Why we need a new conversation in education

I’m simply tired of the politics of division in every facet of public life that seems to be plaguing us right now as a society.  Maybe I’m just being naive, but it shouldn’t be this difficult.  Any thinking adult, particularly those with young children, knows that life consists of compromises.  You’ve got to give a little, to get a little.  Somehow that concept seems to be lost when we enter the arena of public discourse about just any hot topic conversation.  Instead of anything resembling true dialogue, we instead turn to our respective corners and talking points.  Meanwhile a chasm of misunderstanding, distrust, and suspicion widens as fewer problems get solved.  We need a different kind of politics, perhaps the politics of civility driven by empathy.  

Case in point, take what’s happening to us in education right now.  In education, we’re divided among the haves, and the have nots.  If you can’t figure out which side you’re on, you’re probably in the have nots.  You’ll notice the difference in expectations, outcomes, sometimes funding (though that seems to be less of an obstacle in my urban school district).  Each side has its own argument about what’s wrong with education and how to fix it.  Here’s the dirty little secret though, we’re all a little bit right, but seem unwilling or unable to admit where we’re wrong.  

This recently came to a head for me when I was scrolling through social media one evening (always a terrible way to start a sentence…) and found myself unwittingly in the middle of a back and forth discussion between two people whose opinions I respect, both of whom were clearly a little right and a little wrong.  Should I weigh in?  What good would that do in a public forum where discourse rarely leads to transformation?

Then it hit me: I should share my own experience with them.  In person. Plan a gathering and start a real dialogue.  People react differently to issues than they do to actual people.  An idea can be debated, denied, or even dismissed, but a person can’t.  There’s something about a real life person with their own set of experiences that demands attention, particularly when you build a relationship with them.  That’s what happened to me over the past few years.  I’ve gotten to know groups of people who hold different viewpoints (even political ones…gasp!) and if anything, it’s made me a better person.  In some cases I’ve discovered my previously held assumption was just flat out wrong and based on tired stereotypes.  In some cases, I was proven right.  In either case, I grew a lot and made some new friends.  

It all started with dialogue.  And, putting myself out there in environments with folks who thought differently from me.  Fifteen years ago, I was an elementary teacher in a classroom and I didn’t have the foggiest idea of the power of parents in advocating for their student’s educational paths.  If anything, I felt the brunt of the system coming down hard on educators like myself.  As a card carrying AFT (American Federation of Teachers) union member, I wanted to advocate on behalf of those who I felt needed it the most, the group I most closely identified with, teachers.  

A decade ago I became a father and for the first time a lightbulb went off about what was really at stake.  Holding my precious daughter in my hands, I didn’t care about test scores or teacher pay or standards.  Nope, what I cared about was finding a partner (teachers, schools, etc) that would help this precious child find her potential.  I wanted someone to see my student as an investment like I did.  My perspective changed because my experiences changed.  

Now, ten years later after a stint working for a school district, getting to be a part of the policy-making apparatus I have a deeper appreciation for how the sausage gets made so to speak, except now I don’t like sausage so much.  About a decade ago, if you would have asked me how I felt about charter schools, I likely would have told you, “I believe charters have lost their way.  They were created by teachers as incubators of innovation for school districts, and most of them today don’t fulfill that purpose.”  My experiences to that point had reinforced that narrowly held belief, despite visiting and bringing teams of teachers to charter schools across the country.  

Now, I sit on the board of my oldest daughters’ charter school.  How did I get from there to here?  Experiences.  It began with an open mind.  Years ago I was asked to participate in launching a few charter schools in my community, and I learned firsthand everything not to do.  That experience alone could have reinforced for me everything negative I thought I knew about non-traditional public schools.  But I learned and then my opinions changed.  Afterwards I started working for a large urban school district central office because I thought, well why not change the system from the inside?   What I learned was that oftentimes, many (not all), schools are saddled with too much bureaucratic tape, too much of a culture of compliance, and quite frankly, low expectations.  But there’s always been something about the ideas of choice, autonomy, and innovation that are appealing to me.  In particular, I’m just crazy (or desperate) enough to believe that self-determination at a local scale can lead to powerful, even life changing outcomes when people decide to roll up their sleeves and get to work.

So I’ve chosen to get more involved.  Many parents don’t have the time or the resources to get as involved as I am.  I’m at my daughters school everyday, picking up, dropping off, there for committee meetings, board meetings, and other functions sometimes 3 nights a week.  I count myself (and my daughters) among the privileged few though, because they have a parent with the resources and skill set to be involved in local school governance.  They have an advocate.  What happens when there is no advocate?  I saw firsthand, both as a classroom teacher in southeast Atlanta, years supporting and coaching teachers across this region, and again supporting schools in my community that sometimes, this lack of an advocate is what allows the systemic injustices to perpetuate themselves.  When there’s literally no one there, or at least not enough loud voices present to change things, then nothing changes.  Or when it does, it’s too late for too many students.  

For a brief time this fall I flirted with the idea of running for school board.  I’ve run for office before and I’ve been involved for a while.  It was an idea others had suggested.  But truthfully, my heart wasn’t in it because I always doubted the feasibility of systemic change at that level.  It’s hard to un-see and un-know the things I’ve seen and know now about how our system works and how things are simply stacked against our most disenfranchised families.  So I’m waiting for what’s next.  In the meantime, I’m working to build a proof point where I am.  In the absence of choice that comes from economic freedom (meaning the money to move or send your kids to any private or public school that fits their needs), the next best option is local school control in my opinion. It’s messier, it’s just as hard, but I’m starting to see the payoff and it’s a game-changer.

My kids are fortunate enough that they have some choices, but I believe that folks like myself have a responsibility to fight so that access and opportunity is not just limited to our kids.  And in the meantime, let’s stop tripping one another up as we’re running the same race. The best way way to do that is if we really learn to see each other, and I believe that begins with dialogue and shared experiences. Here’s to the future of discourse in public education!

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