I was watching Meet the Press at the gym yesterday (yeah, I’m that guy) and heard something that gave me pause. Moderator David Gregory had top surrogates from the Romney and Obama campaigns – NH Senator Kelly Ayotte and MA Governor Deval Patrick respectively – on the show and closed the interview by asking about education. Specifically, in regards to education, he wanted to know if the panelists believe that we have “moved beyond this union– pro-union, anti-union debate in this political discourse?” Governor Patrick chose to respond by touting the achievements of students in Massachusetts, while commenting that MA is the most unionized state in the country. Senator Ayotte responded by saying “…obviously Governor Romney believes kids first, unions last.” And that comment is what caused me to pause my elliptical machine pedaling.
Kids first, unions last. It’s a line that, if delivered in front of the right audience at a political rally, would bring raucous applause and an extended ovation. Unions. It’s a dirty word in America today and that breaks my heart. You know what she is actually saying? She’s actually saying that Governor Romney believes kids come first and teachers come last. Teachers come last. Not investors. Not reporters. Not politicians or policy makers. Nope. For Romney and Ayotte all of those people, and anyone else I may have left out, come before teachers. That attitude is, at best, ignorant and, at worst, a pathetic attempt to demonize some of the most important people in our society.
Her comments imply that, in education policy, teachers should have the least important voice. She couldn’t be more wrong. Teachers are the ones in the classroom every day, working with our nation’s children. They are the ones who inspire, who educate, who support students in their formative years. And they are the ones who are constantly asked to do more – educating more students, teaching more information – with declining resources. They are the ones who KNOW what they need in order to be successful and, yet, somehow Senator Ayotte and, according to her, Governor Romney don’t value their voices. Students, teachers, parents, educational experts. Those are the groups that should have the most important voice at the table – not ignorant politicians who think teachers are the problem. Not ignorant politicians who are fine with more tax cuts, even if it means less revenue for our schools. That’s viewpoint is not only short-sighted, but detrimental to America’s ability to compete on the world stage.
Teacher’s voices aren’t valued because they are a part of the dreaded union. Those on the right are so quick to assume unions are the problem and, I submit, that attitude betrays a remarkable lack of appreciation for the history of this great nation. Let’s not forget that unions were formed to protect the rights of individual workers against business owners and governmental whims. Unions are responsible for things like the weekend, ending child labor in America, fairer wages and more. So why is a teacher’s union so important? That particular union plays a crucial role in ensuring, despite all the tax cuts and increased defense spending, there is still money for education. That particular union plays a crucial role in ensuring people aren’t forced to choose between making a living wage and helping prepare the next generation for success. That particular union has a remarkable wealth of knowledge about best practices when it comes to education – knowledge that should be embraced, listened to and respected.
Looking back on my educational experience, I know how fortunate I was. I remember classrooms that weren’t overcrowded. I remember having my own text books and not having to share a desk. I remember my school being clean, safe and I remember not having to learn hungry. And I remember teachers who cared – who went above and beyond to help me, to inspire me to succeed. But not all educational experiences are like mine. All districts across this country have teachers who care. But not all have the resources to do the things we know are critical for student success. Rather than attack those teachers who are trying to do more with less, let’s honor them. Let’s respect them. Let’s listen to them and let’s give them the resources they need. Money isn’t the only answer but it shouldn’t be that, just because I grew up in a wealthy suburb, my educational experience should be so vastly different from my peers in other areas.
To the teachers who have made such a difference in my life, I say thank you. To my friends who have chosen to spend their career in education, I say thank you. To the millions of teachers around the country who constantly find new ways to inspire, I say thank you. To Senator Ayotte and Governor Romney, I suggest you stop talking and start listening. Listen to those who have dedicated their career to building the future American workforce. Listen to the parents who have seen, first-hand, the lasting impact a teacher can have. Listen to the students who have become inspired by a teacher and, as a result, are now pursuing a career in engineering or math. You just might learn something.