D.C. teachers event turns raucous, with mayoral candidates drowned out

December 10, 2013

The main point of the whole raucous evening was spelled out on the blue-and-white sign given center stage at Eastern High School on Monday night: “Our voices matter,” it said. Teachers’ voices, it meant.

The several hundred District teachers and activists crowding the auditorium at the union-sponsored event made clear that they think the opposite is true, thanks to what they repeatedly called “so-called school reform.”

And in their frustration — over closed schools, ousted teachers and an evaluation process that they say is designed to “ridicule” them, they hooted, booed and shouted down the mayor and most of the mayoral aspirants who had come to answer their questions on a snowy night.

Those teachers who were using their indoor voices were drowned out, too.

“This is not what I thought it was going to be. I don’t like this rudeness,’’ an early childhood educator said of her colleagues, although she did agree with the points they were making. Or might have made if they hadn’t been undercutting their collective voice by behaving in ways that would surely have gotten them thrown out of their own classrooms for refusing to show the most basic respect.


D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray is seen on Dec. 6. (Cliff Owen/AP)

As a result, the local event — one of 80 “National Day of Action” happenings across the country — turned into a group therapy session. A community organizer told the crowd to help with “visioning” a better future for D.C. public schools, but what followed was more like a two-hour primal scream.

The District’s shortcomings, however, were on full display as a few students called to the stage to read short passages tripped over word after word.

Sometimes, and quite understandably, those leading the exercise treated those in the audience like kids: “One, two, three, eyes on me,’’ one of the organizers called to quiet the crowd at one point.

It didn’t work, though.

The new president of the Washington Teachers’ Union, Elizabeth Davis, kicked off the mayoral “debate” portion of the program by asking Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) — who had the full backing of the teachers union when he ran against school-reforming incumbent Adrian M. Fenty (D) in 2010 — his criteria for choosing a public schools chancellor.

When he answered by praising the chancellor he chose, Kaya Henderson, who had served as a deputy to Fenty’s Michelle A. Rhee, the crowd booed loudly. She has deep roots in this community, Gray said.

“What roots?” someone in the crowd called. Even the mention of Gray’s late wife, whom he described as “a public school teacher until she had an untimely death,’’ didn’t quiet the roar.

Henderson “understands the importance of” something, Gray said, but it was unclear exactly what she understands the importance of because shouts of “No! No!’’ made him impossible to hear. “No! No!” they continued as he noted that test scores had gone up since he was elected.

When the bell went off, signaling it was time for Gray to sit down, he seemed more than glad to do so.

Like President Obama, who campaigned as a critic of the war in Iraq but then continued many of George W. Bush’s military policies once in office, Gray ran as a skeptic of the reforms being implemented by Rhee but continued them under Henderson, who also has closed more than a dozen schools and fired hundreds of teachers.

Eventually, the forum devolved into a free-for-all dominated by first-time candidate Christian Carter, whose firm was hired to produce the 2014 report on the District’s expenditures on children’s services, and Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal. They were the only two of the seven candidates on hand who seemed to again and again tell the crowd what it wanted to hear, judging from the response.

Maybe the biggest applause of the loud, loud night came when crowd favorite Carter said of the evaluation system that “you can’t even teach my child if you can’t feel comfortable that you’re going to have your job the next day!”

The roars of approval for job security turned to crickets when speakers mentioned, as Gray did, that students ought to be the focus of all of their efforts.

Most teachers probably agree with Gray in theory, at least, about the importance of putting students first. And the few hundred educators who turned out Monday night might only be the most vocal of the system’s some 4,200 teachers. But if they ever hope to regain their voices, and to really make them matter, they are going to have to do more than raise those voices in anger.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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