By Neil Heinen
If I were to compile a list of the five or six most important decisions I've made in my life, at least three would have been inspired by teachers. All three were decisions that changed the direction of my life, and all for the better. My guess is my experience is quite common. But for a variety of reasons the perception of teachers, as we start another school year, is about as confused as I ever remember it. And too often when it’s not confused it's just plain negative. And I think it is time—in fact, I think it’s the perfect time—to do something about it.
We have to start with some shared understanding of how things got to where they are. And to do that we have to acknowledge the fundamental falseness of the dichotomy that teachers are the cause of our failure to adequately educate all of our kids, or that teachers are the only solution to the problem.
Our relationship with teachers, and by that I mean between teachers and the rest of us who are not teachers, is extraordinarily nuanced. Teachers mean one thing to the kids they teach, another to those kids' parents, yet another to citizens without kids in the schools and, most troubling of all, another to politicians who have decided that demonizing teachers is good for the politician’s career and campaign treasury.
Teachers have not always helped themselves, due in large part to occasional periods of what look like out of touch labor militancy. But those isolated incidences pale in comparison to the mindless attacks teachers often find themselves defending against. I believe teachers as a group are as open to change as any other group of professionals. There's no reason we can't change it all.
Act 10 and the Republican Party aside, there are a lot of good things happening around public education in Madison right now. Thanks in large part to new superintendent Jen Cheatham, Madison public schools are experiencing a surge of energy, enthusiasm and excitement. With a shared community commitment to raising the achievement bar for all students, and a sense of embarrassment for how Act 10 was enacted and the damage it did to teachers, it is in my mind the perfect time to begin to recast teachers—as innovators, indeed, as entrepreneurs. I don’t necessarily mean entrepreneurs as in the South Korean system where teachers as private contractors can command salaries in the high six figures (although I suggest we not leave anything off the table), but rather as "one who organizes, manages and assumes the risks of a business or enterprise."
Because what is teaching if not organizing, managing and assuming the risk of educating our children? I've participated in conversations recently with young entrepreneurs and teachers, and the synergy is electric. Most teachers are highly trained, relentlessly inquisitive, lifelong learners and motivated from deep within themselves. Every teacher? No, not every teacher. But I'm sick of substituting the argument for weeding out bad teachers with the argument for supporting good teachers as if they were mutually exclusive. If we are successful in elevating the status of teachers, and creating a presumption of respect and support for teachers, the weeding out process will take care of itself.
Like so many other changes we as citizens must make with acknowledgement but determined disregard for clueless and ethically challenged politicians, I recommend we take on this challenge right here in Madison. We can find a way to work around the political nonsense, avoid the all-too-easy low road and create a community that honors teachers—all the good ones want to work here.
We, in Madison, are smart enough to do that. And do you know how we got smart enough? Great teachers.
Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine.