Winning Back Public Opinion, One Conversation at a Time

About Jake Miller

Mr. Jake Miller teaches middle school history near Harrisburg, PA. He is the 2016 National History Day Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year and a 2017 NEA Teacher of Excellence. His articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, WeAreTeachers, and several other periodicals, but Miller has called TER home since 2012.

For teachers, Christmas and holiday break is probably getting old – if only because of the discussions had with others. Typically these things go negative pretty quickly, since the general public has delved into a disregard for educators through simplified generalizations as lazy (“must be nice to have the summers off”), union-thug (“must be nice to be guaranteed your job”), expensive (“must be nice to be guaranteed that pension”) heathens pushing an agenda. There are only so many derogatory things teachers can read, see, or hear before they’ve just had enough. Once that happens, educators typically shut down and disengage. They not only want to leave the conversation, they want to float to the back of the room and/or leave it, frustrated, disappointed, or a combination of the two.

It’s no news that teachers are losing the game of public opinion, and for many in the profession, that doesn’t seem like it’s going to change – not with this conversation or any. But this thought process needs to be stopped dead in its tracks. Instead, teachers need to engage with non-educators, one conversation at a time. Here’s how:

1.Disarm rude comments – teachers, over time, seem fantastic at disarming rude comments that students make to one another or to other teachers. The people in this profession could make an apology come out of a young boy or girl just with a steaming stare. They know what needs to be said and the tone of voice it needs to be done in, and they also know how to do it without becoming part of the fight. If only that could be applied to adults as well. Many teachers will sit back and take on “punches of the chin” without defending themselves. WeAreTeachers recently published a great article on how to respond to rude comments by non-educators.

2.Don’t do it by countering with rude comments – Malcolm X and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. had two ways to engage with the problem facing racism and civil rights. X believed in “engaging in whatever means necessary,” which often meant militancy; he wanted to fight back and win that way. King, instead, believed in a path of nonviolence; he wanted to turn the other cheek and win that way. One of these individuals has a national holiday and a Nobel Peace prize for their efforts. The other did not. Think about that when offering a retort.

3.Understand that militancy comes with consequences – for some, like the Badass Teachers Association, militancy is the only avenue to procure enough attention. Keep in mind that putting a teacher out there is getting attention, and while sometimes it can be beneficial, that’s not always a good thing.

4. Channel Socrates: you can’t go wrong when you ask questions – my step-brother posted a meme stating “oh, you came to start a new life in my country… please tell me more about how our schools and traditions have to change to fit your needs.” I simply asked the question “what exactly has changed?” One of his friends went on a litany of complaints he had on his back burner, like “not having to say the Pledge of Allegiance,” providing “safe spaces from dissenting points of view,” and other items. He ended with a pointed, “Should I continue?”

5.Support the discussion with facts – when engaging with this person, I used facts that I’ve seen in my class, school, district, neighboring districts, across Pennsylvania, and from what I’ve read on the national news. I disarmed each one of his arguments with facts.

6.Ask the conversationalist to do the same – then I asked him to do that as well. He chose not to.

7.Make many connections – there’s a story behind every decision. Connect them to the other person and to the young people you have in your classroom. People always overgeneralize and hammer on the abstract. When it’s made concrete, the argument solidifies.

8.Differentiate conversation style to suit the other – sometimes you need to change your words dependent upon the education of the other person. People hate being talked down to if the teacher is using “fancy schmancy” words. If the other person doesn’t know what erudite means, then stop showing off. The average American’s reading level is 8th grade. Remember that. Teachers do a great job of adapting a lesson to fit 30-plus students’ needs, yet they often struggle to make a connection to just one adult.

9.Choose words carefully – educators are trying to win the public opinion against Chris Christie and other word-wielding weaponized whackos. Educators do not have the right to say that people “should be punched in the face” or stating that certain professions deserve to be paid minimum wage, even if the governor-turned-presidential candidate says that about them.

10.Pack in passion and strength – in case you haven’t read Taylor Mali’s response to the salary-related question “what do teachers make?” — watch it. Right now. Seriously. (Bonus – my 2014 interview with Mali can be read here)

11. Keep in mind that everybody is an iceberg – just like when teachers learn about a student’s misbehavior and want to get to the root of the problem and solve that, they forget that when it comes to dealing with adults. There’s a reason that some people hate those in the education profession, and it’s probably quite personal. It’s also probably not all that obvious. Forgive those people and try to understand what makes them tick.

12. Some people are just filled with hate and need an outlet for it – I’m a baseball umpire and wrestling official. I’ve resigned myself years ago to acknowledge that some people just have awful lives and feel dismal because of it. When they yell at me on the diamond or on the mat, it’s partially because they think they know better than me, that they live vicariously through the players, but it’s mostly because they need a punching bag. I make sure I keep very firm boundaries that I’ll permit players, coaches, and spectators to operate in, but I also remind myself that they don’t hate me the most. They probably hate themselves more.

13.Keep an open mind – if educators teach that way and want the other person in the conversation to do the same but don’t embody that themselves, the conversation is going to be a smooth as a 1960’s car with blown shocks driving down a pothole-filled road.

14.Never forget that there are 2 sides to each story – teachers often forget this. When engaged with school board members last year for negotiations, I found myself reminding our team that the district probably wants to pay us more, but are operating within a certain window. If we gained 10% in pay (pipe dream anymore, eh veterans?), something would be cut with an equal measure. I appreciate a divergence of thought, as it makes conversation much more fun that way.

15.Remember that a conversation can end lose-lose-lose – it’s important to hold facts to the fire, but sometimes the teacher and the other person can leave the conversation more fumed and inflamed than when they started it. That’s going to carry on to the next 2 people that they speak with. This is not ending the domino effect of negative public opinion of teachers. Each time a teacher opens their mouth, they represent the profession. That’s a big responsibility.

16. Say “thank you” – it’s amazing how quickly pleasantries, respect, and manners are tossed aside when it comes to such lightning rod conversational topics as education. Be the better person.

17.Move on to something else – sometimes the conversation topic just needs to change. Don’t be afraid to shift it to the next gear or next person.

18.Laugh / shrug it off – other times, it’s just better to let the comments slide off the teacher’s back. They have many policies with how to push back on pointed, negative conversations (like, “can I talk to you about my grade, teacher?!”) until it can be picked up later. Don’t be afraid to do the same here.

Moving forward, teachers have the obligation to engage with non-educators. This is not an opportunity. This is not a right. This is not a belief. This is an obligation. Public opinion has soured on educators, but that’s because we’ve let that happen. Take it back, one conversation at a time.

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About the Author:

Mr. Jake Miller teaches middle school history near Harrisburg, PA. He is the 2016 National History Day Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year and a 2017 NEA Teacher of Excellence. His articles have appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, WeAreTeachers, and several other periodicals, but Miller has called TER home since 2012.

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