Why Teachers Need To See Themselves as Experts
I just got back from the NNSTOY Conference in Washington D.C. The conference features some of the most decorated and outspoken teachers in the country. This year’s foci included racial and social justice (my raison d’etre, really), student voice, and teacher agency. I was fascinated with the conference’s forward thinking on this profession and the ways the organizers allowed its most potent practitioners to thrust this agenda forward. When you’ve assembled such a cadre of the country’s most visible spokespeople for this profession, you’re likely to get a good sense of where we are as a profession.
As an invited guest who is a National Board Certified teacher (NBCT), an internationally-recognized (notorious?) teacher-writer, and not-Teacher of the Year, I was fascinated by the humility. Even with all the A-type personalities in the room, the teachers in this space had a humility in their work that ought to be recognized. They generally come into their work with their hearts in the right place, and their minds on constant evolution. The folks in the room know how to walk into a classroom and make the space a learning vehicle.
That’s known as expertise in most professions, but for some reason, not this one.
(note: I’m defining “teacher” here as a licensed practitioner in our classrooms who works with such a title in a PK-12 setting in the classroom. That’s another fight entirely.)
I’m always concerned about how we own expertise. For an example, one of the things I learned through the NBCT process was that I had no idea how to directly talk about the profession. I’d use words like love, empathy, compassion, and failure to speak about my work in helping youth people find their paths. I still tell others that my work is nothing without my students and others who do the work.
I didn’t know how to directly say “I did this. Therefore, my students learned that.”
Part of that is the way that teachers are built. If we’re doing the work, then we see ourselves as learners along with the students. Expertise is often foreign in that framework because we’re neither confident nor settled in that One Truth. We’re using and giving away tools so that the next generation might do better than us. There’s also an underlying imposter syndrome that happens when we get thrown in spaces with folks with more visibility than us (media) and more political power (policymakers, administrators) and we’re asked to give the totality of a given subject when we’re not prepped for such an event.
At the same time, when there’s a narrative gap, too many folks will gladly fill it for any number of reasons. Plus, if we don’t love up on ourselves, who’s gonna love us?
If this happens to our most visible spokespeople, what does that say about the rest of us? We have systems that constantly bombard us with deficit modeling. I’ve sat in a billion PDs where we’re told that we’re failing our kids, even when the kids themselves say otherwise. The person saying it is usually a professional developer who isn’t worth their weight in whiteboard ink. Politicians tell us that we’re not yielding results with measures that are both inappropriate and wildly unstable. Then, they turn around and tell us they can’t alleviate and eradicate oppressions like poverty, institutional racism, gender inequity, and the prison injustice system. We’re told by any number of folks that they’d left the classroom for greener pastures but still taut the “teacher” title and get to speak on behalf of us. (Nah.) We get stacks of books from folks we love (few) and folks we have no love for (many), but the letters “Dr.” or “Ph. D” legitimized why a district spent thousands of dollars on folks who may or may not have better pedagogical knowledge than the folks being handed these books.
These pieces all contribute to the devaluation of teachers as experts.
When teachers get out there, we always gotta point, quote, show love, exalt outward. When we’re asked to name folks we consider experts, we forget to acknowledge those doing the work right from within our practitioner spaces, especially if they work in our own districts. We would do well to reassess how those deficits in expertise translate to the parents and students we work with, too.
We have countless stories of teachers who chose not to take credit for the work they did with students. The district acknowledges it, then goes on to take credit for creating environments that allowed the project to happen without acknowledging the origins. These gaps in the narrative, the ones teachers refuse to fill in because of humility, get closed up real quick with any number of policymakers who need to advance their cause.
So I don’t place blame on educators for not having taken their narrative before, but on a system (and its actors) for allowing K-12 adults to get erased. This paradigm of expertise usually makes adults strip kids of their own agency too. Parents and teachers often butt heads over this issue when they could be working together to dismantle said paradigm. And, given the dominance of women in the teaching profession, this is as much an issue of feminism as it is about teaching.
The breadth of teacher voice groups is an indication that there’s a small percentage of us willing to take steps to ensure we can re-construct a table that affirms students, parents, and community members along with the key stakeholders that wouldn’t do the same for us. On the other hand, it’s important to remain vigilant. Our voices can’t be scripted. In our quest to demonstrate humility, we can tip over into modesty, where we don’t acknowledge the fullness of the gifts we’ve been given. We don’t have to pretend to have it all together, either. I’m more suggesting that we should be allowed to express the depth of what we do and put our strongest foot in the work we’re already doing with our students and communities.
This is especially critical for those who work with our most marginalized students. The most powerful work I’ve seen in this space is when an adult puts a spotlight on the joys and injustices our students experience, and then speak with clarity on the moments and moves they make to give students hope and love. Contrary to our system’s deficiency models, teachers doing the work can both say “I know this well” and “I’m humbled by this.” We’re looking for heroes to come validate the work we do, but those with mics usually don’t pass them along. We can’t wait our turn on this one.
Teachers who do the work model justice in this way. When given a platform, the best of us can look at the rest of the society eye-to-eye, feet firmly planted, and let truth sprout from within. That’s the work, and if a teacher’s already there, then they should take a mic and pump up the volume. Shake the corridors.