Strikes as therapy

A Labor Day essay on teacher strikes and their misplaced emphasis on self-esteem. These strikes focus too much on teachers' needs to be given proper recognition, reflecting the way psychological categories have taken over public discourse.
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Kent Schools: What's the mission?

A Labor Day essay on teacher strikes and their misplaced emphasis on self-esteem. These strikes focus too much on teachers' needs to be given proper recognition, reflecting the way psychological categories have taken over public discourse.

Perhaps you too have noticed how often the issues in recent strikes sound more like matters to be taken up in a therapist'ꀙs office than at the collective bargaining table?

Take the Kent teachers' strike for instance. When Kent School Superintendent Edward Vargas held a press conference to announce that the district was taking the matter to court, teachers, according to The Seattle Times (9/1/09) 'ꀜturned out en masse to crash the press conference . . . teachers shouted out that the district wasn'ꀙt respecting them.'ꀝ

It does seem often that Rodney Dangerfield ('ꀜI can'ꀙt get no respect'ꀝ) is the lead consultant for striking workers or others engaged in personnel conflicts these days. Often the issue seems to boil down to concern about being respected, given proper recognition, or affirmation.

In the Kent teachers' strike the three stated issues seem curiously less than momentous. The number one issue, according to union'ꀙs website, is reducing staff meetings from four hours a month to two — which hardly seems like something to go to the mat over. Teachers also wanted a 10 percent raise over two years, instead of the offered 4.5 percent. Given an economy where a fair number of people would be happy to have any job, this seems to be asking a lot. And teachers wanted smaller class sizes, but as Seattle Times' columnist Danny Westneat points out, this is really up to the state legislature and its school funding, not the Kent District.

In a letter to the editor the writer took note of a Kent teacher who was quoted as saying, 'ꀜI can'ꀙt believe instead of working with us, [administrators] take us to court. We'ꀙre the teachers. We'ꀙre the lifeblood of the schools.'ꀝ The letter writer responded to this assertion of self-importance with the observation that, 'ꀜThe last time I checked, students are the lifeblood of a school.'ꀝ

'ꀜWe'ꀙre the teachers. We'ꀙre the lifeblood of the school'ꀝ does sound a bit like saying, 'ꀜIt'ꀙs all about me,'ꀝ or 'ꀜIt'ꀙs all about us.'ꀝ

Clearly, teachers are critically important to education. And surely most teachers are focused most of all on teaching and students. And, at some level it is important that everyone involved feel valued. But often it appears the accomplishment of teachers unions has been to make schools a place that serve and protect teachers more than serving students as the school'ꀙs mission.

One might wonder if teachers and perhaps many in our culture are a bit too preoccupied with 'ꀜgetting their due'ꀝ or being 'ꀜrespected.'ꀝ Themes of being respected, acknowledged, recognized and the like suggest what Philip Rieff a generation ago termed 'ꀜThe triumph of the therapeutic.'ꀝ It is some sense of basic worth or importance that seems often to be at stake these days — indicating how psychological categories and language have taken over public discourse.

There are at least two problems with this triumph of the therapeutic. First, self-respect is not something you get from someone else, whether it be a school district or administrator or winning a strike. Self-respect tends to be an inside job. If it isn'ꀙt happening there, it'ꀙs only a matter of time until the needy person or group again feels somehow slighted or diminished, thus requiring further placation.

Even more important is the way that the shift in focus to being respected, recognized, or appreciated moves the conversation away from what ought to be the real focus of teachers and administrators, namely the educational mission of the schools. Teachers or their unions will be most persuasive when they can frame their concerns and arguments around the mission or core work of schools and their commitment to improving on or fulfilling that mission.

Presumably, one of the lessons that teachers want to teach their students over time is, 'ꀜIt'ꀙs not all about you,'ꀝ but that it is "about the work." It is about developing knowledge, skills, and capacity. Self-esteem derives from actually doing those things. When teachers or anyone else lose sight of the mission and work, and focus instead of their ego needs, they are likely teaching the wrong lesson to their students.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.