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Leadership and Activism

Reclaiming the Table

Over the past few months, I’ve started to feel cautiously hopeful that things might be taking a turn for the better. It started when I read and signed the Declaration of Professional Conscience for Teachers earlier this year, and continued as I watched groups like Parents Across America pick up steam, and as I got more involved with the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action.

The feeling really got a jolt when public workers — many of them teachers — steadfastly defended their rights in Wisconsin, and were joined by citizens across Wisconsin and the entire United States. I’m encouraged and excited to see that all over the world, people are rising up and resisting the forces of oppression.

As these movements grow in size and power, let’s all resolve to stop doing one thing: Let’s stop asking for a “place at the table.”

I hear this phrase way too often when I talk to teachers, parents, and the organizations that (are supposed to…) represent us. It’s not just that the metaphor itself is tired. It’s the way of thinking that underlies it.

If I cooked a meal from scratch, in my own home, with ingredients I supplied, and some unexpected guests stopped by, I’d welcome them in for something to eat. I’d try to make them feel comfortable, share some conversation, maybe open a bottle of wine. What I would not do, is ask if it was OK if I sat down. (And I certainly wouldn’t quietly tolerate them coming in, rearranging, or even destroying my home!) After all, it’s my home and my table — though it is my responsibility to be a gracious host, I am still very much in charge. It’s not their place, or their right, to tell me what to do and how to do it while in my space.

That is how families, students and teachers need to start approaching the matter of education reform — “Nothing about us, without us.” These are our children, our tax dollars, our schools, our communities, our careers and our futures. We cannot accept being pushed to the margins of our own domain.

Of course, all parents, teachers, students, and community members are not going to agree on every detail of what they want schools to look like, and as I’ve always said, that’s OK. The real problem is that right now, we have to struggle just to have an honest conversation about what is going on in our schools and what we need to do to strengthen them (or keep them strong, as the case may be). What’s more, in our quest to avoid ruffling feathers, or stay on good terms with the political and economic powerhouses currently calling the shots, we’ve conceded so much ground that we’re at risk of losing basic things — like a truly professional teaching force and the very idea that schools should be public and open to all.

Though the majority of us are satisfied with our own neighborhood schools, many of us have fallen victim to a deceptive narrative that suggests most American schools are inadequate or “failing.” Astroturf organizations have capitalized on our ignorance, using it (and some parents‘ well-earned dissatisfaction) to promote their own political, economic and ideological agendas.

Because too many regular teachers, students and parents have been silent, we hear constantly about “failing” schools and bad teachers, but little about why these schools are so poor, what it will take to build schools that work for all kids, or what it takes to create systems that develop, support, and retain good teachers. We hear about how we should be adjusting to the “New Normal” of austerity and inadequacy, but we never get around to talking about how our budgets got so lean in the first place, or how it’s possible that so many of us are struggling while a few of us are living quite large.

We fight “education wars” over curriculum and pedagogy, without stopping to question why this is so political in the first place. If we all care about children, and America’s future, shouldn’t the conversation be about making sure we marshal all of our resources to support them? We know that one size doesn’t fit all, and that different approaches will work for different children; we know that most questions have more than one right answer. Instead of trying to find the “one right way,” shouldn’t we encourage teachers to learn as much as possible, so they can have a wealth of skills and knowledge to draw on as they respond to children’s different, and rapidly-changing, needs?

To use the metaphor once more before retiring it: Since the “table” is ours, why are we still having the same tired menu that leaves their stomachs full, but ours empty?

Note that when we focus on “bad” teachers, “failing” schools, or fake “wars”, we don’t end up with better education. We end up leaving all teachers vulnerable to unfair (but potentially cost-cutting) treatment, losing neighborhood institutions and investing in scripts and tests instead of strong, effective professionals.

We deserve better. Here’s hoping that the sleeping giant continues to stir, and that we all continue to find –and raise — our voices for justice.

About Sabrina

At any given moment, I am some combination of the following: A teacher, thinker, advocate, writer, and student. A wife, sister, daughter, friend, and party-goer. A cook, knitter, reader, musician, and traveler. I have a sarcastic sense of humor, but I'm totally willing to give you the shirt off my back if it looks like you need it. (Kinda like lemon meringue...always seeking that balance between tart and sweet.)


7 thoughts on “Reclaiming the Table

  1. Thanks Sabrina for adding to the conversation. I think, through an underlying tone, you nailed a lot of the aspects and dissatisfaction that many in the educational world are feeling at the moment.

    There is no doubt, that there are educational wars abound and a struggle, economical, political and ideological regarding education. What I hope, is that coming out of this high intensity is a resolute to authentic learning and progressive educational tactics, pedagogy and responsibility, understanding the basic elements of connecting learning to life.

    What I fear, is that one of two things will happen: One, that the oppression voice remains, continually pushing the oppressed into a corner, so that the voice of learning remains silent, because of the oppressed responsibility or need to keep basic element in tact. Or Two, that a “place at the table” happens, but does so, to accomidate the system and the teacher, but that leaves the learner and LEARNING out in the cold, continually ignored, as is, the proper stance of most individuals currently involved in the system (by choice, frustration, cyncism, or dominance).

    To me, the reality and idealism of the public system, its community and millions of invested individuals, must remain. However, a pedagogical and curriculum “war” or conversation as I call it, must continue, otherwise, whether the schools and teachers and funding are in place or not, the harming of the student, the stunting of their creativity and innovation, sense of play and self will continue to decline.

    So, I guess to me, it is not so much about things getting “better or worse” or “a war” but rather an opportunity, one to educate others regarding education and one to educate ourselves regarding education as well. There are many ways our current vitality may go, but now, is the time to make the voices for learning heard.

    Posted by Casey Caronna | March 3, 2011, 9:26 pm
  2. Sabrina, great metaphor.

    What do you think schools do most successfully? What aren’t they doing that they should be doing? How would you get the ball rolling on any changes you’d like to see?

    I think our schools are trapped in a shell-game, but I also think they aren’t designed to do much else apart from playing along. What’s worth saving and what’s worth changing?

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 4, 2011, 9:38 am
  3. Sabrina,

    This is a powerful reminder of the power that can’t be given to us or taken for us. It is also a reminder that we must start promoting what is working in education and how to facilitate communitie­s of teachers, students, parents and communitie­s to build schools that work. I have been working with IDEA (www.democr­aticeducat­ to do this type of work. IDEA goal is to promote what is working on both a National level and a local level. To use the energy of the grassroots to inform the policy and conversati­on/action at a national level and the national conversati­on/action to inform and facilitate the work at the grassroots level.

    This is a very important and powerful post! Thank you

    David Loitz

    Posted by dloitz | March 4, 2011, 12:08 pm
  4. Sabrina, I really thank you for this post. As it happens, I just this morning returned from presenting at an alternative educator’s conference (NARENWICH) in Stephens Point, Michigan yesterday. Most of the teachers there had been to Madison several times, had been protesting actively, taking their students down to protest with them; many were facing disciplinary action from their districts. What they said almost universally was how moving and transformative it was to be part of a huge, non-violent, calm, powerful political action in which people are standing up and giving voice to deep principles and beliefs. They described the spontaneous conversations outside the capital building they would have with 15 random people about their ideas and belief, how people are helping each other other out and sharing everything, how united they feel as they face greater and greater opposition. They also spoke about the increasing fear and sense of foreboding in their districts, as they potentially face massive layoffs, cuts to their programs (alternative education, needless to say, the first to go), uncertainty about the future. One woman said that the day before yesterday a teacher in her school stood outside of her room after school and just started crying, and how they hugged–they had never talked to each other before. Another said, “Madison is really about the best of human nature coming out. Everything that we can be as human beings that’s good–it’s all there.”

    Teachers also say they feel united in ways that they never have before, connected at the school building level and to a larger cause. “Wisconsin teachers will never be the same,” many said; personally will never be the same. One many named Randall said, “I’m prepared to lose my house over this. It matters that much.”

    For anyone who has ever participated in non-violent political action, YES, we so get it, and stand in solidarity. I am hoping these are the beginnings of something I have hoped and longed for for a long time–for the sector to take charge of itself as a profession and say: this is what we are about, these are the quality standards we demand, we will enforce our own professional standards because our work is so vitally important. I sense that dawning chain of actions in the room yesterday, as I sat with people and they described what Madison meant and means to them.

    Your post is about exactly this, not asking for a seat at the table but feeling like the table is yours, and you invite folks to it to figure out how you can improve the meal.

    Thank you for voicing this.

    Posted by Kirsten | March 4, 2011, 12:59 pm
  5. Sabrina,
    I enjoyed reading your post you brought up many points of contention within our current political and education system. As David, mentioned IDEA is working to do what you suggested while recognizing that we must not alienate any stakeholder or constituent, so that we are not excluding anyone from the table or even thinking that it’s ours. The table or any other metaphor we want to use to talk about the inalienable human right to choose how, where, in what way and why we are educated truly belongs to everyone.

    At the moment, there are those who think they are the table and that which ever mandate suits their political ideology is all that needs to be for a bountiful table. We have all witnessed the results when this happens (most recently with “Race to the Top” and “NCLB” ). I know that we as educators fight such an uphill battle everyday and would love to put to rest many old, tired arguments or metaphors however, if we too quickly abandon common language that will allow for dialog we will make a big misstep.

    We have been on the other side of the pendulum swing at different points in history, claimed the table as our own, and either didn’t think to, forgot to or deliberately meant to not invite others to it, this has contributed to the current state of education. While we don’t want to give ground just to be able to have a conversation we also want to make sure that the conversation will still happen. I have been en educator, activist and organizer for over 20 years and have watched as each camp blames the other , sidesteps agreements and mandates and drones on and on about how messed up the other side is.

    As much as I fully support and admire the educators in Wisconsin in their courageous and necessary uprising, my initial fear seems to be ringing true as pundits and “experts” on each side fire shot after shot at the other. Imagine one of the arguments being brought up is that “teachers” only work 9 months per year” As ludicrous as this is and as much as I want to say just that to those that spout this off, the truth is, a lot of people don’t really don’t know what goes into teaching, the same way that I don’t know what goes into being an auto mechanic.

    The education field has contributed and continues to contribute to this lack of knowledge by deliberately or otherwise locking the community and stakeholders out of the conversation and out of the locals where education is implemented. (E.g. they are some who think parents have no place in the classroom and have no valuable input). This lack of knowledge fans the flames of indignation, suspicion, false accusations, damaging mandates and misguided transformation efforts.

    We must approach all of this with humility, quelled egos, heaps and heaps of understanding and a lot of support for each other. Far too often as you said we get caught up in the wars of education both internally and externally and while some of this is positive, the result is often each side retreating to their respective corners. Like boxers each side waits for the bell to ring and come out swinging, the bell could be anything from Race to the top, Michelle Rhee, Standardized tests, project based learning, school choice and what we’re seeing now in Wisconsin.

    Yet again many of these discussions have resulted in an us against them mentality, or a they say deal. This can’t happen anymore because they is us, them is us, us is us. Though we are the ones who “do this everyday” and thus most likely have a better understanding of what is needed we have no more of a claim to or a stake in education than the rest of humanity in terms of it’s importance in creating a more just, sustainable and democratic society.

    One of the aspects that needs to be in place in order for any transformation to happen is, those who are involved in the transformation must assent to the change. If we come to a common table which education already is, we will not have to worry about who owns or thinks they own the table and whether someone has the right to tell another what to do. We can than get to the point where we can assent to the change and pool our resources, at the moment resources are hoarded or sparsely doled out because the sides don’t want to contribute to each other’s table.

    Like you I see a lot of hope there is a movement away from ownership and towards a shared stake in humanity. Great post!


    Posted by Peter Berg | March 4, 2011, 7:31 pm
  6. Well Said, Peter!!!

    Posted by Casey Caronna | March 5, 2011, 2:24 am
  7. how about we offer it up cafeteria style?..
    focus on the learner owning the learning and being connect ed:

    Posted by monika hardy | March 5, 2011, 9:36 pm

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