But I don't want to be a Radical! ~ Reflections of a Reluctant Radical

Cheryl Gibbs Binkley

Cheryl Gibbs Binkley

When I began teaching twenty years ago, my activism was caring about children; loving them, helping them discover their most complete, healthy, and most fulfilled selves as they grew. I  read the mainstream news and voted. That was about the extent of it. 

I joined the union, like many teachers, to have the liability insurance that I knew a teacher might need when classes included at-risk and emotionally disordered students. When I was asked to be a union co-rep for my building, the promise was, “You only have to attend one meeting a month and fill-in when the “real rep” isn’t available.” I reluctantly agreed to serve.

Yet here I am. 

Voluntarily retired two years earlier than I planned; deeply embedded in BATs, participating in webinars with the Quality of Worklife Team; organizing marches and legislative actions, and planning workshops with the Virginia Educators United RedforEd Caucus; and campaigning for school board members and state legislators I think we can trust. 

Today, I am often asked by other union members and pro-school activists why more educators  don’t speak up, don’t act out, don’t defend themselves against the bullying and onslaught of attacks our profession has been under during the reform and privatization movement. 

The answers often seem obvious.

We don’t like confrontation:

It’s not our default. We prefer peace and collaboration. Our default is yes, not no. It takes a lot to push us to play offense.

We assume the best in others: 

It is impossible to believe someone could deliberately be attacking our work, our kids, our schools. We are well-intended. It’s hard to come to terms that others are not.

We are busy: 

Our jobs have been engineered to keep us so. Between 50 or more hours a

week as an educator, a second job for making ends meet, and family duties

when can we take additional actions? 

We are afraid: 

Afraid of losing our jobs, of losing our houses, of losing our kids’ health insurance, afraid of losing a career we trained long and hard for, afraid of losing our public dignity and credibility.

We don’t think we can win: 

The people who say we are at fault and our schools are failing (Yes, they are still saying that) are the intellectual elites, the thought leaders, the policymakers, the wealthy, our bosses. How can we ‘just teachers’ of kids stand up to their power, their influence, their affluence? 

So, often we find another way out. 

We just close our door and pretend there is no crisis.

We find a therapist or a friendly ear outside

We find a school with fewer high needs students

We look for a school with less toxic management

We move to coaching or counseling or administration

We leave education for another field

We  retire.

I thought all those things at various times across the last 20 years, particularly during the last 7 as my activism has escalated. I considered each of those paths and wound up retiring on my way to here. 

But none of those options really Solve the Problem, and the Problem is much bigger than just that my job is unpleasant or that my school is under funded and too often mismanaged.

The unfortunate truth is that I’m an activist today because step by step, watching my colleagues be targeted, watching schools be undermined and closed, watching systematic underfunding, and replacement of competent people with hobby teachers, watching the deliberate reduction of teachers of color in the system--  I came to realize, there is no other choice, and even worse there is nothing left to lose.

Our job protections have been dismantled. Most school employees can be fired at will with todays’ evaluation systems. Our salaries are below working class level. Our health plans and retirement plans are being gutted. Our credibility and respect in the community are already gone. And even sadder, our students are being stalked for death, stressed to the breaking point, and priced out of gaining access to professional success, and those of color are being moved systematically from school to jail. 

Individual personal solutions will not stop the destruction of our schools, or provide safety for us or our students. Pleasant and amenable collaboration will not satisfy the appetites of those who want to squeeze our schools for every penny and would distort healthy learning into a propagandized prison to get that last penny. 

Those who would destroy our schools, and yes, the intent is to destroy them, will not stop. They are like the Terminator, and will continue to morph and disrupt until the last teacher is replaced with a holographic Artificial Intelligence entity.  I know this because the plans are public and the intent is stated.

 I also know this because in BATs we are on our third round of fighting re-invented education reform campaigns.  

The arguments went from teachers and schools are inferior slackers that must be held accountable by tests and data before they will perform; to charters will provide equity to poor communities; to Digital Career training paid for by the public sector but controlled by corporations will prepare students for life.  

TFA has renamed itself, but continues to lobby for money and place alumni in power positions.  Microsoft now advocates for digital learning and data tracking apps rather than the Common Core. Most of the technology billionaires, like Bezos, Zuckerberg, and Jobs, not to be left out, have joined Broad, Gates, Walton, and DeVos’ federal coffers in raining money on the reform industry and elections. The astroturf public relations non-profits have dissolved and reconstituted with the same players plus new edupreneurs multiple times. 

No hyperbole, no exaggeration - We are in a fight for our lives and the lives of the world’s children.

So today I plan marches, rather than garden. I attend strategy sessions rather than paint in oils.  I accept a reputation as a malcontent troublemaker, rather than adopting the persona of a sweet old lady playing her piano and singing rather badly. I write blogs rather than poetry and songs.

And I ask these questions of each of us- 

  • Are our students worth it? Worth fighting for, worth fighting to save from a belief system  that devalues them and their lives? A movement that regards them as no more than robotic workers to be exploited for use? 

  • Are our schools worth protecting, worth defending, worth preserving as a center of our culture and society? Or will Learning cease to be a central trait of humanity? 

  • Is our profession as teachers/educators worthy of maintaining as a noble endeavor, an important part of our communal values, a critical element of our society?  

Or are we willing to yield to a culture that bases all values on “He who dies with the most toys wins?” 

From my perspective, we have no choice but to fight for our students, our schools, and ourselves. Under these conditions being an activist has to be a part of our calling; even if we are shy; even if we are peaceable natured; even if we don’t like confrontation; no matter how busy or afraid we are.  

We must band together because our collective power can beat their power, their influence, and their affluence.  Together we can save our culture of learning and our students’ chances to become, and we must. 

Our very lives and the lives of our students depend on it.

Melissa Tomlinson