Free Minds Free People began on a Thursday this year, with an afternoon session just for teachers. This "Radical Professional Development" represented a sharp twist on the professional development we usually endure. Often, of sad necessity, our in-school p.d. must conceal the political nature of public schools and of the attacks on us. At Rad PD, we were able to call spades spades, to label and criticize the neoliberal agenda of "reformers."
How does neoliberalism relate to education? Well, it tries to impose business models on education, treating students like products, trying to turn the public good of education into a private privilege and wealth-accumulating mechanism. I read a lot about neoliberal policies, and this wasn't news to me. But it's good to refocus on how neoliberalism tries to make you blame yourself for not having work, or the students blame themselves for their hunger and lack of medical access. This is a vehicle by which neoliberal thought stigmatizes collective action and makes us believe it is inefficient, ineffective, cheating our employers, etc. If social problems were only individual failings, then we would have only ourselves to fix, and not the society.
Overall, we discussed the need to create institutions where students, teachers, and parents are all allies rather than enemies.
In the first presentation, the speakers did praise unions as pretty much the only thing standing between corporations and complete control over education. However, then we heard representatives from three different crisis situations in this battle: a teacher in an embattled ethnic studies program in Tuscon, AZ; a representative of NYCore, who helped organize against massive teacher layoffs in New York City; and two women from the fight in Wisconsin. In all these cases, they reported that the union was less than helpful for on-the-ground organizing work. That was so discouraging--the union in Kansas is pretty supportive, I think, compared to all the negative pressures on teachers here.
All emphasized that "teachers' working conditions are students' learning conditions!" Sane, happy, balanced teachers are GOOD for kids, not detrimental to their well-being as those who would turn teaching into high-stress, low-wage labor would have us believe. The teacher from Tucson discussed the bizarre, Orwellian character of teaching an Illegal Class; his department (Mexican American studies) has been declared illegal by a strange new law in Arizona (see Save Ethnic Studies for more information). How peculiar to have a class outlawed! Under false charges that it teaches overthrowing the American government too...I guess teaching how non-whites have contributed to our cultural makeup is not part of what our ruling elite want students to know.
In any case, I very much enjoyed hearing from educators around the country who are fighting the good fight for social justice education.