“When elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers.” - an African proverb.
I am relatively new to the world of education policy. I entered the arena two years ago through Teach Plus, a non-profit organization that aims to offer leadership opportunities to high quality teachers with at least three years urban teaching experience. Through Teach Plus, I have collaborated with a wide array of teachers with different experiences and perspectives on key issues. I had hopes of sharing the successes and failures from working in high-poverty urban schools with education policymakers. I had hopes of studying education research and then advocating for the policies I thought would help me and my students in the classroom—after all, I am still in the classroom.
What I didn’t know was that I was actually entering into a boxing ring, a place where educated people who say they love children often beat each other up with words and accusations. I spend the day telling students to do the exact opposite, so the initial right hook from a fellow educator caught me totally off guard. To my surprise, I discovered that for some, Teach Plus and other teacher voice organizations are considered the enemy. And because I signed on to be a Teach Plus fellow, I, too, am the enemy.
Normally, this wouldn’t faze me, but one of my students is dead. He was killed early on Christmas morn because someone decided to drink and drive. In my grief over break, I made the mistake of reading education blogs and realized that anything you say can and most certainly WILL be used against you in the court of the education blogosphere. Don’t get me wrong—I have very thick skin. You don’t grow up on the South Side of Chicago, among the youngest in a family of ten, and then set off to pursue journalism in New York City without it. But I found myself at a vulnerable point when my precious student died. I read several rational education blog posts, then read pages and pages of negative comments. Then I read accusatory, bitterly biting education blog posts that were followed by congratulatory comments. What the hell is going on? I asked myself, and I’m not the swearing kind.
We cannot afford to make the battle for quality public education a vicious personal fight of “I’m right and you’re wrong.” Worse, we cannot make this battle politically partisan—we see where that has gotten our politicians in Washington ... nowhere. We can’t resort to name calling when we should be making intellectual arguments about how to realistically close the achievement gap between white/Asian students and black/Latino students. How is our rhetoric going to keep kids from dropping out and spending a lifetime in prison for selling drugs or killing someone over it? How is the “us vs. them” mentality among education leaders going to help bring relief to 15-year- old students who have never missed a day of school yet still can’t read?
I understand that lots of people have legitimate reasons to disagree with my philosophy of education. I know that neither I, nor Teach Plus, nor any earthly organization has all the answers about how to fix the terrible mess American education finds herself in. But I do believe that if we could somehow start listening to each other; if we could agree to validate good ideas, even if they are coming from someone we generally disagree with; if we could commit ourselves to a civil discourse and resist the temptation to distract from the important conversations through our sensational displays of resentment, then and only then would we be able to make effective, lasting change for our failing students.
I don’t work at a charter school because I’m opposed to the teachers union or because I want to “privatize public education.” My charter school principal actually saved my teaching career. Before I met her I was ready to throw in the towel because I felt like my voice as a professional, as a teacher, didn’t mean anything to anyone. And standardized tests are a royal pain in the butt, but I support them because they provide useful information to prove that strong school leadership, collaborative teaching practices, and ample school resources can make a difference in a child’s ability to learn. About 80 percent of the students at my school are at or above grade level in reading and math on standardized tests, despite 90 percent of them receiving free lunch, 20 percent them getting special ed services, and 30 percent of them being English Language Learners. Still, my school staff is constantly looking for innovative ways to improve student learning.
I’m not the enemy. I am a single teacher trying to make a difference the best way I know how. Disagree with me as much as you want, but please don’t hate me. Who could hate a hardworking teacher, anyway? And for what it’s worth, I love you. (I really do.)
When elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers. We are the elephants. The grass is our students. We need to stop fighting because our students are suffering the most.
The opinions expressed in Charting My Own Course 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.