Considering the influence of teachers unions at the education decisionmaking table, the political nature of public education systems, and the militancy from the battles with school districts in the 1960s and 1970s, one would think teachers would be more-politically savvy and made of stronger stuff. But the uncritical praise often given teachers, the lack of intellectual vigor in ed schools (and in the education profession in general), and the relative labor peace that has come since the 1980s, has made many ill-equipped to deal with the critical examination of teaching that has come courtesy of the school reform movement and teacher quality reform advocates.

What has resulted is accusations from some (if not many) teachers that they and their profession are being unfairly (and personally) bashed. They fail to consider the need for overhauling antiquated practices, compensation systems and performance management activities that do far more damage to teaching and don’t realize that circling the proverbial wagons doesn’t work in the age of rigorous debate about improving education for all children (if it ever did).

In this Voices of the Dropout Nation, teacher-turned-education scholar Stuart Rhoden (whose own hard-hitting words and arguments have caused plenty of ruckus among his fellow teachers), tells his fellow teachers that it is time to get a thin skin and stop regarding every criticism and debate over the future of teaching as a personal assault. Read, consider and take action.

This past September, the controversial documentary Waiting for Superman was released around the country. The film highlights many of the inequities in public education and shows us the lives of several children and families around the country and their effort to achieve a better educational outcome.  The film has been both lauded and panned by educational experts from coast to coast.

Rather than reiterate those debates, I think the focus should be on a more pertinent matter which has arisen in the wake of the discourse.  The essential questions should not aimed at the film, but rather those who feel the most threatened by the film: Teachers.

Teaching is, of course, one of the most important professions in the world.  Everyone who has succeeded in any aspect of life has done so in large part because of a teacher or several teachers who have served as mentors and an inspiration to think beyond the world which exist into a world of the possible.  On a personal note, teaching is what I call the “family business.” I grew up at the foot of several family members who were on the front lines of public schooling in Chicago – which during the 70s and 80s was no easy road.  There were teachers strikes, walkouts and of course constant change from the Superintendent’s office to the rank and file.  Of course, as the old saying goes, the only thing constant, was change.

Some 20 plus years later, I entered the profession as one who was fortunate enough to have traveled the length of the city visiting public schools in a variety of neighborhoods in Chicago and through my young eyes a variety of teaching styles and modalities.  Although I didn’t understand at that time exactly what was taking place I did know my own schooling rarely mirrored what I saw in these public school classrooms.  When I attended a large comprehensive high school (5,000 students) on the North side of Chicago, my concerns began to take voice.

I will never forget one of my teachers, an English teacher, who held me after class and asked “why are you here, Stuart?” My reply was one of confusion. I did not know what he was talking about.  What he explicitly said to me was that because of my strong educational background, this school might not be right for me.  He stated that there were many students in the class who could not keep up and that his focus was aimed at them, rather than me and the others who excelled.  He further went on to say that he thought I should “go back” to a school which would continue to foster my love of learning and help me grow.  I was shocked.

I have a strong respect for teachers and teaching. As a son of an educator and an educator myself, I know how hard all various external and internal forces converge upon teachers. There are administrators, districts, and of course other teachers who all have an interest in “educating children”. But sometimes, those interest do not mesh. In this era of testing and post-No Child culture, it is important that teachers learn how to not only be political, but to learn how to hit back.

The backlash from Waiting for Superman and the current discourse shows that teachers are highly offended whenever the profession is called into question. That is not how politics works. In politics, you need to have a thick skin.

In 21st century public discourse, we are inundated with blog posts, internet chatter and public media outlets telling us what to think, how we should feel and that everything is a crisis. We have to take the offensive without being offensive. The teaching profession is rightly criticized and at the same time, not every criticism may be valid. But for every criticism, we do not need to claim “bias” or “bashing”. Instead, we need to articulate why rather than cry blame every time.

If we don’t explain why teaching needs to be valued, reformed and yes purged of ineffective teachers (after an evaluative process and time to improve) then we will continue to lose the public trust when it comes to improving the profession.