Who Are We? Teacher Identity and Class Consciousness
Those of you who know me beyond this blog (Twitter, Facebook, flesh), know I support organized labor and the working class, and that I lament the loss of class identity in so many middle and working class Americans including, and especially, teachers.
At a recent meeting of NJTAG, this topic came up amidst a broader discussion of a spring conference we’re working on that will include allies in academia. In the course of the discussion, we decided that most teachers have difficulty embracing two identities which are traditionally thought of as disparate, but ones we think can coexist unproblematically. We think teachers should not only couple these identities more, but also enthusiastically embrace them.
The two identities are: 1. the academic/intellectual/expert, and 2. the member of the working-class/organized labor.
In the interest of keeping this post relatively short, I’m not going to extensively discuss the reasons why teachers are reluctant to identify each way. But i will try to sketch the basics for you.
A great number of teachers are averse to academia, reflexively view education theory as disconnected from practice (the ivory tower idea), or at least are skeptical and biased before digesting it, and — not unrelated — are also reluctant to call themselves intellectuals, experts, or constructors of knowledge (which is funny, considering many promote student agency of that kind). It is interesting to me that many teachers will groan, “Oh, here comes an education guru telling me how to do my job. When was the last time he/she was in the classroom?” yet will decline the opportunity to take the reins of praxis. (And so “PD” becomes something with negative connotations.) But even beyond this identity formed by a role as education expert, many teachers, even very good ones, just don’t see themselves as an “intellectual” (free from any determination by role, just on its own).
Similarly, like all too many Americans, many teachers have lost touch with the notion of class identity. I don’t have to re-hash here all the recent articles on people voting against their interests, thinking wealth distribution in America is fairer in than it actually is, or buying into the Horatio Alger myth of meritocracy. Many teachers are not immune to this broader problem. Whether it’s because they have reached some level of middle-class comforts or because they are reluctant to identify with the more often “blue-collar” notion of the labels, many teachers don’t readily find comfort thinking of themselves as “labor” and “working class,” and therefore often lack the reflexive solidarity with other members of organized labor and workers’ issues. Tell many teachers that, as public school educators, they should automatically be advocates for public education, teachers’ unions (in a general sense, forgetting for now the problematic policies or non-action by many such unions), and for ALL organized labor (again, generally) and workers in general, and you will not be well-received, if they even understand what you’re saying in the first place. It should be noted, however, that they are not resisting this from “the left” — i.e. a stance against “big labor” complacency and tepidness — though such critiques do need to eventually be situated in this discussion. For now, I’m speaking of labor solidarity in broad terms. We can get teachers to fight for things like union democracy and social justice unionism once we get them to think of themselves as “labor” with agency to begin with. Finally, although this is a generalization, the reluctance to accept this second worker/labor identity is most prevalent in teachers of certain subject areas like math, science, and business, and, to a lesser degree, in early childhood/elementary teachers.
Is there a solution? How can we 1. marry the seemingly disparate identities of academic/intellectual/expert and working-class/organized labor AND get K-16 public educators to embrace this “newly” (for many) re-coupled identity?
For several reasons I will avoid specific policy or practice answers to this question (e.g. more teacher action research, more agency in PD). My aim is to propose we generate a new “label” to help a.) conceptualize the re-coupling of the two problematic identities into something b.) educators can embrace as a teacher identity.
Where do we begin to look for an answer? Marx. (I know – you’re shocked I’m going there) Well, we’ll start there, but we can’t distill the answer directly from him. When determining the level of a worker’s exploitation, workers using more technology are actually “more exploited” because the difference between the necessary part of their work day (to create the value of their wage) and that of their actual work day is greater, hence they create more surplus value (i.e. are more exploited) than other workers. So if “cutting edge” workers in “advanced” industries create the most surplus and are therefore most exploited, where does that leave us in a de-industrialized American economy? In the last 20 years or so, we’d say that IT workers might fit that category.
So where do educators fit in? (There has been a lot of work done recently about academic labor qua labor, and at least one entire journal is dedicated to the subject. Also, Professor Lois Weiner is a great resource on teacher unionism. I can’t pretend to be well-read in this area of research, nor do I intend to be as academically rigorous as these scholars might be. My project is more in the realm of the accessible and colloquial.) Let’s forget about our use of “cutting edge” technology (if we even have access to it in our schools) and set aside the dependency on things like financial capital in the pursuit of economic profit for any traditionally Marxian analysis. While I had begun to produce a simplistic Marxian analysis of schooling that might address what “product,” “consumer,” or “profit” might mean to education, I’m not even going to go there, either. More simply, in an increasingly information-based and knoweldge-based, de-industrialized economy, educators (using our intellect/expertise as a major tool in our labor) are among the most “advanced,” most valuable workers and therefore are among the most exploited. We are intellectuals/experts AND workers/labor. In fact, one need not even use this quasi-Marxian approach to come to the conclusion that educators’ labor power is increasingly exploited. Whether it’s from their being forced to do more and more with less and less (the “productivity” scheme American workers are suffering from, hence record profits amidst rampant unemployment), or even more simply from weighing the hours and effort versus the pay, we know in our gut educators are, like laborers’ in Marx’s nineteenth century Germany, pretty damn exploited.
To me, highlighting the advanced/information facet of our job along with the exploited/labor part of it makes this quasi-Marxian analysis instructive and useful.
So how do we generate a label that captures educators’ status as experts/ intellectuals AND as workers/labor?
This group of information-age, knowledge-based proletarians — which includes teachers — has sometimes been called the “creative class” with more or less revolutionary implications. Freire used the term “cultural workers” with less immediate reference to political economy, though the book from which the term derives is not bereft of leftist political ideas. I love the term. Do we synthesize the two into something like “cultural class”? I, for one, also have not been averse to using “education workers,” though some have argued this term is too much “worker” and too little professional or expert. To them, it sounds like we’re factory workers, steel workers, or garment workers — i.e. it speaks to de-professionalization and reductivism facing teaching, co-signing processes that would have us be little more than automatons delivering scripted lessons for outcomes measurable by testing. In other words, “education worker,” to some folks, conjures up an image of assembly line, factory education. For others, the term is simply redundant or even sounds too blue-collar (“Isn’t a school janitor an education worker?”).
So – what term shall we use? What label respects and unites the idea of expertise and intellectualism with the spirit of unionism and worker solidarity? And how do we get our colleagues to embrace these concepts? What is that magic potion that gets a teacher to read and discuss a journal article on pedagogy and join a study circle on political economy? How do we promote a teacher identity for the 21st century, and one fit for the assault the profession faces?