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What the Independent School-Public School Dialogue Needs

By Peter Gow — May 22, 2014 4 min read
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Last week I reiterated my message that America’s independent schools not only know a few things about 21st-century education but also have a kind of civic obligation to pass along their knowledge in partnership--reciprocal partnership, it must be emphasized--with educators in other K-12 sectors.

This seems clear to me. As one commenter on last week’s post observed, all educators who care about kids have a responsibility to share best practices and promising approaches with one another. As the commenter noted, education “isn’t, in its general practice, proprietary,” and blogs, journals, and even tweets transmit ideas on practice in a non-stop river of information.

But educators know that authentic dialogue is the way people learn best, and there are many fewer opportunities for educators from different sectors to sit face-to-face with one another and talk shop. Some disciplinary conferences have a strong independent school presence, but the largest conferences tend to be so focused on public school practices and needs that independent school folks tend to shy away, looking to spend their time and professional development dollars on events aimed at the unique (we sometimes believe) issues of our own sector.

Independent schools are missing a bet here: a larger presence at large-scale events and a more assertive effort to create and lead or otherwise participate in learning sessions at events like the ASCD or ISTE national conferences would be welcome. I don’t think that relatively low independent school participation at these conferences is rooted in arrogance or aloofness; it is far more a matter of diffidence about entering into those massive conversations or maybe even that we have convinced ourselves that our situations are so idiosyncratic that other educators won’t be interested. We need to get over this and step up, present company included. The worst the organizers can say is no, but I suspect that is no more likely to happen to an independent school-originated proposal than to anyone else’s.

We are finding, slowly, avenues for bringing independent school and public school educators together at the teacher-to-teacher level. Many independent school educators have found the EdCamp model to be ideal for this sometimes revelatory work, and I have elsewhere urged my independent school confreres to use EdCamps explicitly to open inter-sector conversations. I have yet to hear a report from one of these sessions that does not include a great deal of warmth and even pleasant surprise as teachers work through misconceptions and stereotypes toward authentic conversations about their students and their work. Turns out that when teachers get together they pretty quickly find a common perspective: the desire to talk about kids and teaching.

For the past few months I have joined with a couple of like-minded independent school folks, Laura Robertson in Virginia and Chris Thinnes in California, to offer a Twitter chat, the #PubPriBridge, through which we have tried to gin up some inter-sector conversation. We have discussed teacher evaluation, place-based learning, standardized testing, the nature of effective independent-public school partnerships, and other topics on which every educator has at least an opinion. The conversations have been small, intimate one might say, but there is a certain purity and a quiet joy in just chit-chatting with colleagues across the continent about teacher stuff--even in 140-character snippets. (Chats are archived here. For the interested, this coming Monday evening, May 26th, at 5:30PT/8:30ET we’ll be talking about summer, and summer vacation, in the context of contemporary educational needs and practice.)

#PubPriBridge is one thing and the EdCamp movement is another, but we need a more comprehensive approach. Independent schools extol and cleave to their mission statements, and I’d like to see an organization, or a series of events, whose stated purpose would be to bring educators together across all sectors to build and fortify, to lift some language from the #PubPriBridge statement of purpose, “a mutual commitment ‘to make the waves that raise all boats’” and to “direct these waves toward helping all students in all schools rise higher, think more deeply, and become more engaged and active citizens.”

Educational organizations are proliferating these days, and I seem to be calling here for one more, or at the very least for an existing group or consortium to put itself behind a systematic effort to create more spaces--in “real life” and through publication and communication--to bring together the men and women (and perhaps even their students!) whose work toward the common goal of teaching kids is all too often isolated into silos by differences in school structure and governance and whose worlds are further sundered by (always) perceptions and (often) realities of socioeconomic and cultural difference; but these differences and perceptions, once acknowledged and addressed, are not barriers to real dialogue.

This effort will take leadership, resources, and will. I’m not worried about an overall lack of any of these, but there must emerge a catalyst to galvanize this effort into being, a power beyond my poor words and even the earnest voices of #PubPriBridge.

But bringing educators together to share with one another is a task worth doing, and worth doing well.

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.

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