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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 12/22/2009

Cuban: School teachers as politicians

By Valerie Strauss

My guest today is Larry Cuban. He is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years, including seven at Cardozo and Roosevelt high schools in the District), district superintendent (seven years in Arlington, Virginia) and university professor (20 years at Stanford University) emeritus since 2001.

By Larry Cuban
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 to most parents and voters 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 that naturally divide adults in U.S. schools. But putting politics and teaching together? That’s a bit too much. I know this is going to be a hard sell but stay with me.

In the earlier post 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 that seldom do individual teachers take public stands (when they do, it is as a private citizen) on the worth of educational reforms except through their unions and professional organizations. Individual teachers are expected to exercise their technical and organizational skills in implementing 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 such as "working with parents," "kissing up to superiors," "just gathering support for the new program"-as I have heard them over the years--are favored constructions in their vocabularies.

But it is politicking, however you call it. Consider that many teachers in a school faced with adopting, say 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 carefully their time and energy to instruction while nervously glancing at the wall clock.

They negotiate compromises with students over behavior and achievement. They bargain with other teachers, parents, and school administrators for more resources and help for 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 mobilized their students, bargained--even fought--with school principals, and negotiated with outside organizations to acquire money and help. These film heroes knew that exerting political influence inside the classroom and outside the school was 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. 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? My answer is brief: Micropolitics in classroom and school are essential--not distasteful--tasks that teachers and principals 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.

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By Valerie Strauss  | December 22, 2009; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Teachers  | Tags:  teachers  
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I agree. Our entire jobs are political at one level or another...from the examples you gave to the curriculum we teach to the salaries we receive to the number of days we teach or how much planning time we have.

As the past President of a local NEA affiliate it never ceased to amaze me how non-political teachers were/are.

Part of the problem lies in fear for their job and the hold that administrators have over the number of students teachers are assigned to the demographics of the class to the duties they are assigned and the evaluations they receive.

We have not come that far from the days when your job had a direct correlation to who you knew or how much you paid them...just a different manner of payment.

Posted by: ilcn | December 27, 2009 10:44 AM | Report abuse

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