As we come to the end of another school year, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the teachers and parents who have dared to demand something different in our public schools.
These are not professional writers or policy wonks or paid advocates—just everyday people who care a lot about what happens to children in their classrooms and classrooms across the country and are willing to share their ideas on a national stage.
This isn’t as easy as it sounds, because even authentic people with commonsense ideas can summon the trolls and haters, simply because they offer a point of view that challenges the status quo.
I had the great pleasure of working with some of these writers during my years blogging about education reform issues—encouraging them to share their voice with a larger audience, elevating their best ideas into a piece that would resonate outside of their immediate circle, even summoning protective cover when the comments and tweets turned unexpectedly ugly.
In the spirit of honoring the power of authentic voice in the school improvement debate—which is increasingly muted in these tumultuous times but nevertheless as crucial as ever—I’d like to reintroduce y’all to these writers and remind you of some of their powerful pieces.
Passionate Teachers and Parents Tell The Inside Stories of Discrimination and Injustice in Schools
When I met North Carolina Teacher of the Year James Ford, we bonded around his early experience teaching in an Illinois school district that had once been the focus of a nationally known school desegregation lawsuit—a case I had covered as a journalist and one that lay bare the insidious and unrelenting nature of school-sanctioned racism in a district a federal judge ruled had “raised discrimination to an art form.”
Ford learned first hand that little had changed in the community despite hundreds of millions spent on desegregation “remedies”—and his experiences inspired him to write passionately and evocatively about the discrimination he saw and experienced in classrooms in various cities.
Early on, he pointed to the coded way that parents of color and those with limited means are pathologized in our schools—a powerful perspective coming from an insider.
“My skin starts to crawl whenever I hear the issue of parental involvement raised in discussions about education equity,” Ford wrote. “Not because I don’t believe it’s relevant or has any bearing on educational outcomes.”
“Rather I feel it’s a coded way of saying something else….Something that is presented as the solution to the most persistent disparities in education. It feels like a not-so-clever way of essentially saying, ‘There’s nothing we can do as educators. Schools can’t raise these kids and teachers can’t do it all.’”
On a visit to Indianapolis, I met two aspiring bloggers passionate about educational equity.
For mother of three Cheryl Kirk, her frustrations trying to secure a quality education for three very different learners inspired her to become a warrior for choice. When the leaders of the NAACP voted to support a moratorium on charter school expansion, Cheryl reminded readers how these political decisions could exacerbate personal struggles.
If we were to rewind a few years, the NAACP’s charter moratorium would have changed the trajectory of my children’s lives. I, as a mother, would have been left with no choice but to send my children to an underperforming school, at least until I was able to afford a home in a place where quality schools were embedded in the ZIP code and came with the keys to the house.
But so many families will never financially be able to make that move; without options, their children are condemned to the same schools that have been failing their neighborhoods for decades. It’s been 12 years for me and I am still waiting for the city of Indianapolis to fix its very broken system. And when push came to shove with my own children’s futures, I wasn’t going to wait around another minute. I had an obligation as a parent to consider every single option available to me.
David McGuire was a middle school teacher and aspiring principal when he first started writing about his role models in education. Now the Hoosier native focuses on building the ranks of Black male educators, who represent only 2 percent of the teaching force.
“As a Black male educator, I believe boys of color need structure and rigorous instruction, but I also firmly believe, in order for these boys to be successful, schools must provide them with an education that is individualized and tailored to their needs and interests,” he wrote.
Some Great Voices Come from Unfamiliar Places and Perspectives
Anna Baldwin brings a perspective rarely seen among education bloggers—a rural Montana teacher dedicated to improving opportunities for her students on the Flathead Indian Reservation. Native students are too often invisible in our national debates around educational equity—but Anna’s writing illuminates the triumphs and tribulations in tribal schools with humility and sincerity.
There is a common phrase among American Indians when describing their own experience of navigating the White world while retaining their customs: walking in two worlds. New reservation teachers also have to learn to walk in two worlds: their own, and the world belonging to their new community.
Learning to walk in two worlds is, for some new reservation teachers, a significant challenge. It means not that we try to assimilate into the tribal community, for we will always be outsiders there, but that we try to understand that community in order to serve it better. It also humbles us.
I didn’t always see eye to eye with teacher Andrew Wilk, but his writing always forces me to think more deeply about my convictions around education reform. He was a career changer who brought a skeptical eye to the ”business of schooling,” but we shared a sense of outrage around the dearth of ambitious instruction and the epidemic of remedial education. One piece he wrote took aim at the trendy “talk therapy” of restorative justice.
There is a reason that most teachers are in favor of more discipline rather than less; they want to be able to teach. Just one student who feels they can mouth off, torment their classmates, or otherwise be disruptive can ruin the educational environment of the entire classroom and distract—or demotivate—the students who really want an education and desperately need their teacher to be able to control the class.
There is an old saying when it comes to classroom discipline: “You spend 90 percent of your time dealing with 10 percent of your students.” The unfortunate truth is that a subset of that 10 percent is going to be unpersuaded by persuasion, and consequences that extend beyond peer juries or counseling will be necessary to convince them to modify their behavior.
Student Voices Remind Us That One Educator Can Make All the Difference
I loved swapping stories with teachers and parents, but my conversations with new college graduate Brandon Terrell reminded me of the powerful role student voice can and should play in our education debates. The details of his precarious journey to college completion still resonates and reminds us all of the life-transforming difference one educator can have for one vulnerable student.
I’m a spiritual person, so I started to see Ms. Hudson’s efforts and my dwindling hours as a “sign” that I was destined for something bigger than a food service job. I thought about another high school teacher, Joslyn Shannon, who told me she didn’t want me to fall through the cracks, who gave me warm meals, computer lessons and my first job.
I thought about all the lessons I learned from my family instability, which offered me a front row seat to the education inequities I am now fighting to eradicate.
To all those everyday parents, students and teachers who are willing to share their perspective, have a restful summer. You earned it.