Ceding Environmental Privilege

This week on social media I’ve been following the adventures of a group of education leaders from the US who have traveled to another country to learn about the education system there. I’m also reading inspiring messages of what educators from around the country are learning at the various national conferences happening throughout the month, with attendance at each in the many thousands. This all got me thinking about the relationship between education and environmental habits.

I believe that these group experiences are truly deeply meaningful. They bring people together to pursue the best practices in teaching and learning. They are catalysts for growth. They promote collaboration and collegiality.

But in an era where we have already reached irreversible and catastrophic levels of global warming, these practices are prime examples of how leaders in education, for the most part, have turned a blind eye to their reliance on environmental privilege.

Does it hurt anyone?

The amount of carbon expelled into the air and the amount of arctic ice lost from 30 people going on round trip flights from anywhere in the US to another continent has an actual impact on every community around the globe suffering the effects of extreme weather, and every non-human population that’s being wiped out.

But those flights are going anyway, so my not going doesn’t make a difference. That’s how I’ve always thought of it. But, by absolving myself of any personal responsibility, I’m exercising my environmental privilege.

Could we calculate the footprint of a huge national education conference? Think about the air miles, the hotel usage, the plastic and lights and trash in the vendor halls, the food waste from the many sponsored receptions, and everything else that I’m not even thinking of x approximately 9,000 attendees. And most k-12 education organizations hold these annual mega-events.

But that’s just the environmental impact. I once heard a recording of Bobby Kennedy speaking about his life-changing trip to South Africa. He says, and I’m paraphrasing, “Those of us who diet are forever obligated to those of us who starve.” Environmental privilege refers to hoarding environmental resources so that one group benefits at the expense of others. With education programs that involve mass travel and energy consumption, which by their very nature are then exclusive, we must consider who’s dieting and who’s starving. And then we need to take action.

What would it look like?

Back to social media. The other day I saw an invitation to #cleartheair participants for a Zoom call. Not a summer gathering in one city or another, which involves air or car travel and hotel stays and immediately leaves people out. A Zoom call. Everyone can participate and no negative environmental impact.

Traveling across the globe to learn about a school system sounds amazing and I’d love to be on that trip, but is there anything that they’re learning that couldn’t be achieved with a virtual study group, a series of readings, and local experts? I know that’s a lot less appealing, and I bet 30 people wouldn’t participate, but ceding privilege means giving something up. We have to make space for others to benefit, even if we can’t see them benefitting or point to our individual impact.

Educators, it’s time to change our practices. We have to lead on this, too. Who’s with me?

The Co-Opting of Progressive Education

I’ve always been really proud of being a progressive educator. I really believe in its core tenet, that the purpose of progressive education is to prepare students to be active citizens of a participatory democracy. I also believe in the pedagogy of progressive education, that students should learn by doing and that teachers should facilitate a classroom environment that is based on active learning rather than passive sitting and listening.

But lately I’ve been thinking that progressive education as educational philosophy is just another tool to uphold white supremacy — not the hardcore ideology of neo-nazi white supremacists — but the structural capitalist enterprise designed to keep white people on the top. I don’t necessarily mean that John Dewey meant it that way; but, over time, that’s how it’s been implemented.

Progressive education loses its bearings

While I’m not an educational historian, I know that in the first half of the 20th Century, public schools caught hold of progressive education as a means of tracking. Principals didn’t consider it a practical solution for students who weren’t going on to higher education; those students should have vocational education. They saved progressive methodologies for those promising young (mostly) men going on to college. For sure, “promising” meant white, Christian students who were not recently arrived in the U.S. Just like that, a philosophy based on active citizenship shifts into the service of upholding the status quo.

Radical lesbian educator and John Dewey-disciple Elisabeth Irwin started her experiment in progressive education in a public school in New York City, but with the onset of the Depression, she was told that it was too costly and was being scrapped. The solution? Make the experiment into a private program. Who benefits, then? People who can pay. People with privilege. People whose right to citizenship isn’t questioned or worse, actively suppressed.

In the past 25 years of schooling, and particularly since NCLB, the push towards “accountability” and the testing that is required to measure accountability means that progressive methodologies have been systematically pushed out of public schools, even at the elementary level. That’s a generation of public school students losing out on the kind of education that centers them as learners, community members, young citizens with ideas and value. So, while they’ve been losing out, who’s been benefitting?

Testing companies. Textbook companies. Charter school networks. And white kids in private schools.

In pursuit of social injustice

Which leads me to take a hard look at what I’ve been participating in as a card-carrying progressive educator. And it’s not pretty. Those of us who benefit from white privilege must persistently interrogate the ways that we participate — often unwittingly — in systems designed or leveraged to uphold one group over others. Doesn’t mean, like in the case of progressive education, that the thing itself is inherently problematic, but the way it’s been co-opted is.

Grit. Mindset. All these philosophies that perhaps begin with good intentions, to develop young people as active learners, are quickly subverted. The urge to keep our systems socially unjust is that strong.

I’ll still carry my progressive education card in my wallet, but when I’m called upon to take it out, I will be sure to take a good hard look at who benefits.

Waiting for the School Shooter

For two and a half years, I was in charge of a school. Our students ranged in ages from 2½ to 18. The school was idyllic, located at the base of a mountain. Sometimes we saw rainbows arcing through the sky. The leaves turned gold and the Burning Bushes flamed red in autumn. In winter, students would keep slippers in their classroom and go sledding at recess. Every teacher seemed to own a guitar. The school reminded me of my summer camp, where every day was a new adventure in community living, friendship, and music.

Sometimes people ask me if I worried about a school shooting, during the time that I was there. The answer is yes. How often did I worry about an active shooter situation? The truth? Every single day for two and a half years.

“Your students are so lucky…”

Shortly after I arrived at the school, I asked the local police to walk through each of the 11 buildings on the campus with me and talk me through what we needed to do to prepare for an active shooter scenario. They sketched out a plan for each classroom, and listed all the updates we’d need to make to ‘shooter-proof’ the buildings. They told me that they no longer recommend hiding as a first recourse, instead they teach the following mantra: “Run, fight, or hide.” “Your students,” they said, “are so lucky, because they can just run into the woods.”

“We need to practice,” I told the faculty. The subtext of that sentence was, “we need to practice how you will lay down your lives for your students.”

We became teachers because we wanted to contribute, because we care about youth, and because teaching is a great career — it comes with pension, with summers off. Each day is different. It’s a relationship-based career, with lives spent in community. We make a difference.

School takes on a new meaning.

When we became teachers, we envisioned an engaging life in the classroom. Life. Not death. Not practicing to stay alive, not putting our own lives on the line. Even though the risk of being in a school shooting is incredibly low, any amount of risk is too much. And so a generation of children is growing up practicing silent hiding and calculating the angle of their seat placement in the event that someone bursts into their classroom with an automatic weapon. But also, so is a generation of teachers. Is today the day? Will I know how to react? Can I run, fight or hide, or will I freeze up and die? Will I be able to do what I need to do to protect the children I am responsible for?

How does one plan a lesson with this terrible noise in the background? It’s no wonder that teachers are dropping out of the profession in record numbers.

Nothing happened at the school I was responsible for, not in the time I was there. It wasn’t thanks to my worry or planning or the drills we practiced, or even the nearby woods. If the purpose of schooling is to prepare the rising generation to be active citizens of our participatory democracy, then perhaps what we are seeing from the Parkland students is just the beginning of the outrage and anger. I hope so. In the meantime, teachers and principals will continue to worry, and plan, and practice, and pray that today is not the day.

(Are you a school leader looking for a supportive group of fellow school leaders to share stories like this? Contact us!)

Fix the Teachers

In my recent period of unemployment, I applied for a lot of jobs. A LOT of jobs. Most of them were remote education jobs.

One of the jobs required a performance task as part of the interview process. One component of the task was to review a variety of edtech tools. As part of the review, I had to assess the strengths of the tool and what it couldn’t be used for. My answers were all the same: “This tool is cool because of X. A classroom teacher wouldn’t use this to promote classroom discussion, student-to-student discourse, critical thinking, reflection, or analysis.” Hmmm.

The more jobs I applied for, the more I began to recognize a subtext in the mission of the organizations. It went something like this: “we are here to fix the teachers.” Or, “we fix the broken schools by minimizing the teacher’s presence in the classroom.” When things are broken, you need something to blame. Or someone. Teachers are an easy target.

The schools are broken

Help! The schools are broken! “I know! Let’s hire (primarily white & wealthy) undergrads from elite colleges and place them – untrained –  in schools in underserved communities. Let’s be sure to tell them that because they went to brand name schools, they’re better than the long-serving teachers, and that after those two years of teaching-as-community-service they should be shaping education policy.”

Help! The schools are still broken! “I know! Let’s start testing students in reading and math every year from a really young age and let’s tie those test scores to school funding and teachers’ job security.”

These are not good ideas. When I arrived at Math for America, I told my boss, “Let’s be different. We’re not here to fix the teachers. We’re here to uplift them, support them, cheer them, challenge them, sustain them.” He agreed and became the biggest advocate of all for the importance of respecting teachers. Teachers are not what’s broken about the schools. If you’re still reading, you already know that the root of the problem is systemic racism and its good buddy, poverty.

And those jobs?

I didn’t get offered any of those jobs. Something tells me I wasn’t a good fit. I’m using my time now to build something that reflects my values and offers a counter-narrative. We don’t need to make the teachers better; we need to do better for our teachers. Especially the ones who are in it for the long haul.

(for more information about my journey to founding SchoolHive, please read Pts 1 & 2).

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!

The Path to SchoolHive Pt. 1

My journey to founding SchoolHive is both professional and personal. The personal first (but please stay with me to read about the professional). A couple of years ago, one of my children became seriously ill. Her illness had grown over a long period of time, mostly unnoticed or unremarked upon by the folks who should’ve seen it, including her teachers and her parents. At the time of the diagnosis, my family was enjoying a semester out of the country in a vibrant international city. I stayed home and at my job, visiting as often as I could. Our actual home was in a rural community where we didn’t have access to the treatment our daughter needed to get better, so my partner and I made the difficult decision that she and the kids would stay put, in Tel Aviv, while our daughter healed.

I attempted to negotiate a new schedule at the school where I worked, one that would allow me time to work remotely part of each month and be with my family while my daughter got the treatment she needed. But my negotiation was unsuccessful and I was forced to step away from my position. Was that easy? Not by a long shot. I was terrified at the prospect of having no income, and of wrecking my career, and angry at how things had turned out, but I knew it was the right choice. To see our daughter now, you would never know that she’d been sick. She’s thriving and well, and that means everything. If that were the end of the story, it would be enough.

Being pregnant gives you a kind of public identity; everyone who sees you implicitly understands a crucial aspect of who you are or what your life is becoming. I remember, after giving birth, walking around the neighborhood and feeling strangely identity-less, with that distinctive marker gone. Walking away from my job felt, in its own way, similar. I didn’t recognize myself, without the external trappings of job title and salary. I didn’t know what to think about, how to occupy my mind, without the all-absorbing issues of work. Who was I, without those things? Was mother enough?

I threw myself into caring for my family, and I tried to remind myself of all I had to be grateful for (although it wasn’t always so consoling). I knew unequivocally that I had made the right choice, but I walked through the days feeling lost. All the while, my partner kept reminding me that twists and turns in life are also opportunities and that this was my chance to slow down, have time with our kids, and think about what mattered to me and what I wanted to do next. She encouraged me to remember that we have one life, and to make a conscious choice about how I wanted to live the next part of mine.

I think this brings me to the end of Part I. Please stay for Part 2, and learn about how feeling lost eventually led me to understand how to reclaim my professional identity.

Teach with the green light on

My first class of students, the Class of ‘96, is turning 41 this year. I taught many of them for all four years of high school. Though I blame Facebook for surfacing the worst in humanity and undermining our democracy, I love it for enabling me to keep up with the lives of my former students.

Recently, I had the following Facebook exchange with one of them:

Me: “Happy Birthday, David! Facebook messed up your account. It says you’re turning 41 and I’m pretty sure it’s meant to say 14!”

David replies: “Gosh I wish. And you’re still in your early 20s teaching me all the symbolism of that billboard with the eyes in great gatsby.”
I reply: “I can’t tell you how happy it makes me that you remember that.”

David replies with a screenshot of an image from The Great Gatsby, to which I reply: “Perfect. You get an A.”

What students see in their teachers

I love that David refers to my being in my 20s because it recalls another funny exchange we had. One night, ten years after he graduated from high school, he rang my apartment buzzer at 10 pm after an alumni basketball game. I came down to say hi. After a big hug, he looks closely at me and says, “When you were teaching us, you were like 40. But I’m looking at you now, and you’re like 40… So, how old were you when you started teaching us?”

“How old are you now?” I asked.

“27.”

“I was 26 when I started teaching you.”

“Oh shit!!”

What students feel in the classroom

Nel Noddings, in her book Caring: A Relational Approach to Ethics and Moral Education, notes, “The student is infinitely more important than the subject matter.” In the transactional relationship between teacher and students, it’s means something to me to know that one of my students, 30 years later, remembers something that I taught him and would take the time to share it with me.

Teaching is a transfer of information, yes, on one level. On another, it’s an unspoken contract between a teacher and a student: “I will care for you, and work to know you so that you can learn from me, and I from you.” Caring is the most important currency a teacher possesses. Far more important than grading. It’s what makes it safe for students to take the risk of learning.

If someone had told me, back in 1992, that in 30 years I’d spend enjoyable time scrolling through pictures of these students’ future dogs, kids, vacations, and meals would I have believed it? While I might not have been able to imagine it, I would have understood that the relationships that I was forging in the classroom were not isolated to that time and space. Unlike other transactions, the currency of caring has staying power. It is the ultimate green light.

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.