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?

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.