Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Don't Go Breakin' My Heart

I had a bit of bad news last week which sent me into the deep end of the pity pool to float around for a while.  I managed to get it together, but knew I had to give a speech today to my local association's retirees so I used the experience as inspiration. This was the second year I have been their keynote speaker and I had lots to reflect on in the last year. This may be the most brutally honest and vulnerable I have ever been in public, but if you can't be honest when you are at home, when can you?  I knew this speech would go one of two ways, either it would be a roaring success and people would think I was very brave, or there would be an awkward silence when I was done followed by comments like, "Oh dear,...she's a Teacher of the Year?" 

I got a standing ovation. 

Thank you to all the friends and family who never once gave up on me and helped me get through this last week.  Thank you also to the Burlington County Retirees Education Association for letting me know I am on the right track today.  I won't go breakin' your heart.

Here is the speech.

You are very accomplished… for a teacher.

I am a teacher, and to look at my resume, you would think that I was some sort of educational Wonder Woman. County Teacher of the Year, State Teacher of the Year, Humanities Teacher of the Year, History Teacher of the Year, Trailblazer and Outstanding Woman awards and a Regional Finalist for a White House Fellowship who already has four degrees and currently on full scholarship pursuing a PhD. But things are not always as they appear.

I can tell you that for every award I win, I have lost at least four more. Before being accepted to my current school, a year and a half ago, I applied to a PhD program in education at the same university where I achieved a 4.0 GPA and distinction on my capstone project in my masters and was rejected.

I am a 41 year old, single woman with no kids who has never been married, or even engaged. Although my married friends tell me I am lucky, I still feel like society thinks there is something wrong with me. I live in a tiny apartment filled with more books, pictures and mementos of my travels than space. But as a single girl who likes books and shoes, I can’t afford a place on my own without being mortgage poor,. Since I am still paying my college loans for degrees 2,3,and 4, living paycheck to paycheck means I have had a hard time putting together money for a down- payment on a house. I was a B-C student in school who flew under the radar and was never in trouble but was never overachieving either; this was in part because there were never any great expectations for me. I was completely average and almost invisible. My parents were working class people with fewer than three years community college between them who struggled to make ends meet. I didn’t realize how little we had until I went to school and started to visit  my friend's houses after school, after which I was ashamed to invite people to my own house and ashamed that my parents couldn’t afford the things that other parents could. Financial issues drove my parents to divorce when I was a junior in high school and I was ashamed because of the mess my life had become.  

I don’t tell you this for your compassion or sympathy, only to tell you that the lens through which I view my life is not the same as the lens that people use when they view me. Often what we see is just the tip of the iceberg and that applies to our students, our colleagues and even the people sitting at the table with us today. My circumstances have shaped my character, and for years that has driven me to be more than what my surroundings might dictate. I have what they call - grit. Clearly, I did well and went to college not for one degree, but four and I am working on a fifth, but none of it has been easy.

I found my gift in teaching 17 years and approximately 1,920 students ago, give-or-take, and I poured my heart and soul into my work. But my background caused a shame that led me to live a small life, one where other than with my students I wanted no attention. Although I was starting to show signs of growth beyond what my classroom could hold, I kept it quiet because I didn’t want to rock the boat. You see, too often when a teacher dares to change things, they are often held back by people who are very comfortable with the status quo. The idea was if you want to lead, become an administrator, otherwise, be quiet, toe the line and be a teacher. Who are you to think you are better than everyone else? I loved my students and didn’t want to become an administrator, so I kept quiet. I knew that many of my students had shame of their own and needed someone to help them through it. We were connected and it was enough.

By 2010, things began to change. I was handed an application for a humanities award by my principal who thought I should give it a try. Never expecting to win, I filled it in and sent it. I won and a big fuss was made. A reporter asked me once, “Where have you been all this time?” because she was shocked that I had not been recognized in the 15 years I had been teaching. Surely I had not sprouted, fully formed, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. “Who, me?" I responded quizzically, "In room 517.” I was very uncomfortable with all of the attention, because of my desire to keep my small life small. Press followed, more awards followed, and the wings I had worked so hard to clip began to unfurl. So too did the nagging doubts that shame had already placed in my head, which were reinforced by some nasty comments from a few co-workers. But I wasn’t giving myself these awards, they were independent, external organizations that recognized what I was doing, and that provided some validation for me. My confidence began to grow and with the people I met and training I received, I began to fly. As I reached new heights beyond my classroom, my perspective changed because I realized I could do more and help more. I was no longer content to live a small life, at least professionally.         

My growth continued as the Commissioner of Education offered me a job last summer, placing me on loan for the year from my district. “Make up your own job title,” he said, “as long as you work on educator outreach”. Me and 110,000 teachers? Admittedly, it was not great odds. I didn’t know what I was doing and there had been no one doing this work before, but I had a vision. It has not been easy living in a pink cubicle devoid of student interaction this past year, especially because bureaucracy moves at a glacial pace that frustrates me beyond belief most of the time. However, I feel a responsibility to the profession, I know what I am doing is meaningful and there are few other teachers doing this work. I quickly realized that in this machine, things don’t change unless you are the one in charge and you are only an expert as long as you are fifty miles from home. Yes, I was very accomplished…for a teacher, but destined to stay in my pink cubicle so it was time to keep growing.

I decided to try and get some training and applied for a White House Fellowship. Started in 1964 by LBJ, it is an elite leadership program that takes the best and brightest young people in the country with leadership potential, and for a year gives them training as a fellow somewhere within the executive branch. They can get up to 1000 applications per year for the 11-18 spots.

I filled in my application, not expecting much of anything, but then found out I made the cut from 1000 down to the regional level of 96. There would be 8 panels, all in different places, with 12 candidates each. Of the 12, 2-4 would be chosen from each group for the next round. My panel was in Boston... the week of the marathon. I studied for a month to learn everything I could about everything I could. The judges and candidates met for the first time at a dinner on Thursday night. My fellow candidates were doctors, engineers, entrepreneurs, military officers and then there was me. Most had gone to Harvard or the equivalent, they had worked on senator’s campaign staffs, were on the board of the AMA, had a bronze star or were feeding third world countries- and these were my fellow candidates. The judges, who knew our applications and bios inside out, were CEOs, retired cabinet officials, and leaders in their field. One was even an Olympic gold medal figure skater and one of the first women to graduate from Harvard medical school. Then there was me, and shame kicked my ass. I went to a state college, my parents didn’t even complete college, I did my MA one class at a time…in Camden. I introduced myself as Jeanne from Jersey, because it always makes people remember my name, but when I said I was a teacher, the other candidates looked at me like, 'What is she doing here?' and completely wrote me off. Once they heard my story, they were impressed and admitted I was an extraordinary candidate…for a teacher. It was almost as if being a teacher was a category of sub-human, and my shame bought into it.

The interviews the next day were cancelled, due to terrorists, but I returned the next week to finish the interview after beating myself up for a week. We were down to 9 candidates, so only 2 would probably be chosen. I was asked during one of the interviews if I would ever consider being Commissioner or Secretary of Education. Who, me? I hadn’t actually considered it, but these interviews were for that caliber of candidate. Dare to dream? After that, I did. Maybe I wasn't there by mistake.

I found out last week I did not make it to the next round, not exactly a Happy Teacher Appreciation Day. I was upset and heard myself saying that they would never let people like me into a leadership position. Only Ivy League need apply. It was the shame of my lack of pedigree, a belief I would never be good enough to be placed in a leadership position and fear of isolation that was talking. I heard from a dear friend, who said that I deserved to get it, but that the amount of educators that get in is extremely small- the odds were against even me. I know it was meant to be comforting, but all I heard was, I am very accomplished… for a teacher, but still not good enough.  

I nearly walked away from education last week. I had made up my mind that I could open a shoe store or a second hand book shop somewhere near the beach, or failing that I could work at a shop on the boardwalk making caramel popcorn. I would have to do something, but I was done with education. How good is good enough? What do we have to do in order to be respected not just as educators, but as human beings?

Lucky for me I have friends who love me… a lot. When I told them my bad news, they put on their best Jersey accents and cursed to make me laugh, or just hugged me and tried to make it better. They even laughed along with me when I mentioned the shoe store, until they realized I was serious. They allowed me to swim around in the deep end of the pity pool for a few days while they hung close by and kept watch as lifeguards armed with life preservers if needed, but never once were they willing to let me give up on education.     

I nearly walked away because of my own shame, which I am coming to grips with, but also because it seemed clear to me that as much as people talk about wanting change, they really don’t, or at least they don’t want to be the ones tasked with changing things because change is hard. Sir Ken Robinson said in a recent TED talk, that there is no school that is better than its teachers, and I agree. So as an extension, why then do we as a profession allow such a negative climate to undermine that which we believe is so important? Why do we allow ourselves to remain small? I may be a woman on a mission, but I am not a missionary and I don't ever remember taking vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to a system based on the early industrial age when I began teaching. Enough is enough.

Change is messy, it involves failure and it requires more than one person to be successful. As much as we like to complain about the current state of things, what are you doing to change it? Have you volunteered as a tutor? Used your expertise to help mentor a new teacher or a student? Are you working on a political campaign? Will you even vote? Do you stand up for the profession when someone takes a swing at it? Have you written a letter to the editor of a newspaper or a blog for an education publication? 

Teachers are incredibly busy, and completely exhausted most days trying to keep their heads above water, and yet if we want to see change, we can’t wait for the answers to come from the top down. There are plenty of amazing teachers who go unrecognized every day, whose lives and impact are kept small to diminish their importance. Too often the people at the top, looking through their particular lens, have no idea of what life is like in a classroom. Teaching and learning don't happen in legislative sessions or state offices, it happens in classrooms. In working with teacher leaders for the last year I have come to some conclusions about what needs to be done if we want change to happen. 

First, know your information, and by that I mean both sides of the argument. Too often, a lack of information and communication leads to rumors and resistance. I always try to remember to take a look through the lens of the opposing viewpoint because often times, both sides believe they are doing what is best, they just have different perspectives. When it comes to education, you should also know what is under control of the federal government, the state, the district and the school, because we tend to place blame on the wrong level – a lot. When was the last time you voted in a school board election, or on a school budget? Why not run for a school board seat?

Second, build consensus. One person does not make an army. One person with a vision and a plan is necessary, but any movement needs followers and those followers should be treated as equals if everyone is in this together. That means we have to talk to each other in constructive ways and do a little motivating to get people on board. Leadership is an action, not a position. 

Third, don’t complain…discuss. I find this one hardest. When you ask educators what they think and they have never been given a voice before, it is like a pressure cooker. You need some time to vent, but then move on. You can’t fix the past, but you can take a look at the present, and figure out what you are going to do to make it better and move forward.

Finally, think about solutions that work beyond your own classroom/experience. Best practices are great, but can what worked for you work for others, or will it need to be tweaked? This is a great opportunity to brainstorm and build consensus because the best ideas can always be modified and adapted. 

It burns me when someone asks what you do and the response is “I am/was just a teacher.” There is no such thing as just a teacher. In a profession where we do so much with so little, it is time to start demanding the respect we deserve by changing the way we view ourselves. We are never 'just a teacher' because we are the profession that makes all other professions possible.

One of the judges during my interview said, “Most teachers who had reached State Teacher of the Year would consider it the pinnacle of the profession.” Two years ago I would have agreed, but not now. I am not going to live a small life anymore and that means acknowledging that sometimes I feel like a loser, but not letting it control me. I challenge you to ask yourselves the same questions that have driven me these last few years. If not me, who? If not now, when? I don’t know what my future holds, and that is ok for now, but I know I must keep moving forward because I am not done yet.

In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “Surely in the light of history it is more intelligent to hope rather than to fear, to try rather than not to try. For one thing we know beyond all doubt, nothing has ever been achieved by the person who says, ‘It can’t be done’.” If we are going to change the culture of education, it must be done by all of us, not just a few. Once a teacher, always a teacher…

Thank You.




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