What makes an educator?

I’m not an educator. I’m a parent. I’m a thinker, writer, analyst, researcher, debater, community activist. I hold positions in two volunteer-driven organizations that employ only skeletal paid staff. I have been elected twice to my local school council. I worked (in sales) for an edtech company in the first boom.

Some would say that the act of parenting is us the act of teaching, but that would hardly qualify me as an educator.

But what is an educator?Is it synonymous with a teacher? As an avid follower of education politics, I have noticed a trend: teachers who are quick to leave the classroom, but then reappear as “educators” in non-teaching roles. And not just non-teaching roles, but non-school roles.

Merriam Webster’s defines the word educator as: a person (such as a teacher or a school administrator) who has a job in the field of education. The term educator shows up as often in the mission statements and organizational names of would-be educational groups as it does in the biographies of these groups’ executives and boards of directors.

I want to know: why are we collectively affording the title of educator to non-teachers and non-administrators?

What makes someone a teacher? A five-week training program through Teach for America and two years in a charter-school classroom? A Golden Apple Teacher Education fellowship and three years in a classroom? If you’ve been out of the classroom (or out of a school setting) for more time than you were in it, at what point is it false to continue to call yourself an educator?

But that’s exactly what is happening in the ed biz (to quote Tom Lehrer, a man who in all probability, actually taught students). Take, for example, Educators 4 Excellence. In their December 2012 Letter to the Editor of The Atlantic, E4E founders Sydney Morris and Evan Stone wrote, “We started our organization to give teachers more opportunities to learn about education policy, network with policy makers and solutions-oriented colleagues, and take action to advocate for policy change that will lift student achievement and the teaching profession.”

Kind of ironic coming from two TFA corps members who put in just three years each at Bronx schools before starting E4E. Actually, Evan Stone put in 3 1/2 years before he departed mid-year from his 6th-grade teaching post. Reading the rest of the bios at E4E doesn’t give me much hope that the teaching profession itself is actually at the helm of this self-improvement.

In fact, of the 13 people who comprise E4E national staff, only two of them have non-TFA teaching experience. They are James Larson and Lindsay Korn. Larson taught at an Indiana charter school for 2 1/2 years before serving on Indiana state superintendent Tony Bennett’s reform cabinet, from where he declared in 2011, “We know it’s demanding.This is a comprehensive teacher evaluation system. If you want to be considered a top teacher, these are the lofty and exemplary goals we set for you.” Korn taught for seven years at charter schools. Three of E4E’s national staff have no teaching experience at all. The other seven have each put in their two (sometimes three) years in TFA stints across the country before packing it in to draw 6-figure salaries and simultaneously erode teaching. Sure beats the average salary that the NYC DOE is paying.

(OK, Antoinette Mims also worked as a charter school teacher for two years after her TFA stint.)

Another example of this of can be found among the leaders of Leadership for Educational Equity (LEE), a political consultancy started as a TFA-spinoff to install TFA alums into policy-making positions. Mark Fraley hasn’t been a teacher in over 20 years, but he’s organizing groups around policy positions for education. His colleague Brian Johnson is a fellow TFA alum who has spent only two of the past 15 years as a teacher; the rest of his experience is in directing educational policy and raising funds. Brianna Twofoot rounds out the LEE executive team with TFA corps experience. The remaining seven members of the 10-member team at LEE have never run a classroom.

For more on corporate-shills posing as educators, read Mercedes Schneider’s unpacking of the NCTQ.

All this goes to show that educators, real educators, don’t have to leave the classroom to improve it.

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