I have been blogging for over twenty years—and before that, I wrote the occasional column about teaching for the local newspaper (until The Superintendent sent me a “cease and desist” memo). I have written for a handful of education non-profits, magazines and journals, and spent nine years blogging for Education Week.
When I started blogging, many educators didn’t know what a blog was, and the ones who did spent a lot of time reading and writing about all the Amazing New Tools available, via the miracle of technology. It was an era when financially strapped school districts didn’t hesitate to buy more computers, and everyone wanted to jazz up their lesson plans and see students’ work “published” on the internet. It goes without saying that this was way before Tik-Tok.
Now, I’m writing for myself and anybody who’s interested in reading the thoughts of a veteran educator. Those thoughts aren’t always focused directly on classroom practice, anymore, which was the overt mission of my first paid gigs. Increasingly, my thinking centers on the socio-political reasons for changes in school practice, and what I see as the very real danger that public education might collapse. Even that kind of alarmism is not a sexy, sticky topic for blogs these days, however.
Point being: I’ve been at this for a long time. I’ve written thousands of blogs, columns and op-eds, and observed what gets read and shared, and what sinks like a heavy, published rock. Some of my best work (IMHO, of course) has gone mostly unread. Some tossed-off columns written to meet a deadline got tens of thousands of eyeballs. It’s hard to say what’s going to cause people to read and share a blog.
There are some things, however, that no longer seem to engage teachers (my primary audience) and other education-junkie readers:
#8. Book Reviews Every now and then, a spectacularly good book about education is published—the kind of book that would help teachers see the work they’re valiantly doing in a new light. I used to teach a graduate course in teacher leadership. One of our icebreakers was naming a favorite book about education. Teachers would routinely admit they hadn’t read an education-related book since college or fulfilling a masters-level coursework requirement. Ironic—and understandable, because working in crisis conditions means you’d prefer to take a break from stress when you read—but also kind of sad.
#7. The Philosophy or Purpose of Education When Finland gutted and re-did their entire public education system (one that is now deeply admired in the data-driven Western world), they spent years dissecting and re-forming their education goals, before launching an entirely new concept—time that appears to have been well-spent. We don’t do that here. We adopt new programs and slogans on the regular, based mainly on what the people in power think will “work” (to improve data). We resist that deep national conversation about purpose and meaning in education, what our real aims are. We apparently also resist reading about what should matter most.
#6. Teacher Leadership This one breaks my heart. Teacher leadership and professionalism are at the heart of what I think might save public education, releasing teachers’ moral commitment and creativity in the service of doing right by kids, instead of pursuing goals set by people who haven’t stepped foot in a school for decades. Want to be depressed? Ask practicing educators for their definition of “teacher leadership”—or sit in a teachers’ lounge at lunch and listen to stories of how dedicated and skillful teachers are now treated, in their own workplace. Hint: not as potential leaders.
#5. The Pandemic Our entire focus, as we move out of a massive global emergency, is trained on two meaningless issues: So-called learning loss—a fancy name for entirely predictable drops in test scores. And a weird obsession with which schools took the risk of meeting face to face, when it was safer for students to be at home. One might reasonably expect a devastating pandemic to have an impact on students’ emotional well-being as well as endemic confusion about “best practice” during a health emergency. But shouldn’t the questions and initiatives now be around how to support our kids, and figure out what such a traumatic event can teach us all? Instead, there’s all this finger-pointing and blaming. And writing a blog about what positive changes a pandemic might spur gets you zero readers.
#4. Religion Perhaps you think that religion and public education are two separate things. If so, you are wrong. The intertwining of Church and State—a very bad idea—lies under a lot of the angst in public education in 2023, from book-banning to whatever Hillsdale College is cooking up at the moment. Writing about schools and religion, especially nuanced viewpoints, is a losing proposition. The blogs that get the eyeballs are anti-Christian (on the left) and anti-all non-Christian religions (on the right). Nobody wants to read about a positive role for any religion, like opening church doors to AA or feeding hungry schoolchildren, let alone offering comfort during times of great fear and upheaval.
#3. Racism This one needs an asterisk—because there are plenty of people writing about racism, the most eloquent and productive being those who have lived with its aggressions all their lives. But white women wanting to open a dialogue around racism in schools? Maybe they’re virtue signaling? Writing about racism, and the panoply of school-related issues impacted by systemic bias, is dicey for someone who might be perceived as, well, removed from the action. But as Ijeoma Oluo says in So You Want to Talk About Race? —you have to keep trying. Even if nobody responds.
#2. Research I’m hardly the first person to write about the disconnect between valid education research and education practice (let alone policymaking) in public schools. And there are readers for pieces that present the most recent grant-funded studies from the Hoover Institution and the folks at Fordham. Mostly, the commentary is something like: My research is better than your research or Your results don’t mean what you think they do. Even when the research is credible and useful (which isn’t always the case) the audience for genuine research breakthroughs is small and parochial.
#1. Women I am always fascinated by the fact that teaching is such an overwhelmingly female occupation, and the corresponding chronic disdain for teachers that shapes education policymaking as well as mainstream media. It seems logical that asking a question like “Does the reason teachers make so little money while doing such important work hinge on the fact that they’re mostly female?” would be a hot research topic. But of all the issues I’ve written about in the past 20-odd years, blogs and columns about gender and education get the fewest eyeballs. I’m not sure why—women dominating the teaching profession and the outcomes from that seem to be like the sun coming up in the east: just the way it is.
I used to do blogging workshops, to encourage teachers to write and publish their thinking about education reform and classroom practice. Invariably, the audience would be largely female, but of the prospective bloggers who attended, the ones who followed through with creating a blog (or being hired by someone to write) were most often men. That has changed a bit —there are now more online options for teachers to share their tips and opinions—but I doubt if we’ll ever see four female educators blogging for every man.
Last thought: What blog topics always draw lots of traffic?
- The Outrage du Jour (weird stuff that happens in schools and then is promptly forgotten)
- Testing (everybody hates it, and loves reminders that it’s bogus and useless and time-wasting)
- Wars (the war on teachers, the Reading Wars, the Math Wars, the Recess Wars, etc. etc.)
- Lists (something about a number in the title)
- Gifted education (there’s an organized gifted parent legion out there; I recently randomly ran across a man—on another person’s FB page—bragging about ‘ripping Nancy Flanagan a new one’ over a column on gifted education I wrote 10 years ago, a man I don’t know and never exchanged messages with, but who felt absolutely triumphant about… something)
So—what draws you to a particular blog?
You are knowledgeable, sincere and honest. I could probably come up with better adjectives, but I hope you get the idea. By the way, it’s worth it to blog about all your “no nos.” While I was teaching, it was hard to focus on much else than what directly impacted my classroom. As a special ed teacher, I was almost always developing my own curriculum. Frequently I was given no resources, so depending on what I was teaching I really was on my own. Since I almost never knew what I would be teaching the next year, summers were a time when I could read professional literature of my choice, and now that I am retired, I am better informed than I ever was in the classroom, not that it does me any good since I have even less voice than I had while I was teaching. Bottom line is keep writing . I will be reading. Thank you.
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Thank you! I greatly value your opinion.
And, actually, I don’t plan to stop writing about those 8 topics–only noting that a blog about, for example, the purpose of public education in America, is a guaranteed loser, in terms of traffic.
But one of the reasons I left Education Week (where I got lots of traffic) was to write about the things that interested me, and I thought were important. Here’s an interesting fact: when I was at EdWeek, I was on the TEACHER magazine (a magazine-in-a-news-venue–EdWeek) blogger roster. Most of the TEACHER bloggers at EdWeek wrote almost exclusively about classroom practice issues (Lesson Plans: Yes or No, that kind of thing). Those bloggers were labeled “Teaching and Learning” or something similar. My blog was labeled “Opinion.” EdWeek never told me what I had to write, although they kept me on the TEACHER roster. The assumption was that readers who were teachers, or maybe school leaders, would be interested in classroom practice, but the core reader of EdWeek (scholars and researchers, state dept. staff, Important Education thinkers) was interested in policy.
That divide (teachers aren’t interested in policy, only interacting with kids) has kept the genuine teacher voice at arms’ length for over a century.
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