‘Visibly Pregnant’ Is Not What Matters Most in National Conversation around Women in Teaching

Like most women of a certain age, I identified strongly with Elizabeth Warren’s story of being shown the door once ‘visibly pregnant’—not to mention the alternative certification that got her into a classroom, and her ultimate decision to leave teaching and go to law school, rather than hurdle the licensure barriers in returning to a special education position. Millions of us have stories about becoming parents while teaching, and a lot of them aren’t pretty.

And millions of us agree with Joan Walsh: The Warren story matters because it plays into the way we’ve all been socialized to see women as untrustworthy, which, honestly folks, is gonna make it hard to elect our first woman president. Precisely.

I am gratified that so many testified that yes, Virginia, women—up through and even past the 1980s—have experienced discrimination because they were pregnant or new mothers. Other first-world nations have vastly better maternity leave practices than the United States. The thought that we might soon have a high-level champion for bringing the United States into the 21st century, vis-à-vis equitable child-bearing/rearing policy, is encouraging, even thrilling.

Still, I don’t think Elizabeth Warren represents teaching any more than I thought Laura Bush was a bona fide literacy expert, or that Karen Pence is a reliable source for policy on human rights in education. Just because you’ve been in a K-12 classroom for a short stint doesn’t make you a valid spokesperson for core issues in public education. (Are you listening, Teach for America?)

I tend to agree with my friend Ken Jackson, Professor and Associate Dean at Wayne State University in Detroit, who wrote:

Our national blind spot: the story is not whether Warren was or was not treated fairly by the school principal in 1971 when she was “visibly pregnant.” The story is that–at that time–American classrooms were stocked with people of Warren’s intellect, charisma, and ability. Most were women. That massive labor force has long since moved out of classroom teaching. It isn’t coming back. And American education is running on fumes.

Warren – amidst this trip down memory lane – seems to have little sense of this either. The irony? If by chance she does become President, the crisis in classroom teaching will hit hardest on her watch. People have been fleeing and avoiding the profession since the 80s. The last crop of talented, serious teachers is heading into the last phase of their careers. It really is that simple.

I asked Ken why he thought Warren did not recognize this impending crisis, and he mentioned her uninspiring pledge to make a teacher Secretary of Education. On that issue, I agree with him—perhaps surprisingly, because I think I am a strong advocate for teachers. Which teacher Warren would name as Secretary of Education? I have met plenty of teachers, including award-winning, exemplary classroom practitioners, whose skill sets do not include the policy-crafting expertise, let alone the stomach, to deftly manage bull-headed legislators.

Not that our most recent EdSecs have been paragons of skill and integrity in improving public education, of course.

I once spent an afternoon with a teacher who’d earned multiple pedagogical awards. He came directly out of a high school classroom onto Arne Duncan’s staff, tapped by his Congressman. He told me he’d been excited to get the job, thinking he could make a difference, represent teachers at the proverbial table, share key insights into what schools needed to thrive.

He said shreds of that belief lasted for perhaps six weeks. Lately, he’d found himself thinking that teachers were naïve, even whiny. Still, he got up every morning, put on a suit and tie and went to work. He was considering running for office, because that’s where the power levers were.

And that’s the key point here. There is a serious need to protect what’s good in public education—and there’s a lot—and invest in a reimagined future for schools. If that sounds like wishy-washy BS, it’s because we’ve lost faith in the power of our once-strong public institutions. We need leaders who will explicitly commit to our common goals and values, grab power assertively, and use it for public good.

That’s a big difference from appointing a teacher Secretary of Education. Or ginning up pointless arguments about whether or not a principal pushed a good teacher out of the classroom, 40 years ago, a story generated by  Jacobin staff writer Meagan Day, a Bernie Sanders supporter.

Still—as Jack Schneider says: We should take care to note the way that gender continues to shape the nature of credibility. Do we believe women the way we believe men? The way we respond to this present controversy will tell us something about how far we’ve come, or about how far we have yet to go.

There are serious issues to be hashed through around public education—the diminishing talent pipeline and gender inequity are only two. I disagree with Ken’s thinking that we’ve seen the last crop of talented and serious teachers—I know too many young teachers who have persisted, driven by a deep desire to be excellent—but we genuinely could be in the process of losing one of the foundational cornerstones of American democracy: public schools.

Even if Warren were to be elected, a latent lack of trust in female leaders won’t go away. Our only choice is to keep electing women and keep pushing them to be fearless in seeking power and change.  Photo credit.

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