The Micropolitics of Teaching

Besides managing a classroom of 20 to 30 or more students, besides teaching lessons every day, teachers also politick.

Arguing that superintendents and principals, in addition to their managerial and instructional roles, are political in leading districts and schools is credible because of all the stakeholders involved in districts and schools. Those stakeholders have to be mobilized, massaged, and influenced—given the value conflicts over which goals to pursue, how much money to spend, how to teach, what students should learn, and how much testing to do–all of which naturally divide voters and parents. But putting politics and teaching together? That’s a bit too much. I know this is going to be a hard sell but bear with me.

In the post on principals and their political role (December 15, 2009) I pointed out that at the end of the 19th century big-city Republican and Democratic political machines handed out teacher, principal, and janitorial jobs to supporters. Textbook publishers bribed school board members to buy their products. School board members put their nieces on the payroll. Teachers often paid district officials to get a post in the district. They were hired year-to-year and fired if the superintendent’s in-law needed a job. Corruption was the norm.

At the beginning of the 20th century, progressive reformers divorced party politics from the conduct of schooling. Governance reforms led school boards to dump party hacks from their ranks and recruit business leaders and civic-minded professionals to serve. Civil service regulations ended the buying and selling of school jobs.

Not only because of the progressive movement a century ago but also because separating politics and schools became embedded in professional training of teachers, the power of that norm remains strong today. It should come as no surprise, then, that few, if any, teachers take public stands on educational reforms except through their unions and professional organizations. When they do speak out, it is as private citizens. Individual teachers are expected to implement policies that school boards, governors, state legislatures, and Congress–authorize. They are NOT expected to campaign publicly as teachers in the district to get particular policies adopted.

Now, here is the rub. None of what I just said means that teachers do not engage in politics. They do–inside the school–because teachers influence what students do in their classrooms, what other teachers teach, and what parents consider important. None of these micropolitics, however, crosses the line of partisanship.

Teachers, of course, do not like to talk about being “political.” Euphemisms like “working with parents,” “kissing up to superiors,” “Gathering support for the new program”—as I have heard them over the years–are favored constructions in their vocabularies.

But it is politicking, whatever you call it. Consider that many teachers in a school faced with adopting 1:1 laptops or Open Court reading, or the district’s new test will enlist other teachers to support or oppose the venture.

And when it comes to classrooms, teachers—expected to keep classroom order, cover curriculum standards, get students ready for tests, wipe noses and give students a shoulder to cry on–allocate their time and energy to instruction while nervously glancing at the wall clock. They negotiate compromises with students over behavior and achievement, and bargain with other teachers, parents, and school administrators for more resources to help their students. In short, they act politically.

Determining who gets what, when, and under what circumstances to achieve desired objectives is the classic formula for political behavior. And that is what teachers do.

Watch those films that celebrate heroic teachers such as “Stand and Deliver,” “Dangerous Minds,” and “Freedom Writers.” These bigger-than-life teachers mobilize their students, bargain–even fight–with school principals, and negotiate with outside organizations to acquire money and help. These film heroes know that exerting political influence inside the classroom and outside the school is crucial to their success in pushing and helping students to do their best.

Non-film teachers, however, who labor day in and day out may not use the vocabulary of politicking and may even detest the words but they practice micropolitics every day (micropolitics and leadership). Few, however, get on the silver screen or brag about it.

So what? Why is it important to establish that teachers (and principals) act politically in their lessons, classrooms, and schools? Here is the hard sell: Micropolitics in classroom and school are essential not distasteful tasks that practitioners perform. To reach the goals they want to achieve—literacy, civic engagement, job preparation, moral development–every teacher and principal, in different ways and in different proportions, performs three basic roles: They instruct, manage, and politick. The simple recognition of political behavior as a natural part of working in places called schools would help both professionals and lay people to understand the real world that practitioners inhabit every single day.

2 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach

2 responses to “The Micropolitics of Teaching

  1. Yesterday on NPR’s This American Life, a class was featured where the most disruptive student (Lewis, if I recall) would be given five minutes a day of “Lewis Time” if he behaved the previous day. That’s politics.

    Even better, the fellow students would determine whether Lewis deserved his time. That’s politics at its best.

    By the way, I blogged on the same thing re Debbie Meier and my experiences in TWIE last week or so.

    You are also correct that teachers don’t feel confortable calling our jobs politics, and that’s a shame. In fact, if we embraced that honorable term, we’d become more effective in the micro politics of the classroom.

    As one who has engaged in school system and policy politics, through the union and independently, I welcome the rise of collaboration. But we’d be better off embracing the old-fashioned word of “compromise.” Under compromises, you don’t have to agree; you just honor your agreement. It is a more humble word.

    Similarly, when districts impose top down policies, like curriculum alignment and pacing, meaning that we’re supposed to teach at the same rate in a hardcore inner city high school as the magnets, we need micropolitics with our administrators.

    I preferred the pre-NCLB politics where teachers, union leaders, administrators etc. would trash things out over cheap beer and then honor our handshake agreements. Now that self-righteous “reformers” have set the tone, too many administrators feel that their pure motives are more important than honoring agreements. As Meier wrote, reformers have turned back the clock to the early 20th century and they’ve done so in a way that the silk-stock progressives, the Fabians, and Henry Ford would have admired.

    • larrycuban

      John,
      Thanks for the cogent comment on “Micropolitics in the Classroom” and examples you offered. They are on-target and illustrate the post well. Your further comments on the matter of compromise–another way of saying a political agreement because power-sharing is involved–again hit the bullseye.

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