Opinion
Education Opinion

One Day Common Ground

By Susan Graham — January 27, 2009 4 min read

One of the best things about our Teacher Magazine blog group is the range of perspectives we bring to teaching. The commonalities and the differences in what we know and have experienced as teachers enriches our understanding of our practice.

For instance, it might appear that Jessica Shyu and I are worlds apart. I am old enough to be her mother. She’s young enough to be my daughter. She’s urban, I’m suburban. I’ve been teaching 28 years. She’s been an educator for three. She is a journalist who decided to be a teacher. I am a teacher who took up journalism.

We’re different, but Jessica and I also share a lot of common ground. We both started teaching in small rural schools on the desert. She was on a reservation in New Mexico. I was just over the border outside El Paso in Fabens, Texas. We were both minority educators in our schools. She was the Chinese American teacher among Native American students and faculty. I was the Anglo teacher among Mexican American students and faculty. We both migrated east. She is now in DC and I’m just a few miles down the road in Virginia. We both work with new teachers. She’s now a trainer for Teach for America. While I’m still in the classroom full time, I train and coordinate mentors at my school and help assess higher education teacher prep programs.

As I work with new teachers I follow Jessica across her New Terrain because there is much to be learned from her experience as she works with alternative entry teachers. Teach for America is a great program that brings bright and gifted, highly motivated young people into high need classrooms. Some fulfill their two years and move on to new challenges, some become part of the TFA system, and some settle into a long-term career in the classroom. One thing they all have in common -- they didn’t start out to be teachers. That’s one reason it’s important to provide support, just as Jessica does in her current position.

Support matters. The problem is that too often teachers who serve in high-need schools get more blame than support. Most of them are doing the best they can where they are with what they’ve got. That’s why I feel compelled to take issue with the MenSa Ankh Maa poem that Jessica posted last week. Maa, Jessica’s TFA supervisor, is also a product of the TFA experience. According to Jessica, MenSa “wanted to be a poet, he earned a Masters in African Studies from Cornell, and he tried for a Fulbright to Africa. Then he joined Teach For America.” He taught, went through the New Leaders for New Schools program and became principal at Jefferson Junior High. Last spring he left the DC school system to become a program manager at TFA. He was speaking to new Teach for America conscripts in August when he shared No Day, One Day, Some Day Real Soon. He speaks of

One day, when Wendy Kopp had a vision that all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.

And while I think Kopp had a great idea, I wonder if might be a little myopic not to share that credit with folks like Horace Mann, Booker T. Washington, and Mary McLeod Bethune.

Maa remembers

One day, when a school chancellor had the courage to take on a union that did not serve the children and families who paid their salaries.

And I wonder why Maa has forgotten or else doesn’t know the history of teacher unions. In a field where most of the collars were pink and many of the faces were dark, the unionization of teachers took root to fight against the “segregation” and “legal oppression of women” that he opposes. And while there are situations where bad teachers have cowered behind the shield of AFT or NEA membership for undeserved protection, the vast majority of NEA and AFT members do not deserve to be labeled as people who “did not serve the children and families who paid their salaries.”

Maa declares

Today we remember what has brought us here and chart a course for where we need to go.

Entry into teaching is unique among professions. Most professions begin with a broad field of candidates that narrows over time and training. Some of us always aspired to be teachers. This was our dream of how to impact the world; but teaching also picks up recruits during college, and it gathers converts from other fields along the way. Some teach as a compromise between their dreams and their pragmatic need to earn an income. Some teach because teaching is a stop along the course they have charted toward some other long-term career goal. Some come to teaching after careers in another job.

Late entry doesn’t necessarily mean teaching is a last choice. Leaving teaching doesn’t mean a person is deserting public education. Spending a lifetime in a classroom doesn’t indicate lack of ambition. What matters is that we are in this together. And, for the good of our students, we need to work together and learn from each other.

While I believe his intent was to inspire, Maa’s poem does not work toward consensus. His words have the effect of dividing teachers into “us” and “them.” Practicing teachers ought to welcome the depth of knowledge, innovation, and energy that these young idealistic and elite TFAers bring to the classroom. New teachers ought to honor the depth of experience, the skills honed by practice, and commitment of teachers who have stayed the course through years in the field. It benefits us all to acknowledge that most educators “act on our faith” and that together “we put much of the world on our backs” as we all share in bearing the burden of educating our children.

Today we teach.

Today all of us teach. Some of us taught yesterday. Some of us will teach tomorrow. We are in this together. Education and teach are buried in all of the acronyms--DOE, NCES, CTQ, NCATE, AFT, TEAC, ABCTE, TLN, TFA, PTO, CTL, NBPTS, NEA, PTA and more. Even if we don’t agree on everything, I believe we all share the common ground of wanting to provide a firm foundation of solid education for our children. Unfortunately, we are sometimes so seduced by secondary agendas that we are distracted from our real purpose. It’s not about us; it’s about the kids. We cannot afford to lose sight of that--not for one day.

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table 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.