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Tennessee’s teachers must stand strong and not be silent

An unprecedented volume of bills attacking teacher participation in education decision making have been filed in the 107th General Assembly.
 Al Mance

An unprecedented volume of bills attacking teacher participation in education decision making have been filed in the 107th General Assembly.

Faced with the challenge of improving student performance, the best the General Assembly can come up with is archaic legislation to recreate teaching and learning conditions that were obsolete long ago.

None of this legislation helps teachers provide a quality education for Tennessee’s boys and girls. Instead, it deprives teachers of an orderly process for making their voices heard in determining the best learning conditions for all students. Its sponsors only care that TEA endorsed legislators who support children and public education who happen to be Democrats. They don’t care that we also endorsed supporters of children and public education who happen to be Republicans. They just hate that there are more of the former than the latter.

In response, thousands of professional teachers, education support professionals, labor union members, families, friends and public education supporters rallied in Nashville on March 5, braving the rain, cold and predictions of severe storms. Hundreds more come to Nashville every Tuesday and Wednesday to attend meetings of the House and Senate Education Committees deliberating on the attack bills.

We must not let those swept into office by the public’s anxiety about the failing economy use that fear to silence the voices of teachers. Other General Assemblies found alternatives.

Time would be better spent passing laws that free teachers to create learning conditions that support higher student performance. The U.S. Supreme Court described the importance of such freedom. Justice Felix Frankfurter, writing for the majority in Wieman v. Updegraff, 344 U.S. 183 (1952), said:

“That our democracy ultimately rests on public opinion is a platitude of speech but not a commonplace in action. Public opinion is the ultimate reliance of our society only if it be disciplined and responsible. It can be disciplined and responsible only if habits of open-mindedness and of critical inquiry are acquired in the formative years of our citizens. The process of education has naturally enough been the basis of hope for the perdurance of our democracy on the part of all our great leaders from Thomas Jefferson onwards.

“To regard teachers – in our entire educational system, from the primary grades to the university – as the priests of our democracy is therefore not to indulge in hyperbole. It is the special task of teachers to foster those habits of open-mindedness and critical inquiry which alone make for responsible citizens, who, in turn, make possible an enlightened and effective public opinion. Teachers must fulfill their function by precept and practice, by the very atmosphere which they generate; they must be exemplars of open-mindedness and free inquiry. They cannot carry out their noble task if the conditions for the practice of a responsible and critical mind are denied to them. They must have the freedom of responsible inquiry, by thought and action, into the meaning of social and economic ideas, into the checkered history of social and economic dogma. They must be free to sift evanescent doctrine, qualified by time and circumstance, from that restless, enduring process of extending the bounds of understanding and wisdom, to assure which the freedom of thought, of speech, of inquiry, of worship are guaranteed by the Constitution…”

The unknowable futures of Tennessee boys and girls demand broad freedom for teachers if they are to ensure student success.

Effective change cannot be made unilaterally. Legislators cannot disregard students and teachers. Parents, students and educators must take responsibility for educational change. Failing to take responsibility, we can expect more archaic legislation.

(Al Mance is executive director of Tennessee Education Association.)

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