes, and student retention can't possibly compete with a pretty pre-med student with the perfect life who kills prostitutes in seedy casinos.

I apologize for the long-winded sarcasm.

As a community college English instructor and a former high school teacher, I have become accustomed to media silence amidst our crises.   And this enraged resignation has crystallized into a hard, protective sarcasm, as I wrote about in a previous article, the satirical
"Octoplets are more Sexy than Education."  I observed that TV pundits and regular folks were outraged by a mother who has eight kids and "couldn't take care of them." For weeks indignant moralists castigated the Octo-Mom for such irresponsible behavior, while at the same time, enormous budget cuts threatened the quality of learning – and thus life – of thousands upon thousands of students.  Those same moralists appeared silent – barely a peep.  And when a peep around schools is raised, it's usually only when drama happens – a school shooting, a teacher molesting students or teaching Huckleberry Finn.  In the face of this state of things, and more possible cuts to education,  a gallows' humor seems an appropriate response.

Finally, I hoped to be able to shed some of these feelings, and hear an hour-long, deliciously boring conversation about the real problems we face in education, with real moral indignation on a real issue that affects people all around us – having funding for programs to help struggling students, to keep class sizes small, to hire and retain excellent, caring teachers.    And I did.  The discussion between the college administrators and a single student was passionate and insightful.

But where were the teachers?

Not a single community college teacher was on the panel, a panel focused on problems facing community colleges.


This is like not asking cardiologists to join the discussion on the heart, or holding a cooking show without a chef.  

Those teachers who work in the system, who spend long hours with students in the class, in office hours, who work in committee meetings to help students, and who see the problems they face first-hand were not asked to join the conversation.  The word "teacher" was only used a few times over the hour, and it wasn't until the hour was nearly over that a teacher made a brief point over the phone, about how he was frustrated by funding sports programs over school programs – a point almost anyone could have made, and one he was given about 30-seconds for.

And unfortunately, educators appear to be frequently left out of debates on education – even on “socialist” networks like public radio and in “lefty rags” like the New York Times. NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof, in a recent article  Education’s Ground Zero,”profiles the controversial Washington DC superintendent Michelle Rhee who has "dared to talk openly about the need to replace ineffective teachers." But Kristof, who praises Rhee, claiming she "represents the vanguard in this struggle to try new tools to revive American schools," interviews no teachers for the article, about what they think about Rhee and her methods.  There is little discussion about why teachers become "ineffective," from the teachers' point of view (and teachers have quite a bit to say on this topic – and solutions).  And while Kristof acknowledges education is vital in maintaining "America's global leadership in the long run," he apparently doesn't think that teachers themselves are a valuable source of information on this vitally important topic.

Teachers who are currently working with students – not just administrators – need a place at the table of this vital debate.  We need to hear them on the radio, in the paper, in the boardrooms, and in Washington, as an integral element in making schools work for students.  Teachers know what's going on in school, they live it – if we're going to craft effective solutions for students, we need to tap into this vast expertise and knowledge, and not dismiss it as we have.

I would continue to explore the reasons why teachers have been dismissed, but I've gotta go – there is important BREAKING NEWS in the Octo-Mom pantsuit case.  Apparently, they're really green.

Submitters Bio:
Adam Bessie is an assistant professor of English at Diablo Valley College, in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a co-wrote a chapter in the 2011 edition of Project Censored on metaphor and political language, and is a frequent contributor to, truthout, media-ocracy on diverse issues in education, culture and politics. Follow my essays on Twitter: adambessie