What I Learned From Ron Thorpe
A Friend Remembers the Late President of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards
On my journey through life, I have had the privilege of not only meeting some truly great people, but occasionally getting to spend time with them, learn from them, and sometimes even collaborate with them on important work. Ron was one of those giants. And, now that I have to say goodbye to him, I wanted to reflect briefly on what I have learned from him as a friend, a public intellectual, a leader, and a visionary.
I first came to know him when I was still at NEA and we were planning the first International Summit on the Teaching Profession alongside WNET’s Celebration of Teaching and Learning. We spoke multiple times a week over the course of several months and finally met in person on the porch going into a dinner the Leeds were hosting around the PISA launch. After then-president of NEA Dennis Van Roekel introduced us, he took a step back and said, "Oh. I thought you’d be taller. You sounded much taller on the phone." (To which Van Roekel interjected: "He was a lot taller when he started working for us!") We all laughed. It was an appropriate beginning to our friendship; we were always trying to make each other laugh.
We were also bound by our origins from southwestern Pennsylvania’s steel plants and rivers. We often talked and shared stories about the paths from there to Cambridge, Mass., and then out into the world. They were unlikely and uncommon paths, separated by a number of years, but we recognized how essential they were for coming to understand both the transformative power of education and the importance of connecting with people. He always took time to hear what my daughters were up to and encouraged me to do what was needed to be present in their lives. One time that meant having a meeting as we walked to a bakery in N.Y.C. to buy cupcakes for my daughter's 6th birthday party in Brussels the next day. That’s when he admitted that he still broke into his daughter's place to hide Easter eggs.
I loved his stories and the masterful way he wove messages and illustrations into each one. His time with Ted Sizer, founding director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, had deeply informed his thinking about the profession and public education. In turn, my thinking was informed from hearing about those ideas and the research underlying them. His seminal work on how to best elevate teaching in the U.S. has become a blueprint for doing so.
Ron once told me that, in medicine, the graduation rates were so high because they built a system that was devised to ensure the entrants were supported in their learning at every stage so that they would be successful. He knew we had to design better systems for preparing teachers and that the proponents of a revolving door for cheaper untrained educators were distracting decisionmakers and the profession itself from working together towards that end. Just exposing the detractors on the merits of each of their harebrained schemes was not going to lead to the transformation. Therefore, he was going to go and work with the most accomplished practitioners and develop an implementable vision that teachers and their unions could embrace and lead on. He would take the energy and excitement he had created at WNET and infuse that into his mission at the National Board. He accomplished that and much more in a short period of time.
I learned from him that a real leader does what is needed and doesn’t get mired in the positional politics of hierarchy and ego. Whether at the Summits or Celebrations, he was hands on and solving problems. If all hands were occupied and someone needed to run to Kinko’s for copying at 11 p.m., he would excuse himself from his hosting duties with Brian Williams, Oliver Sachs, or whichever celebrity was there to help him honor the teaching profession and grab a cab to Kinko’s. All who knew him knew that he was the guy that delivered spectacularly well because he cared so deeply about what he was doing.
On the global stage, he was magnificent. I remember introducing him at a World Teachers' Day event at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, where his speech about a new vision for teachers beyond knowledge workers—as wisdom workers for the world we want—met with deafening applause. He was equally fantastic as the master of ceremony for EI’s launch of the Unite for Quality Education Campaign at the U.N., where he eloquently elevated teacher voice and inspired our partners into action.
Over the last few days, I’ve been reading through his most recent emails for the purpose of hearing his calm and reassuring voice again. I’m sure many of us who knew him are doing the same. In one, he discusses the importance of moving forward toward the mission and the need to keep going despite not feeling so well. His candor, humanity, and heart are so prominent in what he wrote and said. And at the end of the day, those are the aspects that I will miss most. (Even more than the short jokes.)