Besides managing a classroom of 20 to 30 or more students, besides teaching lessons every day, teachers also practice politics.
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 previous posts on principals and their political role 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 the above 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 phrases.
But it is politicking, whatever you call it. Consider that many teachers in a school faced with adopting “personalized learning” or a mandated math program, or the state’s new standardized test will enlist other teachers to support or oppose the venture. Non-political euphemisms avoid the obvious conflicts in power, influence, and values that permeate teaching and being a teacher in a school and district.
And when it comes to classrooms, teachers—expected to keep classroom order, cover curriculum, use new technologies, differentiate instruction, get students ready for tests, wipe noses and give students a shoulder to cry on–allocate their time and energy while nervously glancing at the wall clock. Potential conflicts hover over classrooms. Teachers are authorized by the state to teach content, skills, attitudes and values to reach particular outcomes. They are expected to both control and support learning. They figure out which students will be helpful and which might hinder reaching their goals. This is a political analysis that seeks to avoid conflicts.
But conflicts occur anyway. To reach their goals, teachers use their formal and informal powers to reduce tensions. So teachers work out conflicts, for example, by negotiating compromises with students over behavior and achievement. They bargain with other teachers, parents, and school administrators for more resources to help their students. In short, they do politics (see here and here)
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 everyday in managing lessons, practicing the craft of teaching, and finessing conflicts.
Remember those films that celebrate heroic teachers such as “Stand and Deliver,” “Dangerous Minds,” and “Freedom Writers.” They show these teachers acting politically time and again. 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 also 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 act politically in their lessons, classrooms, and schools?
Here is the hard sell: Micropolitics in classroom and school are essential not distasteful tasks that teachers perform. To reach the goals they want to achieve—literacy, civic engagement, job preparation, moral development–every teacher 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 teachers inhabit every single day.
*This post is a revision of an earlier one written in 2010.