Your Life Matters: The Speech I Am Still Waiting To Hear

Last Saturday, my city’s heart stopped for a little while.  It stood still as we pieced together the early news that two of our police officers had been shot, as we learned they had lost their lives, and as we watched the chilling video of police officers turning their backs to the leader they felt so betrayed by.  It stood still as we learned more about the suspect, an allegedly disturbed man who used social media outlets to announce his horrifying plans.  And then, New York took a deep breath, uniting its millions of people for just one moment of solidarity, one moment of communal grief, and then got itself back to work.

Like my city, my heart stood still that evening too.  I kept my television on all night, anxiously awaiting to hear the calming, reassuring voice of a leader, any leader, who could help us make sense of such a tragedy.  A mayor, a governor, a president, a religious leader, a trusted news anchor, anyone.  I waited hours, days, weeks.  And it never happened.  But in that void, that empty space, something else happened.  Other voices began to fill it quickly and furiously.  Fingers were pointed in every direction, blame was tossed around without care or attention, and the little space left for grief was quickly taken up by politics, fear, and more violence.

When I discussed the tragedy with friends and family, they were surprised at the way I waited, optimistically, for the voice of a great leader.  They reminded me that issue of race and policing is complex and controversial, and no great leader could talk about it publicly and still maintain their political popularity and financial backing.

This, I suppose, is where we are right now.

I, however, am not ready to accept that.  If no one else is going to make a great speech that attempts to unite a nation, then I am going to try it myself.  I will start by reminding you that I am grossly under-qualified, my only qualifications being that I am a teacher who once had a course or two on conflict negotiation, and who uses these skills daily to help negotiate conflicts such as “you can’t come to my birthday party” and “she told me Santa is dead,” but sometimes as important as “he doesn’t like me because I’m brown.”  But, like many of us, I have friends and family on both sides of this conflict, I care deeply about the direction our nation is heading in, and I still believe in the goodness of the human spirit.  So here goes.  A not-so-great speech, in the void of a great one:

Hundreds of years ago, a dream was a born.  A dream of a place where every man and woman would be free to learn, to think, and to act.  A place where our tired, our poor would be welcomed and cared for.  A place of opportunity, where just being American meant that you deserved an education, a voice in your democracy, the respect of your neighbor, and the protection of your government.  A union that would strive every day to be more perfect.  This is my understanding of the American dream, the dream that fueled the development of a great nation.

It was, of course, never perfect.  We have faced great challenges and great setbacks, some of which made us stronger and some of which continue to challenge us today.

Today, we are at a crossroads.  We are facing a multitude of challenges that are threatening the very dream that holds us together as Americans.  Challenges that have already resulted in tragic loss of life and the division of our people.  And we have a choice to make, today.

Do we still believe in our dream? Do we believe that we have a duty to care for the tired, the poor?  Do we believe that it is still every American’s right to be free, to have a voice in our democracy?   Do we believe that all fellow Americans deserve to be treated with respect and dignity?  Do we believe, like so many before us, that we can do better?  That with progress, we can be more perfect?

If so, then let’s start by listening.  Let’s honor the voices of fellow Americans who are affected by these recent tragedies.  Black lives matter.  Blue lives matter. Let’s practice restraint for a moment to hold back our own opinions and experiences, and provide space to hear others.  In the last few months, I have tried to do this as best I could, acknowledging my own privileges and biases.  And what I am learning is this: we are not as divided as we think we are.

In the long and imperfect history of race relations in our country, even the most well-intentioned whites have enjoyed a set of unearned privileges, some obvious and some subtle.  People of color have been denied these privileges, and often face bias and discrimination every day, some obvious and subtle.  It has not been easy for us to talk about as a nation, and we have a habit of closing the lid and avoiding any discussion of race because it feels more comfortable and polite to ignore it altogether.  But so many years of privilege, bias, discrimination, and closing the lid have had tragic consequences.  The voices crying out that Black Lives Matter are begging our nation to understand that somewhere along the way, we have developed a subtle but pervasive belief that black lives are not as sacred as white lives, that black Americans do not deserve the same inalienable rights and opportunities as white Americans, and that millions of people are being excluded from the very dream that is supposed to hold our nation together.

And then, there’s another voice.  The voice of public servants.  The people who choose careers that put themselves and their families at risk every day, but are dedicated to ensuring that their communities are safe and their neighbors are protected.  Like teachers, they have survived waves of politics that have insulted their professionalism, ignored their voices, and swayed public opinion in and out of their favor.  Like teachers, their work continues to be more and more difficult as people and communities in most need have been ignored, segregated, and left behind (but no one really talks about that anymore, because it’s more comfortable and polite to ignore it).  As in education, the police officers that should never have entered the profession, the ones that have demonstrated racism or committed crimes, have broken the last threads of trust between police and the communities they want to serve.  They are not battling people; they are battling systematic failures, our failures to address racism, poverty, homelessness, mental health, and violence, to name a few.

Once we hear these voices, we can hear some common threads.  No American needs to turn on another, especially when we are actually asking for the same things: the restoration of basic human rights, an equal shot at the American dream, the acknowledgement that our life matters.

So let’s try.  Let’s acknowledge that our nation has big problems that won’t go away if we continue to put the lid back on.  Let’s take the lid off, and keep it off, no matter how uncomfortable and impolite.  Here goes.

Racism is real and has plagued our country even before our independence.  The American experience continues to be different for you depending on the shade of your skin color.  Poverty is real, and the gap between rich and poor is rising at an alarming rate.  We have turned our backs on people and communities that are in the most need.  Agencies that are charged with protecting and caring for the poor, hungry, homeless, and mentally ill are not provided with the time and resources they need to do their jobs.  Special interests that protect the most wealthy have limited the abilities of public servants and tied the hands of politicians.  We are losing our ability to listen to each other, honor each other’s voices, and come together in times of need.  For many people, the American dream feels harder than ever to realize.

And most frightening of all, we seem to have forgotten that such an idealistic dream takes uncomfortable, impolite work, and it doesn’t make you any less American if you believe that we can do better.

Your life matters to me, because you an American and you are a human.  And because you are American and human, I will not turn my back on you.  I will take care of you when you are tired, or poor.  I will listen to you and value your insight.  I will acknowledge that we have grave problems and I will honor your voice as we work together solve them.  Your life matters to me, and together we can begin to repair.  To heal. To come together bound by the same dream that we’ve always shared.  A more perfect union…uncomfortable, impolite, and perfectly American.

Your Life Matters: The Speech I Am Still Waiting To Hear

Including THAT child: What Every Parent Can Do

This year, teachers and parents around the world were touched by the beautiful writing of Amy Murray in “Dear Parent: About THAT Kid…”  http://missnightmutters.com/2014/11/dear-parent-about-that-kid.html.

In this blog post, she painted us a portrait of THAT child, you know, the one on the peripheral of the classroom community.  The one whose differences set him apart from the other children and strike fear in the hearts of other parents.  The one that might have taught your child the F word, sent your child home with another scratch, or taken up so much of the teacher’s time that your well-behaved child hasn’t gotten any care or attention all year.  She reminded us of the incredible work of inclusive educators who know that every child who walks through their door is THEIR child, and will spend every free moment making difficult choices about how to divide time and resources, protect the privacy of families, and advocate and care for the children and families who need them most.  Murray also shed some light on the experience of parenting THAT child, and the painful realities of exclusion.

As an inclusive educator, I had a deeply personal connection to Murray’s words.  Advocating for the meaningful inclusion of THAT child is my life’s work, and I was so touched by the way Murray  shared an inside look to an inclusive educator’s heart and mind.  Recently, I have been thinking a lot about a next step we might be able to share.  Now that so many parents around the world have been touched by these words – what can they do? How can they support inclusive educators, and be a friend and advocate to THAT child, THAT family?

Here are some things that teachers do every day, and you can try too:

  1. Find and celebrate strength. Every child on this earth has one thing they can do with more brilliance than anyone else.  Look closely, compassionately, at a child on the peripheral to find that thing, and then celebrate it every day.  Perhaps her smile can warm your heart like no other.  Perhaps he can tell a joke that will make you laugh like you’ve never laughed before.  Perhaps she can create art that touches your soul, or build with the sophistication of the most celebrated architect.  Perhaps he can dance, sing, act, play a sport, or think about problems in a way we never imagined possible.  Celebrate it, authentically, and teach your child to do the same.
  2. Use the speeding car analogy. Every time I see a speeding car, I whisper to myself, “I hope they get to the hospital in time!”  By giving someone the benefit of the doubt, I take away the opportunity for unjust judgment of that person’s character.  It is not up to us to assume whether or not a child or family is in great need and deserves to be treated with kindness and inclusion rather than judgment and exclusion.  We are all fighting our own great fights and deserve your benefit of the doubt.  If a child does something that alarms you or your child, give this a try.  Use that child’s strengths to frame the incident with respect, and even a little humor.
  3. Remember that an inclusive education will give your child the most important skills they will need for success in their futures. Sure, there is a chance your child could pick up a bad word they didn’t know before, or maybe even play around with a new behavior for a short while.  But children that learn to be inclusive will also learn empathy, resilience, communication. They will learn to celebrate difference, treat all people with respect and dignity, overcome adversity, and love unconditionally.  Surely these are the things that will help your child reach their fullest potential in their academic experiences, careers, and relationships.
  4. Finally, and most importantly, be a leader yourself. When you notice a child or family on the peripheral, make it your responsibility to set the example for your child.  Email. Wave to them at pick-up time and share your phone number.  Set up play dates.  If you witness gossip and exclusion of a child or family, stand up and defend them with confidence and grace.  Your compassion will radiate, and your actions will send a powerful and unforgettable message to your child and community.
Including THAT child: What Every Parent Can Do

Want to change the world with me? A teacher to a police officer.

This has been a difficult few weeks for many of us.  At times it has felt so hard to know where to turn and what to do.  Acknowledging my own power and privilege in this difficult time, I thought it was best to listen.  And, when the time came, to humbly, respectfully, stand up in solidarity.

This Saturday, I chose to join my community in the Millions March.  For the most part, it was New York City at its best.  The leaders encouraged us to look around at each other, and to acknowledge that anyone who came out today would forever be our family.  And as a 25,000-strong family, we marched together through our streets with strength and grace.

As I walked up Fifth Avenue, I saw something intriguing.  A police officer quietly smiled as a little girl stood beside him.  She was holding a sign that read something like: “Sooo… want to change the world with me?”  I only caught a quick glance, but I could almost hear him thinking “I know, and I’m sorry.”  As we continued to march, I couldn’t help but observe the police officers charged with keeping the march safe.  So many of them seemed to say the same thing to me: “I know, and I’m sorry.”  I looked back and smiled at each one, whispering the same thought in return.

The next day, I challenged myself to think from a police officer’s perspective.  Not the ones who have committed crimes, or are responding to these tragedies with blatant disregard for human life.  Instead, the quiet ones, who, like so many of us, see a complex problem and want to be a part of the solution.  The ones who know, and are sorry.

I thought back to every time I turned on the news and saw a mug shot of a teacher who had put a child’s life in danger.  I relived the pain of knowing someone had jeopardized the honor of the profession.  I thought back to every time a politician publically denounced teachers as being lazy, uneducated, even greedy.  I relived the pain of knowing the people we serve every day are blaming us, and only us, for failing a generation of children.

Then, I remembered the relief of a seeing a rare news story in which someone dared to ask teachers their own professional opinions about how to improve education.  This question sparks dialogue about the real problems facing our educational system.  Are there a small percentage of teachers who are not working in their calling, and shouldn’t be charged with caring for children?  Sure.  Will their removal play a critical role in improving education? No. Not really.  Because there is so much more to fix.  The quiet re-segregation of communities and schools.  The slowly vanishing budgets of agencies charged with providing basic needs and protection to our most vulnerable neighbors. The stagnant salaries of the working poor amid higher and higher costs of living.  The loss of the teacher’s power to close the door and teach, heal, inspire.  A new industry rising from the dust of poverty and promising change through expensive new curriculum and assessments that just seem to widen our gap more and more.  Blaming teachers does nothing but cover up the things that are much harder to talk about, and far more difficult to fix.

Teachers know that pain all too well.  And I am willing to bet that many police officers are feeling that same pain today.  Sooo, want to change the world with me?  Tell me.  Tell me, with the respect and professionalism of your honorable field, what are we missing?  How can we make our communities safer, protect precious human life, and start to heal from this deep divide? I’ll listen.

Want to change the world with me? A teacher to a police officer.

Beyond Rigor: The Gray Area of Evaluating Teachers

I will start by saying that I am the queen of awkward, comical observations.  I can go months without an observation, and pull off incredible feats of teaching with rigor, high level discussion, and everything else in between.  And when an observer does come, I’m usually asking my co-teacher to cover while I run to the bathroom because the line was 20 minutes long at lunchtime.  Or sneaking a snack because I think my kids are starving and can’t possibly engage in rigor and high level discussions until they’ve had a few bites of apple.  Or, tragically changing my perfectly appropriate plan and reaching for my clipboard because of the intense fear that my perfectly appropriate plan without clipboard will not demonstrate rigor and high level discussion.

I understand the need to evaluate teachers and greatly respect the people charged with doing so.  I just don’t think we will ever find a way to score something so gray.

Despite what reformers may continue to say, teaching has never been, and will never be, a science.  The brightest minds can walk into a classroom and fail…but that’s an entirely new blog post I’m not willing to write!  You can’t read a textbook, or listen to a lecture, then expect to master the beautiful, imperfect, art of teaching.

Sure, theory is important.  You will need a solid theoretical base to understand the history of education as an institution, the role of culture in the educational experience, and the science of learning.  You will need to study statistics and be prepared to gather and analyze data to inform your instruction.  You will need to be fluent in educational law at the federal, state, and local level.  You will need at least basic fluency in the most curricular programs and assessments available to educators, and be able to make choices based on their developmental appropriateness, reliability, and validity.

And then comes the gray area, the marks of a great teacher that have yet to make their way onto any evolution form I’ve ever seen.

You will need to carry yourself with maturity and grace; teaching demands a level of composure like no other field.  You will hold yourself together despite different challenges every day, from being vomited on by a child with a terrible, contagious illness, to being insulted or attacked by a child who has lost their way or a family who is desperate for help.  You will make mistakes. You will receive a great deal of criticism, some constructive and some that will just break your heart.  And then you’ll have to come back the next day, lesson learned, with an open heart and a renewed energy.

You will need to reflect on yourself every day, and challenge yourself to fight bias in race, class, gender, and ability.  You will need the skills to teach your students to reflect on the same things as you help them develop their characters.  You will need to be open to learning.  No child or cohort will ever be the same, and every year you will need to admit that you can be better and then seek out the development you need.

You will need compassion.  A lot of compassion. You will need to challenge yourself to reach out the students who need you most, the students who have been let down by so many adults and are waiting for you to fail them too so they can add you to the list.  You will fight to see the best in every student, and only let them see the best in you.

You will need to be professional.  You will need to dress and act in a way that shows how important you think your work is, and you will need to hold on to that professionalism even when you feel like no one else will respect it.  You will need to come in early, and stay late, or put in the same hours at home as your juggle your responsibilities there.

You will most likely need to come to work sick, all the time, because there’s just no way to care for a sick child without putting yourself at risk, and because even if you feel awful, you will feel worse sitting in bed and worrying about your students.  You’ll need to master of the art of holding it together for 6 hours and then collapsing into your chair at 3:00, not entirely what you taught all day.

You will need to be critical; you will be asked to do things that feel wrong for your students, and you will need the skills to find that careful balance of working within a system that is doing its best, too…usually.  You will have to choose your battles wisely.

And most importantly, you’ll need to let go of all of the small stuff.

Like an evaluation showing your lack of rigor and high level discussions.

Good luck to all my colleagues out there this year as we continue to do our best work, and leave the evaluators to do theirs.

You’re so much more than rigor.

Funny observation stories? Thoughts on teacher evals? Write a comment below!

Beyond Rigor: The Gray Area of Evaluating Teachers

The First Step

Like so many others, I have experienced a range of emotions over the tragic loss of life in recent police-involved incidents. Intense sadness, confusion, disbelief.  All the while knowing that the pain I have been feeling cannot be compared to the pain of the millions of people who have been victimized by discrimination, or the unimaginable grief of families who had to bury a child, a father, a lifelong friend.  Like so many others, I didn’t know what to do or where to turn.  So I chose to listen.

I listened to the news, all day. I read every post I could on social media. I listened to perspectives of victims and suspects, of strangers who felt compelled to share their own experiences of discrimination and violence. A public servant myself, I listened to perspectives of community leaders and police officers defending the honor and good intentions of their work.  I listened to the way that “experts” contributed their opinions on the evening news.  But as events unfolded, it became more and more difficult to listen.  Eventually, I reached a point of such disappointment and outrage that I couldn’t listen any more.  I reached a point where I couldn’t read another opinion of someone who skipped a very important step, the first step, of moving forward.

You see, when I decided to become a teacher, I went through a very uncomfortable lesson in both my undergraduate and graduate preparation.  I learned about the history of race, class, gender, and ability in our country. I was pushed through the very uncomfortable process of acknowledging my own unearned privileges and the inherent biases I was socialized to carry.  I carefully reflected on this new idea that just because I was always kind-hearted and well-intentioned didn’t mean I was immune from developing a set of biased beliefs about groups of people, some inherent sense of power or control, or the idea that all of my career and academic successes were earned by my merit alone.  It is a painful and imperfect process that I will continue to work on every day, but it is an essential process for anyone charged with caring for children.

This imperfect process has at the very least given me the tools to recognize situations in which I carry the weight of privilege, have an element of power, or even now the threat of biased patterns of thinking.  It is this process that has me looking at social media feeds, or watching the news, and screaming to myself:

“No! No! You cannot create a character of someone you have never known, who is no longer here to defend themselves!”

 “No! No! You cannot name the grief of a community that lost a child or loved one.  You cannot demand a community express their agony and grief in a way you think is polite.”

 “Please, please. At the very least admit that these stories might be different if the victims were white and affluent, and that means if you are white and affluent you need to speak with a humble respect for lives lost and community in heartbreak.”

We have all heard that the first step towards solving a problem is admitting there is a problem.  I have a long way to go in understanding the complexities of race and challenging myself to be an ally.  I do not consider myself an expert of any kind.  All I know now is that if I want to be a part of the solution, I need to acknowledge there is a problem, and I humbly encourage anyone entrusted with sharing news and opinions on current events do the same thing.  Admit to yourself that your perspective might carry elements of privilege or bias, and balance yourself by sharing your voice, and growing by listening to others.

I know what many of you may be feeling.  You don’t feel privileged; so many of us are struggling to make ends meet every day.  You don’t feel like you have biases; you might go to work every day with an open mind and willingness to serve your community.  But I don’t think that we can move forward as a country until we can all acknowledge that we are, and we do.  Once we do that, we might learn how to use language that respects the dignity and humanity of everyone in our communities.  We might learn to stop and challenge any biased thoughts or feelings that can creep into our views.  We might have the strength to be an ally, no matter how lonely and isolating that can feel at first.  We might improve our ability to help prevent tragedies that leave parents without children, and children without parents.  And if tragedy does strike, we might be able to grieve and respond in unity rather than division.  We just might begin to heal.

The First Step

Here goes!

When I was young, adults were always asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up.  I never took the question lightly.  As a very young child, I often said “teacher,” because my parents were educators and I had transformed our family’s basement into a classroom for my then-toddler brother.  After awhile, I started getting crafty with my responses.  Athlete. Pop star. Lawyer. President. General (so I could stop all the wars).  But as soon as I could hold a pen, one ambition stood out from the others.  I have always had a passion for language, the subtle way that a carefully selected series of words and punctuation marks could turn any plain old thought into something beautiful.

Eventually, I found another source of beauty – working with young children as a special education teacher.  Like writing, teaching is an art – a carefully selected series of opportunities that help every child develop a love of learning, an appreciation for difference, courage to pursue their own ideas, and a passion to make the world a better place.  I can’t imagine a more inspiring or fulfilling career.

But, when the writing bug hits you (even at age four), I’m not entirely sure it ever goes away.  The older I get, the more nights I lay awake drafting something in my head.  Sometimes I draft ideas for my classroom: better ways to have handled a situation that day, a new plan to help them see the value and heart of a child who doesn’t seem to be included in the community, or how I can adjust my practice to the ever-changing learning needs of each new group of children.  Sometimes I draft my imaginary responses to the extra drama teachers deal with these days (the culture of high stakes assessments, teacher evaluations, or the tragic disappearance of teachers’ voices from each new wave of school reforms, to name a few).  Sometimes I draft a social commentary, yearning to make sense out of tragic current events or to share my perspective on controversial topics that I can relate to.

Most of the time, these late-night drafts never make it out of my own head.  But today, that little four-year-old, destined to be writer-slash-president, is making a bit of a comeback.  I don’t know much about blogs, and I have a lot to learn, but enough people have told me to start one that I figured I’d give it a try.  I work hard to write with fairness and respect, and I hope you enjoy a little selection of my drafts, writer to writer, teacher to teacher, artist to artist.

Here goes!