Shut Up and Teach?

In a recent article for The Hechinger Report, classroom teacher Eric Shieh reflects on his experiences working with his union to fight budget cuts in his district.  As a music teacher in St. Louis, he was appalled by the district’s decision in 2007 to cut student time in the arts by 64% at the middle school level, in the hopes that more “academic” time would improve test scores.He immediately emailed fellow arts teachers across the district, but was answered with apathy—“there is nothing you can do; this has been happening for the past 20 years.”  Dissatisfied, Shieh began circulating petitions, which dead-ended even after collecting hundreds of signatures.  Frustrated, he called his union.

The union acted quickly, promising to mobilize teachers and parents against the cuts.  In the end, though the union’s role in the conflict was “minimal,” Even so, its action did empower Shieh by “rejecting the powerlessness that my colleagues had articulated, and affirmed my professional convictions about the centrality of the arts in public education.”  It also helped motivate previously downtrodden teachers to join with Shieh to fight the cuts, and, supported by a large group of vocal parents, convinced the administration in the district to reverse their decision.

Shieh is now teaching in New York City, but he still feels frustration with his colleagues across the profession and their perceptions of their own powerlessness.  “Teachers across the nation have given up advocating for their students not because they don’t wish to, but because it seems an impossibility…Consider this past year.  By all accounts, it should have been one of teacher outrage…cuts targeted students in poverty and students with special needs…they targeted arts and physical education programs, and they severely disrupted school processes as one seismic change after another was proposed…What interests me, too, is how the cuts to schools came and went so quietly while other education issues raged in the public eye.”

Shieh believes that the reason these cuts went largely unnoticed by the population at large is because they were “strategically, perversely” made to the populations “least likely to detect and fight against them.”  Most teachers, Shieh believes, have simply learned to “shut up and teach.”  Why is this?  Shieh can only guess—perhaps it is the cycle of helplessness, perhaps teachers took what happened in Wisconsin to heart, or perhaps they feel the just can’t match “billionaire philanthropists who’ve been plowing policy changes that suit their business models through Congress for nearly a decade.”

How does Shieh suggest teachers begin to advocate for themselves and their students?  First, he believes unions need to widen their discourse beyond HR issues and take on issues like teacher evaluation, curriculum development, and school equality.  Second, leaders of teacher associations, particularly small, local associations, have to be able to better organize the teacher voice.  They need to “build spaces for member action, and focus member discourse on innovative practices and policy.

Finally, teachers have to find a way to engage with education policy.  This includes finding and creating spaces within professional associations to discuss issues that matter to teachers.

To read Shieh’s full commentary, please visit