As Republicans discuss the future of the party, abandoning conservative values need not be part of the conversation. The party can appeal to larger segments of the electorate without forsaking core principles. One case in point is a group the party has long written off: public school teachers.
Conservative values go hand in hand with teaching. Teachers see the evidence every day that stable families produce well-adjusted kids who succeed in the classroom. Many teachers are people of faith. Most of us are proud Americans who say the pledge every day with our students and mean it. We teach kids how to show respect and use proper manners by modeling them ourselves. We stress personal accountability. We are people who believe in the political process and show up each Election Day because we love our country and are responsible citizens.
Broach the idea of limited government in education and you will find many takers. Teachers are choking under federal, state, and local mandates and regulations. They are stymied by an unrealistic amount of testing that takes time out of teaching and the joy out of learning. We have been hit with layer upon layer of government bureaucracy that pulls us in countless directions. Teachers spend too much of their day with redundant paperwork, wrestling with standards that are overly complex and often contradictory. Get the Department of Education off our backs. Keep it as an information clearinghouse, but give teachers and school districts more control, not less. We crave local control for our local problems. Speak about deregulating our classrooms and we are all ears.
Talk about teachers as if you actually like them, and mean it. Every time you begin to paint teachers with the same broad stroke, think about your favorite teacher. Would you say that of him or her? If not, rethink what you are saying. Conservative disdain for the profession is ubiquitous. Jeb Bush’s speech at the GOP convention about “failing schools” made me cringe, as did Chris Christie’s. Their criticisms may be aimed at unions, but their angry tenor feels dismissive of all public school teachers. Powerful men talking down to hardworking women is not an image the GOP should be promoting.
And face it: The majority of teachers are women. If you can appeal to us with realistic plans to empower teachers, you not only garner the votes of women, you gain union votes, too. Whether it’s coming from administrators or politicians, teachers resent -top-down demands that belittle their expertise and ignore their experience. Give teachers credit for what we do as professionals. We are facing a collapsing American culture that is at odds with education in general. It is that same collapsing culture that unites conservatives in support of traditional -values. Despite voting consistently for liberal candidates who actively court their votes, most teachers I know lead fairly traditional lives that respect faith, family, country, and community. These are consistent conservative values. Highlight the similarities.
Respect the professionalism of teachers. We are college educated and many have attended top universities. Teachers earn master’s degrees, sometimes second master’s degrees. They regularly update their skills with continued course work, summer institutes with experts in their content area, and other forms of professional development. Do people really want a novice doctor in the operating room? Is a recent law school graduate anyone’s top choice to defend them in court? Do people want a first-time contractor building their new home? They obviously prefer seasoned professionals. The same is true in the classroom. School boards cut costs by hiring inexperienced teachers. It helps the bottom line. It does not help students. Great educators develop over time, as in all the professions.
Conservatives promote school choice, which is fine, but closing public schools or requiring more hurdles of teachers in public schools than those in charter schools is unfair. Public school teachers also resent being held to higher standards and then admonished when they don’t meet them due to lack of resources or training. Public school teachers see the deck being stacked against them with the school choice argument. Besides, this argument is irrelevant to teachers in rural areas where school choice is a logistical impossibility. Teachers work in communities. They work to build up their schools, each of which has its own character, history, and traditions. Generations have passed through the doors of our buildings. Closing a school is never a sign of policy success. Don’t support those who would tear down schools in the name of progress.
Teachers are not government civil servants, so don’t lump us in the same category with federal and state workers. Teachers are typically hired by their local school boards and work for students and parents, not for the government. Having worked in the “real world” before becoming a teacher, I have a unique perspective on what motivates those who dedicate their lives to this noble profession, and it’s not the salary and benefits, it’s the dream of helping kids. How many civil servants moonlight to make ends meet? How many federal workers use their own money for basic supplies? Respect for and interest in our perspective would go a long way to bridge the political gap with educators. Teachers want to make our country better, too.
And please freshen up your talking points. Tenure as most people think of it is a thing of the past. Please stop acting as if teachers have jobs for life. Nationwide, new state requirements tie teacher positions to test scores and other markers. Teachers support tenure to ensure they receive a fair hearing should a grievance arise. We also support tenure to ensure academic freedom. Specious mandates enter our classrooms on a regular basis—including faddish instructional methods -conceived at liberal universities, and promoted with little or no evidence that they work. With tenure, experienced teachers, who know what is best for their students, can resist such mandates when necessary.
Unions are here to stay. Instead of dogging unions, appeal to the better nature of teachers. Some unions have voted to give up wages to help alleviate their districts’ budget deficits and to save teacher jobs so students can receive a well-rounded education. Republicans crow about respecting contracts when it comes to the mortgage crisis and bailing out the banks, but have no qualms about rewriting union contracts with school districts. Respect the agreements that have been negotiated in good faith on both sides.
Finally, please do not write off all teachers as entrenched liberals. Some are, but many simply feel that the only respect they receive comes from the Democratic party. They would welcome an invitation into the big tent of the GOP. Changing the way conservatives interact with public school teachers, without diluting conservative values, would benefit the Republican party and by extension the future of our country. It’s a winning proposition.
Colleen Hyland is a National Board certified teacher in New York.