In a May 8 column in the Washington Post, Jay Mathews had this (and much more) to say about the Teacher Solutions report Performance–Pay for Teachers, which I helped write with 17 other teachers from across the U.S.
They lose me completely with point number nine, “Be brave, be bold.” I have seen versions of “be brave, be bold” in every high profile, blue ribbon, big expense-account master plan for saving our schools in the last 20 years.
Well, not from teachers, he hasn't. Because teachers haven't been writing high-profile blue ribbon reports for the last 20 years. The TeacherSolutions report is part of a very new wave of national position papers written in the voice of teacher leaders who believe it's time we had a place at the table. And those of us involved in the TeacherSolutions project definitely didn't have a big expense account. Teachers? Expense accounts? This may be the only instance I can think of where teachers were equated to "fat cats."
I have thought a lot about those two words brave and bold since reading his article. I just do not see how we can ever leave out brave and bold when thinking about education reform. To be very honest, I felt pretty bold just being a part of the Teacher Solutions group. It was a first for me—joining a policy discussion with teachers across the nation about a topic that is usually reserved for policy gurus who are far removed from the every-day realities of school. This was a new world for me and I liked being included.
I also think the words brave and bold are very fitting as I end my third year at Brighton. I often am introduced to people as the national Teacher of the Year who chose to go to one of Alabama’s lowest performing schools when I could have had a job anywhere. This makes me sound brave and bold. In reality, I do not think this was a brave or bold move. For me, it is an obvious choice for accomplished teachers to share their talents and knowledge in our most needy schools.
To be very honest again, I have been more apprehensive than brave the past three years. I have written often about my daily struggles to find my place at Brighton. I still constantly question whether I have what it takes to stay in a school like Brighton. But if I am not brave, I am determined. I won't give up.
I will tell you who the truly brave and bold folks are at Brighton. It's our students. Recently, our 41 eighth graders went to orientation at Hueytown High School, where most will enter in the fall. The other students at the event all came from Hueytown Middle School—the school that I strongly believe our students in grades 6-8 should also attend (and let Brighton become a true elementary school).
On this visitation day, our eighth grade girls decided to all wear red and black. When I saw them, I was perplexed at why would they want to stand out in this way. Many of us have campaigned for them to be accepted in this high school, bragging on their good behavior. But some of those present quickly assumed they were wearing gang colors. Later I found out they behaved beautifully and these colors represented a Brighton club.
So what were these girls trying to say? My guess is it was something like: "We are here. You have left us out until now, but we will make our way!” I love that these girls were brave and bold enough to do this. They will have to have this type of spunk to survive in this very large school where they are labeled “the Brighton kids.” I say, "You go girls, you can make it!"
If you have ever worked in a school of high poverty, you know that in order for the children to survive and prosper, they must have boldness and courage. I witness this daily in many of the Brighton children who are homeless, abused, and neglected. My frustration continues to be with the decision makers who want to keep our Middle School students in a school that next year will have around 38 students in each grade It makes no sense on educational or economic grounds.
How I wish someone would be brave and bold enough to restructure our school to a K-5 elementary and provide us with effective classroom teachers who have high expectations and a sense of professionalism. We do have a growing number of outstanding teachers, but we are still building our schedules around (and I do mean "around") the teachers who do harm, and whom those of us in the school have no power to remove.
So, I guess I would say to Jay Mathews that I never want the words brave and bold to be left out of the conversations about saving our schools. If we are not brave and bold, nothing will ever change for populations like Brighton. Change requires us to "shake up the schoolhouse," as Phil Shlechty has said. The incrementalism that Jay Mathews suggests in his column will not generate enough force to break the inertia of entrenched bureaucrats with a "hide the problem" mindset.
To be very honest a final time, I want to be known as a brave and bold educator who made a difference. As the late Robert Kennedy said:
The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of bold projects and new ideas. Rather, it will belong to those who can blend passion, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals of American society.
Jay Mathews would call that "romantic fiction." Let's hope not. Let's hope we can still find ways to instill such visions in the minds and hearts of the kids we teach.