Teachers Strike Back: Why “Left” and “Right” Don’t Work

They’re out there. In twenty-plus years of teaching and hanging around schools, I can say from experience that some of my friends and colleagues match the stereotype of the ardent, left-wing teacher, seeing their mission as introducing students to the disgusting excesses of capitalism. And maybe wearing scarves. And just as certainly, some teachers embody the tough-talking stereotype of the conservative teacher, pooh-poohing fads and frills and hoping to reach kids with the glories of self-sacrifice and flag waving. As the recent rash of teachers’ strikes has shown us, though, trite stereotypes of left and right don’t really help if we want to understand the cultural politics of teaching.

There shouldn’t be any doubt about the real reasons for these teacher strikes. In Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kentucky, and now Arizona and Colorado, teachers and public schools have faced crummy salaries and crummy conditions. Oklahoma’s teachers have shared pictures of their classrooms, textbooks, and paychecks. It’s not pretty.

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Crappy conditions, crappy paychecks….

At least one optimistic lefty has hoped that this wave of teacher strikes might be “the forefront of a major comeback by organized labor.”

I’m not so sure. But I can’t help but notice that pundits from both left and right have always assumed too quickly that teachers are somehow naturally politically progressive. In my research into the twentieth-century history of educational conservatism, for instance, I found that conservative activists assumed without even thinking about it that teachers tended to be soft on socialism.

The problem with schools and textbooks, many conservatives believed, was that too many teachers wanted to use their platform to push their students to the left. As one editorialist wrote in my local paper in 1940,

we don’t think it is fair to use taxpayer money in a democracy to teach the glory of collectivism to the budding citizens of a democracy.

Similarly, an American Legion activist at the time warned that too many teachers

will flavor their teaching with a bias in favor of the new collectivism which will subtly determine the content and method of their teaching.

We all know, of course, that some teachers really are politically progressive. Just dip a toe into the blogosphere and you’ll find plenty of examples. Some teachers really do hope to shake children free of the cruel thinking that undergirds capitalist society.

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Watch out for socialist teachers, c. 1949…

With all the attention to teachers in the recent spate of strikes, though, it’s more and more clear that political stereotypes and labels just don’t help much if we want to understand the way schools and teachers really work. Are today’s striking teachers really hoping to lead a comeback of organized labor? Maybe some are. Most of them are probably trying to pay their mortgages and teach their students.

As reporters in Arizona found out when they interviewed non-striking teachers, there is no simple way to categorize teachers’ politics. Are the teachers who voted against the walkout “conservative?” Maybe. Sort of. Kinda. But that label doesn’t begin to capture the mix of reasons teachers gave for opposing the walkout.

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More socialists in the schoolhouse, c. 1949…

One teacher and football coach, for example, seems like he was sent straight from culture-war central casting to fulfill the stereotype of the “conservative” teacher. He told reporters he felt he needed to show his students that he honored his contract. As he put it,

Life is about not getting what you want and finding a way to get it while you continue to fulfill your obligations and for me, my obligation is my contract.

As I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, this notion of teaching students tough lessons about traditional morality has always been central to conservative thinking about schools and education. And of course he’s the football coach.

Other strike-opposing teachers don’t seem quite so easy to put in one box or another. As one explained, she voted against the walkout for a mix of reasons. Primarily, she couldn’t stand to leave her students in the lurch. She told reporters,

The kids that I work with are at-risk kids … (the walkout) also puts them behind. A lot of them come from homes where it’s safer for them to be at school. A lot of kids I work with have severe and profound learning disabilities and their parents both have to work to provide for them. Now they can’t.

Plus, at age 57, she can’t afford not to work. Does she want to be paid more? Sure. She currently works three jobs to make ends meet. A walkout, though, puts her finances and her students’ well-being at risk.

Is that “conservative?” To this reporter, these walkouts help show once again that teachers are just as complicated as regular people.

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2 Comments

  1. Politics is full of caricatures.

    When asked, I like to say that I take the conservative position on abortion: “The best governement is the least government”. And I take the Christian position on LGBT issues: “Love thy neighbor”.

    Politics is rich in such obvious contradictions. That’s part of why I prefer to call myself “independent.”

    I generally have a lot of respect for teachers. But, I think what is really going on here, is that teaching is hard work. Unless a person has an appropriate attitude toward teaching, the job will drive them bonkers, and they will quit and find a more suitable job.

    Reply
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