The Path to SchoolHive Pt. 2

Reclaiming My Professional Identity

(if you missed Pt. 1, you can find it here)

In early fall 2018, distraught at the loss of my professional identity, I had a coffee meeting with a marketing expert. His empathic nature led me to turn our meeting into a therapy session, pouring out the aggrieved sense that whatever professional accomplishments I had achieved, I had simply given away. His advice to me: “Reclaim your brand.”

It got me thinking.

I spent the first 16 years of my professional life as a teacher and school leader working in progressive schools, mostly inspired by some of my educational heroes — the progressive Founding Mothers like Lucy Sprague Mitchell, Caroline Pratt, and Elisabeth Irwin — whose goal was to educate students to use the privilege of citizenship to disrupt the status quo. By the time I reached mid-career, I was already a long-time public school parent, and I decided that it was time to put my energy and experience, and my beliefs about equity and access, into the public school system.

Building a professional community for teachers

I landed at Math for America, an education nonprofit that grants fellowships to mathematics and science teachers in the New York City public school system. The organization was handing large checks to teachers, but not giving them anything to do. “Make a program,” I was told.

As a Klingenstein Fellow at Teachers College in the 90s, I had experienced the power of the cohort. I realized how it felt to learn from a talented group of peers, and saw how we evolved as educators and leaders, under the mentorship of a leader who trusted, respected and pushed us. I took those experiences, along with my beliefs about community norms and rituals, and translated them into a large-scale professional community of teachers. Multiple cohorts working together to share best practices and to challenge themselves and each other, on everything from equity initiatives to problem-based learning to calculus.

What could I contribute now?

With the phrase, “reclaim your brand” stuck in my head, I started to think about what I had accomplished in my career as an educator that truly mattered to me. The first and most important thing was the knowledge that I had made a true difference in the lives of some of my former students. The second was that I had created a community, and a professional learning structure, that felt life-changing to a large number of teachers.

“What if…” I thought, “What if I could bring the vision of the professional learning community that I created at MfA to any teacher, anywhere? And what if it was in the context of my beliefs as a progressive educator?” Namely, that “any words or actions of progressive educators must deal first with issues of diversity, access, and equity and with those who have traditionally been denied, or short-changed, on all three” (Engel, 27).

So I arrived at the idea for SchoolHive. I’m nervous about it and excited. The other day, I saw a clip of 45’s son referring to teachers as “losers.” Uh, no. Teachers are essential to a healthy democracy and a compassionate citizenry. Here I am, eager to do my part to uplift all of you out there in classrooms doing the hard work of making sure that every child gets a thoughtful, caring, and equitable education.

p.s. Shout out to marketing guru Michael Boezi, for helping me to move beyond self-pity into a productive headspace!

Limits = Love

I find that I have adopted certain catchphrases that I use over and over as a way of giving advice or offering a framework for how to approach a situation, all of which are rooted in my personal experiences in schools. One of those catchphrases is, “children understand limits as love.” I first heard that line from a 5th/6th Grade Humanities teacher named Eliza and it immediately presented itself as a tidy way of summarizing a truth I had experienced right from the start of my teaching career.

The first year I had a classroom to myself, I had a student named Michael. Michael had a swagger about him that drew other kids to him and intimidated me. The school rule was that students received a detention slip for coming late to class three times. When Michael came late to class the third time, I was afraid of a scene, and I didn’t give him a detention slip. He began coming later and later to class, acting more and more bored while he was in the room, and I pretended not to notice. I told myself that it was better to keep the peace, even as I handed out detention slips to other kids for the same infraction (more on my actual opinion of detention another time!).

Some weeks into this fiasco, I overheard Michael saying to another student, “I don’t need to go to English. She doesn’t even care if I come to class.” In a horrified instant, I understood what I had done to him. That day, when he walked into class 20 minutes late, I handed him a detention slip, for the first time looked right at him, and told him that I needed him in the room from the beginning of class every day. He met my gaze, and cocked his head, and smiled, and right then I became a teacher who was on his side.

From Michael, I learned that ignoring challenging behavior is a way of not knowing a child, of not paying attention to who they are and what they might be feeling, of keeping a distance that erodes the possibility of actually teaching that particular child the content you intended each. The subtlety of teaching is that you’re always teaching children something. By privileging my own insecurities, I taught a child that I didn’t care. 

In his beautiful little book, The Tone of Teaching, Max van Manen talks about the importance of seeing children: “Being seen is more than being acknowledged. For a child it means experiencing being seen by the teacher. It means being confirmed as existing” (van Manen, 31). When I held Michael to the same standard as the rest of the students, I saw him as a member of the community, and I signaled to him that he was important to me. I know that Michael has traveled through life believing that his high school English teacher cared about him; I wish I had shared with him how much he taught me about what truly matters in teaching. 

Sometimes teaching is about unlearning.

The woman who founded the school where I first taught (back in the early 90s) held the philosophy that “the school should fit itself to the child.” Many of us have experienced what it feels like to have to fit yourself to the school — that seems the natural course of things. Three generations of women in my family attended the same high school and we all read the same books in 10th Grade. If you are a student whose voice, or sex, or race, or sexual/gender/cultural orientation, or religion aren’t visible, aren’t represented, in the faculty, curriculum, or co-curriculum, then you are forced to fit yourself to the school, and not the other way around.

But I didn’t know any of that when I started teaching, at least not in a conscious, intellectualized way. I was shaped by privilege and whiteness and that’s what I brought to my first teaching job. Our high school had 60 students and no racial majority. I was the only English teacher. The racist teacher narrative whispers insistently that some students care about doing well, and others don’t. I had noticed that my white students always revised their essays for a higher grade, just like I “told” them to, but my black students didn’t. “Why don’t they care about their grades,” I puzzled. Did they not like my class? Did their grades not matter to them? Do they not care about going to college?

That summer, I attended a subsidized boot camp for beginning teachers. For two weeks, I was on a boarding school campus with other newbies, more homework than one could imagine, incredible speakers, and a worship-inspiring mentor English teacher. One night, we were assigned a chapter from Lisa Delpit’s, Other People’s Children. One passage, in particular, turned me cold with horror. In it, Delpit describes how white middle-class children are raised with questions that are understood as demands, “Why don’t you take your bath now?” Where middle-class black children are raised with directives, “Get into the tub now.” White teachers, ignorant of familial cultural differences, assume their way is the only way, and this impedes their ability to deliver an equitable education to “other people’s children.”

I returned to school in September. A month into school, I returned the students’ first essays to them with comments that contained questions about their work, and directives about their next steps: “please revise this essay per the comments and turn it back in a week from today.” And lo and behold, everyone cared about their grades. I understood that I had fit the school to the child, finally, and I could see clearly the unlearning that I needed to do in myself to create a true learning environment for my students.