Seriously, Why Are You Still In Education?

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This past week I shared “The Silence of Education Reformers on Ferguson is Deafening” on my blog, Actualization. In this piece, Rishawn Biddle provides insight I don’t have, and it’s kept me thinking throughout Thanksgiving weekend. The issues are ours for the advocating: poverty, equity, access, opportunity. Why are our reform voices not being heard above the clamor and strife of recent events? Not that it’s pleasant or easy. No one relishes staring down racism, confronting poverty and calling out injustice. But this is the cancer eating away at society. Either we fight it aggressively or accept a terminal diagnosis.

To beat it, we need a new kind of leadership in education; educators who have a seriousness of mind and commitment of purpose to push the profession past where it’s stuck. Not the ed-celebrities currently beating their drums in the name of education reform; they are neither leaders nor reformers. Their primary interest is self-interest…keeping their following coming back for more. Sure they are willing to rabble rouse against popular targets like government policy and state spending. But where are their calls to take down poverty, instead of politicians and programs? The reality is they have no incentive to speak up on behalf of society’s powerless and disenfranchised.

You and I, on the other hand, are invested in people: children, parents, extended families, communities and countries. We got into this profession to touch individual lives and to touch the future. We believe in making a difference, not just by what we say but by what we do. It’s time to take this to the next level and expand teacher roles. Meet students on their turf instead of waiting for them to come to us. Work with community agencies to provide for children’s needs. Make a difference before they ever enter the classroom.

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If our current leaders are silent on race, poverty and injustice, where are they leading us…and is it where we want to go? This is our mission in today’s quickly-changing world: preparing successive generations for a future they can’t see and we won’t know. Our efforts to accomplish this in a culture of fear, ignorance, poverty and hatred have been, and will continue to be, less than successful.

Within education, issues like standards, assessment, achievement, technology and funding can be defined and addressed. But the challenges of the society we serve are deep-seated and not so easily contained. They require the kind of faith in humanity that got us into education in the first place. Here’s what we can do:

  • Speak up and be heard on the issue of poverty and how it permeates every major challenge we face in education and in society.
  • Support one another in addressing poverty in our schools so that all children can learn and be successful.
  • Upgrade our schools to be centers of hope in every community, no matter where students and families come from or how well-prepared they are to walk into our classrooms.

The past year, a group of committed New York educator-leaders initiated a statewide conversation on poverty, with tremendous interest and participation by empire state educators. I have watched first-hand as they’ve brought educators together to immerse them in simulations, share experiences and insights, and identify strategies that help children from poverty succeed. If these educator-leaders can make this happen in a state weighed down in bureaucracy and politics, surely the rest of us can, too.

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What if we craft one national agenda, without all the politics and prejudice, where everyone cares and contributes, and all the fears and excuses and labels and cop-outs are eradicated instead of people’s hopes and dreams, so that the only thing no longer tolerated is intolerance? We’ll need to leave our fears and frustrations behind and devote our energy to deeper thinking and courageous action to make it happen.

There are no curricula, tests, technologies or instructional innovations that can accomplish this. There are no ed-celebs or politician-reformers who can do the work for us. And there are all kinds of forces working against us, most notably racism, fear and ignorance. If these facts are all you need to know to walk away, then walk. Seriously, why are you still in education? On the other hand, if you know in your heart that nothing is going to get better until you step up, then we need you to lead from wherever you find yourself in your current position.

A month ago there was a huge outcry from educators reacting to a Time magazine story on “the war on teacher tenure” including a cover image of a gavel coming down on a perceived “rotten apple.” Anger and indignation flowed for weeks about the disrespect the magazine showed our profession….all directed at a story written to sell copies. Are we that conditioned by the media that we believe that anything that is said, good or bad, deserves our energy and attention? The story was inconsequential: those who agreed with what it had to say had formed their opinions long before they began reading, and those who know better weren’t swayed.

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Let’s get real. If we focus that kind of passion on the fight against racism, poverty and injustice, Time and everyone else will stop and take notice. The only people worthy of our time and energy are those who roll up their sleeves and work with us. And the more people who join us us in our mission, the more influence and capacity we will have to make change. Can we make it happen? Is it within us? I believe it is. Can we afford to fail?

The challenges we face are not insurmountable. These social conflicts and divides have been put in place fairly recently in history. We have the wherewithal to level the landscape and build new pathways and connections, understanding that there are no shortcuts. It’s going to be messy and it’s going to be hard, but we can do this. We must do this, for children everywhere.

The work begins with open, honest dialog; our voices resonating with those who live in poverty and despair. And from that dialog, we can begin isolating and destroying the pathologies that have allowed this societal cancer to become so pervasive and so resistant to treatment. Access. Equity. Opportunity. We have to get started.

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