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Teachers must play a large role in fixing education

By Geoff Schutte

If you are a follower of education in Buffalo, good news is scarce and opinions are plenty. Local and state leaders from across the political and educational spectrum have all weighed in of late, offering excuses or solutions, threats or reminders of consequences. The litany of voices makes one fact abundantly clear: Education is essential to the future of our city, and something needs to be done to improve it.

There is one group whose absence from this conversation should be obvious, though tellingly and troublingly it is not. That is the voice of those who actually work in our schools, namely the building administrators and professional in-service teachers. The absence of their voices remains one of the glaring missteps of our current education reform agenda.

This is not simply another act of finger-pointing. Professional teachers themselves must own their piece, for too often they have abdicated their independent professional voice in the name of a collective one. Teachers must begin to speak more directly about the issues they face, the professional development they need and the support that is necessary to help all students achieve. When this is the conversation we are having, then we will begin to see results.

Last year, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo created a commission designed to develop solutions to our education morass. He stocked it with “experts” and leading voices in the education field – all except one: There wasn’t a single practicing in-service teacher on the commission. Can you imagine an “expert panel” on health care that didn’t include even one doctor?

The commission’s exclusion of professional practicing teachers barely went noticed, mostly because this is the paradigm we have come to expect. This exclusion, sadly, is the rule.

Until the conversation shifts from blame and vitriol, and focuses on pedagogy and practice and how teachers work with students from poverty, nothing will improve. The problem isn’t the lack of concerned leaders, good ideas, or hard work; the problem is that we still aren’t listening to those who know our students the best.

Even in the depths of our despair, there is hope. New standards for the profession promise to produce better, more prepared teacher candidates; research continues to offer new insights into how students learn and how best to teach them; examples of schools that succeed, despite the background of their students, offer proof that solutions do exist; and most promising of all, teachers are, and will remain, one of the most essential and important professions our society has. It’s about time we started listening to them.

Geoff Schutte is a teacher at Tapestry Charter School and the co-founder of Educators for a Better Buffalo, which advocates for an informed teacher voice in education.