Actions Speak Louder than Words

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos says she wants to empower teachers to make them great. Detroit teacher Stephanie Griffin isn’t buying it… 

By Stephanie Griffin
When teachers in Detroit organized sick-outs last year, we weren’t in *receive mode,* as Betsy DeVos would say, waiting to be told what to do. The protests came about because no one would listen: not the school district, not our union, not our political representatives, and not the state that has been running the Detroit Public Schools for nearly two decades, during which conditions for teachers and students have gotten progressively worse. And our protests weren’t *sponsored and carefully planned.* My school, Cass Tech, is one of the best schools in the city, but teachers here believe in solidarity, and we knew that our only hope of drawing attention to the plight of teachers and students in Detroit was to join the protests. So we joined in, along with teachers from 90 other schools, and we ended up getting national attention.

After teachers at the Washington DC school Betsy DeVos visited last week challenged her depiction of them, she clarified her remarks and tried to paint herself as a champion of teacher voice and empowerment. Don’t believe it for a minute. DeVos is a champion of diminishing teacher voice and above all, weakening teacher unions. That’s why the politicians she funds were so quick to try to take teacher certification from teachers who participated in the *sick outs.* Public school teachers still have unions, which means you can’t just run roughshod over them. If DeVos and her allies can’t take our unions away from us, what they can do is try to come up with new ways to silence us. What teacher who loses his or her certification is going to choose to remain in the profession?

As for DeVos claiming she just wants to empower teachers, don’t believe that either. The goal is to have teachers who do what they’re told to do, even when the directives don’t make sense. They want robots. In the charter schools that DeVos wants more of, teachers are overwhelmingly *at will* employees, meaning that they can be dismissed for any reason, including speaking up against practices that they think are inappropriate or counterproductive. I know. I taught at a charter school that lacked resources, competent leadership or even a curriculum (despite having someone on staff whose title was Curriculum Director). I saw first hand how powerless teachers are when administrators have all the power and can just let you go for speaking out. When charter school teachers in Detroit have tried to organize unions, the schools have gone to great lengths to fight them, like at this charter, where the school changed management companies and tried to get rid of teachers whom they suspected supported the union.

In Detroit, we are still waiting for our political leaders to admit that their policies have failed, that students and teachers don’t have the resources they need to even begin to compete, and that the local community has been disenfranchised. Instead, the narrative gets switched to *these students are of lesser intelligence and their teachers are of lesser quality,* followed by the argument that if we just up the level of accountability and close more schools, that’s going to make the difference. The real story is that there aren’t certified teachers in every class. That teachers are being forced to teach outside of their specialty because of teacher shortages, or being forced to work for eight or nine hours without a break. And that the resources are outdated and there are classes with no books.

A court in Michigan ultimately sided with the teachers, ruling that we have the right to protest. Even if we were faced with the loss our certification, though, I think my colleagues and I would keep fighting; to stop would be to fail a whole city of people. As long as I see systematic racism and oppression happening to people who look like me but lack my voice and access, I have to keep drawing attention to what’s going on. But this isn’t just a Detroit thing, a Black and Brown student thing, or a poor people problem. They started it here to perfect the hierarchy and it’s coming to a city or a school district near you. People like Betsy DeVos who see schools as a source of profit don’t discriminate against the suburbs or the city. They’re coming for every district. It’s just easier to get your foot in the door in a city where you’ve disenfranchised everyone.

My colleagues and I didn’t wait to be told what to do and you shouldn’t either.

Stephanie Griffin is a veteran teacher in Detroit, a leader of the Detroit Teachers for Fairness and Equity caucus of the Detroit Federation of Teachers and an Ed.D student. She’ll be writing regularly about Detroit and its schools for Have You Heard. Follow her on Twitter at @iteach4detroit.