Education Opinion

EdCamp Cape Cod: What Public and Non-Public Schools Have to Learn From One Another

By Peter Gow — August 14, 2013 4 min read
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On Monday I found myself in a room full of teachers from a rather astonishing range of schools. It was the debut of EdCamp Cape Cod, and unconferencing seemed for at least one day have trumped beach time on the Cape for a hundred or more teachers--and it would have been a great beach day.

This was my second EdCamp, a concept with which I am more or less in love, even without the Inspiration™ software app that I won as a door prize (happens I’m an Inspiration fan of old). It was also a somewhat bittersweet experience for me, my last as my first stint as a marathon EdWeek blogger winds down; from now on, my sharing of “common perspectives” is likely to be a little less frequent and perhaps a bit less regular.

I took advantage of the EdCamp format to propose a session titled, “What do public and non-public schools have to say to one another?” In true EdCamp/unconference style, I had no idea whether anyone would come, but sure enough they did: an independent boarding school science teacher, three public school teachers, myself, a teacher from a comparatively old and rather progressive charter school, a teacher with experience in rigorously structured urban charter schools who will be starting at an independent school in a week, and--an exotic rarity--a teacher from one of Maine’s “town academies,” independent schools that serve as their communities’ public schools (via tuition paid by the towns from tax revenue, as public schools are funded) but also enroll fee-paying boarding (and some day) populations.

(Town academies are a vestige of a time past and confined, I believe, to a handful of such schools on Maine and Vermont, with possibly--readers, feel free to help--a couple in New Hampshire. They’re as Yankee as baked beans and Moxie.)

I began this blog asking the same “What do public and non-public schools have to say to one another?” question that inspired the EdCamp session, but it wasn’t until Monday that others answered the question. I will be forever grateful to the amazing group of people who piled together into that laid-up computer lab at Sandwich High School.

The answer is, “A whole helluva lot, once we get past the stereotypes and misconceptions.” When teachers come together, we want to talk about our profession and our work, about teaching and about kids, and that’s sector-agnostic; everyone is the same. It didn’t take us long to work through some of those stereotypes and misconceptions and to discover that we’re all interested in kids and how they learn. We talked about the double-edged sword of teacher autonomy and the challenges of state standards and how teachers can de-fang some of the threat these sometimes appear to represent. Our town academy teacher talked about the clash of cultures that can occur in a setting where kids growing up in rural poverty--and urban poverty, in the case of some of their scholarship students from U.S. inner cities--sit in class and live in dormitories with international students from families of tremendous wealth.

For a while I have wondered whether there might be a way to bring educators from all sectors together in a grand summit or at least a big conversation. But even if a “summit” of leaders from all sectors happens, it’s going to be among teachers on the ground where the real exchange will take place, where independent school folks will discover what is to be learned from our counterparts at public, charter, and faith-based schools and where they may (hopefully) learn a bit from us. It’s an exciting vision.

There’ll be some wrangling to work through. As one of my lunch table companions, a humanities teacher from a vocational-technical school (who talked about loving his work in ways that would make even his principal blush), noted, there’s way too much competition among sectors.

Teachers didn’t create that competition. We do our jobs, teaching the kids sitting in front of us no matter where we are. If policy makers, visionaries, and masterminds of many sorts have created a multiplicity of schools and types of schools, in the end it has been out of a belief that there are lots of ways to educate kids. But the side effect has been a fierce and divisive struggle for kids, dollars, and respect.

We sometimes forget, and the media and our politicians tend to forget even more quickly, that “schools are for kids;" my school head Peter Hutton’s maxim for teachers is the essential truth of our work. This type of school or that type of school isn’t better, although it might serve one kind of kid more effectively. But it’s not about competition, not about winning, for God’s sake--it’s about diversity of opportunity for a diversity of learners. The tragedy is that our society has reserved some elements of our educational diversity for folks with a bunch of money, while others are designated for those with far less.

Which reminds me: One thing on which all of our EdCamp group agreed--all, from all sectors represented--is that we’ve really messed up the funding of our government-operated schools. To all of us, level funding--equal amounts spent in all districts and all schools on all kids--looks like a much better solution.

But level funding, statewide or nationwide, seems far from happening, and so another thing we agreed on is that we all--teachers at all levels, from all sectors--need to starting talking to one another more.

EdCamp Cape Cod was a pretty great start. It was way better than another day at the beach and an appropriate coda to my first-half year here among the EdWeek bloggers.

Engage with Peter on Twitter: @pgow

The opinions expressed in Independent Schools, Common Perspectives are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.