An #EducationSpring in Our Step:
Reflections on the First National #NPEconference
I’m back! I’m back! I’m back!…
Get up offa that thing
And try to release that pressure..
Ha! Good God! So Good!
– James Brown
Sisters and brothers,
Don’t settle for the okey-doke.
– Karen Lewis
At some point I began to realize it might be nuts to take this on: I presented with a panel last Friday afternoon in Orlando at the NAIS annual conference, was presenting with another panel the following Monday morning in L.A. at the CAIS Southern Regional Meeting, and on a gut feeling several weeks beforehand, I’d made the out-of-pocket decision (or, rather, the out-of-my-family’s-pocket decision) to spend the Friday night through Sunday afternoon in between at the first national conference of the Network for Public Education.
Standing outside the Austin airport at 11pm on Friday night, it really hit me. I was tapped out from sleepless nights at the conference in Orlando (I’m useless without my family), cynical about the direction of my national organization, tired of lecturers-lecturing-against-lecturing, and uncertain about my own capacities and credibility to make a difference in my school, in my profession, and in my world. I’ve been in one of those phases where it has simply not been enough – personally, professionally, or emotionally — to “plant dates” or to endure a “season of design.” And, to the ostensible point of the NPE conference, I remain infuriated – and, problematically, little more than infuriated, because my dispositions to depression and paralysis don’t afford me, personally, the luxury of unmitigated fury — by a continual assault on public education by politicians, corporations, and philanthropists who, as Naomi Klein puts it, are “part of a movement that prays for crisis the way that drought-struck farmers pray for rain.”
And then I realized, waiting outside baggage claim for the promised yellow bus with the NPE logo to take me to the conference hotel – that, at some point, somebody would ask me where I worked. And I would have to, need to, get to tell them that I worked in a private school. My misplaced fear of their reaction was something I hadn’t entertained before; why, I don’t know. But it made me, for a moment, want to scramble back into the terminal and beg for a transfer to L.A. I felt like I’d made a reckless, presumptuous, and arrogant decision to step into somebody else’s space. And yet I went down deeply, for whatever reason, for intuition; trusted my earlier and less sleep-deprived decision-making; and boarded the bus to see what would happen.
This turned out to be, perhaps, the best decision I’ve ever made for my own professional learning, my discovery of what it means to be engaged in my profession, and my decisions about my future path in schools. All great learning, in my opinion, is relational. And the energy of the NPE conference – or, to put it more accurately, the relationships and community at the NPE conference – were restorative, inspiring, and empowering in a way I’ve found no other professional gathering in recent memory to be.
What I really needed, more than I could have realized, was some “Circle Time.” And it was “circle time” I got.
Some time ago, I wrote about the impact of Ken Robinson’s recognition of the impact of education ‘reform’ in the United States, and his invitation to a mindset moving forward:
‘The Education System’ is not what happens in the anteroom to Arne Duncan’s office, or in the debating halls of our state capitals. ‘The education system’ is the school they go to. If you are a school principal, you are ‘the education system’ for the kids in your school. If you are a teacher, you are ‘the education system’ for the children in your classroom. And if you change your practice — if you change your way of thinking — you change the world for those students. You change ‘the education system.’
And if enough people change, and they’re connected in the way they change, that’s a movement. And when enough people are moving, that’s a revolution.
It was in precisely this revolutionary, democratic spirit, that I witnessed a shared vision of both active interruption, and generative action, build over the course of these days in Austin. This was perhaps best expressed, though surely not only expressed, in John Kuhn’s call to conscience and to action on Saturday afternoon:
Teachers and students have suffered for years under the burden of increasingly onerous state and federal education policies, a prevailing culture of teacher- and student-blaming, and a seemingly relentless campaign to reduce resources while increasing expectations. We must remind ourselves that we have the power to determine the future of education in the United States. When educators and the educated are empowered, reform doesn’t happen to them, it happens because of them.
Today, with groups like this one and so many others, all of which are active in so many ways, in so many parts of the country, we are standing on the threshold of the Education Spring. That sound you hear getting louder is called student voice, and it’s called teacher voice…
Much has been written in reflection on the #NPEconference by others more capable, and quicker to the draw, than I: I’ve been letting this experience wash over me for several days as I’ve played frantic, and selfish, catch-up with the balls I dropped while I was away. You mustn’t miss the extraordinary speeches by Karen Lewis and John Kuhn, the closing keynote by Diane Ravitch, the exciting dynamics of a panel on the Common Core, a restorative and inspiring panel of student activists, or the call for congressional hearings on which note the conference drew to its conclusion. You mustn’t miss the tweets you can still call up under the #NPEconference hashtag, which was Twitter’s top trending tag on Saturday and Sunday, and which recorded a vigilant, faithful, and inspiring stream of commentary from the extraordinary workshops, panels, and roundtables that had been convened by the conference organizers.
But I want to reflect on the conference from a more personal, perhaps more emotional, and potentially more self-indulgent perspective. I want to explore some patterns that I noticed, and some dynamics I found inspiring, in the community of #NPEconference participants. These had a profound impact on me that I’m likely to explore in the weeks and months to come: they helped restore, and to create anew, a faith that we can ensure – precisely by recognizing the nature and the impact of these dynamics in our community, and in our solidarity — the fulfillment of a vision framed most eloquently by my dear friend Peter Gow: “We want to see democracy, not capitalism, survive as the root, stem, leaves, and fruit of American education.”
1. RETHINKING HIERARCHY: LEADERSHIP AS SERVICE AND SUPPORT
I was struck immediately, upon arriving at the conference hotel around midnight, by the vaguely familiar face of a pleasant-seeming woman darting around the lobby attending to a variety of chores. We caught each others’ eyes, introduced ourselves, told stories about our excitement, and I offered my help if any was needed. Only after we engaged in conversation did I realize this was NPE board member Robin Hiller – who, over the course of the next few days, welcomed me into myriad conversations about the conference experience with Phyllis Bush, Coleen Wood, and other NPE board members who were every bit as approachable, engaging, and just plain excited by the nature of this shared experience as any other participant.
I was struck, from that moment forward, by the absence of any conventional, traditional, or familiar notion of ‘hierarchy’ in the ranks of conference organizers, presenters, and participants. Recognizing and extending that spirit, I had and took the opportunity to thank Leonie Haimson for her example in navigating the tensions between private and public schools in her own life and work; to thank Bob Peterson for his extraordinary work with Rethinking Schools that has been such an influence on me; to thank Diane Ravitch for her support and suggestions while I was navigating some difficult communication last year; to thank Deborah Meier for advice she’d shared months ago about how to bridge differences; and to thank Anthony Cody for encouraging me to come, when I wasn’t certain that I should. I mention these interactions not to drop names or to curry favor, but to note that each of these amazing people was every bit as interested in extending our conversation – to be helpful to my experience, to offer theirs in service, and to learn from my experience — as I was. That I should find this amazing is, in itself, a revelation — but I am simply not familiar with quite this degree of engagement in a relational dynamic liberated completely from the dynamics of prestige and power that tend to frame interactions in these kinds of spaces.
When I think of such a leveling of the field of ‘authority’ I think of Peter DeWitt, a tirelessly devoted school leader, education writer, and activist whom I’ve grown to think of as a friend as well. From one lens – a lens ground as much by my own self-doubt, as by any honest assessment of my value and my suspicions about world views — I have only to learn from his great experience, insight, courage and example – and yet he went out of his way, as he has done before, to create a space for us to engage and to learn with each other. His interest in extending our conversation seemed governed only by our affinity for ideas and for action – and not at all by our relative experience or accomplishments – in the purest demonstrations of friendship and solidarity for their intrinsic value. He and his mother even offered me a ride back to the airport on Sunday afternoon – and, recognizing that his inner eighth grader and mine could really have caused some trouble in junior high – I thanked her for putting up with him all these years.
Perhaps the best example of what I noticed about the spirit of leadership at the #NPEconference – which moved me to tears, for whatever reason, just before Anthony Cody also moved me to tears with his own – was a moment in between sessions in which Deborah Meier spent some private time affirming the incredible efforts of student leaders like Hannah Nguyen, Stephanie Rivera, Israel Munoz, and two representatives of the Providence Student Union, alongside Jose Vilson, who was about to facilitate an incredible panel drawing on their efforts and examples:
I felt a little voyeuristic snapping a picture, but I wanted to memorialize the tone and tenor of such moments. I’m going to take it on the power of their facial expressions and body language to me, that you’ll understand the power and the strength of such moments, and such dynamics, for you.
2. ACTIVE LISTENING AND SELF-AWARENESS
I hesitate to say this, because if I don’t state it clearly, it will imply something entirely different than I intend. So here goes: I have, for some time, been deliberately studying the ways that white men – particularly those vested with authoritative roles and rights that extend even beyond their white privilege, and their male privilege — understand their presence and their impact in conversational dynamics and in space. I do this purposefully in an effort to explore – sometimes helpfully, and sometimes ham-handedly – my own identity, responsibility, and opportunity as a white man, as a school leader, as a parent, as a partner, as a friend, and as a citizen. Sometimes this presents itself in relatively banal and mundane examples worth noting – the dude last night in the movie theater, for example, who splayed his arms across the armrests on both sides of his seat, stared over at my phone before the movie started to take a peek at my twitter stream, and offered his audible commentary to his friend throughout the coming attractions. And sometimes this presents itself in profound examples of people who understand the significance and symbolism of the space they occupy, the meaning of the boundaries they presume to cross, and the impact of the things they say on others.
Recently at the Project Zero conference in Memphis, I was struck by the example of Rod Rock, Superintendent of Clarkston Community Schools, who was only too content to support the leadership of a principal who co-facilitated their workshop, and the learning of participants who’d gathered to exchange their ideas, by listening. “Listening” sounds simple, and innocuous enough, but what I’m talking about is a kind of active listening that intentionally elevates the contributions of others above the inclination to influence, to alter, or to question those contributions. The kind of listening that doesn’t respond to the notes that people play as good chords, or as bad chords, but simply as unexpected chords. We do not often see that in our leaders.
And yet I saw this regularly in the dispositions, behaviors, and actions of leaders at the NPE conference – men and women, white folks and people of color, ‘management’ and ‘labor,’ young and old. And the personal preoccupation I described with white male identity drew me emphatically to the examples of white men in leadership roles who the defy prevailing examples of white men in leadership roles. In the same spirit as my example above, I offer this image of Principal Peter DeWitt and Superintendent John Kuhn, alongside co-panelist and Superintendent H.T. Sánchez:
I was taken by the purposeful efforts they made – at this instant, and in many others like it over the course of our time in Austin — to really hear and to honor the contributions of others; the authenticity of their responses to questions, even and especially when they presented them with a challenge; their willingness to take steps back in order that others might take steps forward; and their seeming preference to defer to the insight and experience of others, in order that they might learn themselves. Imagine what could happen – in and among our schools, and in the public discourse about them – if our extended conversations and collective decision-making were framed by such an ethos.
3. FACILITATION AS ACTIVE INCLUSION
Naturally our capacity – in the immediate relationships of our personal and professional lives, and the collective dynamics of a shared effort to support all our nation’s children – depends on more than our resistance or repudiation of dynamics that limit teacher, students, and parent voice. We need urgently to challenge the dynamics of hierarchy, prestige, and privilege that have seemingly determined who should have the most influential voices in a national conversation, and we need actively to recognize and to challenge our own dispositions to marginalizing the input of others who may not share, or who may not have a space to share, their views.
But we also need to make active, purposeful, intentional, conspicuous, and fierce efforts to create a space for other people and ideas. We need to develop active facilitation and inclusion skills alongside those interruption and resistance skills with which we may be more practiced.
To that end, words cannot describe the influence on me of Jose Vilson’s example. There’s a lot that has inspired me in Jose’s work, and a lot that has made me dig deeper in the healthiest kinds of ways, over the time I’ve been familiar with him. But at the NPE conference I got to see him do his thing in a real-life situation for the first time. In the first case, I watched him quietly, respectfully, and clearly create and protect a safe and productive space for the contributions of exceptional student leaders:
He did so not just by lauding the efforts of these brave young activists, but by creating a structure of adult participation that limited our inclination — no matter how noble or well-meaning our intentions might be — to steer or shape the conversation. He did so by noticing the impact of our responses (applause, silence, commentary) on the dynamics of the conversation, and by providing subtle cues to adults that helped us co-create an inclusive space. He did so by gently and respectfully pushing two student participants’ thinking further – not at all to question or to critique that thinking, but to lure these students’ wisdom past the threshold of their nerves, and to give their insights the wings of words that might carry us all further forward in our recognition, support, and deference to authentic student voice in the months and years to come.
He did it again during a Common Core panel with several other extraordinary participants, but in a different way. In that context, he managed to create a space for voices and dynamics that are rarely present in such conversations — either about the ‘standards,’ or the high-stakes testing and evaluation schemes with which they are inextricably intertwined. Jose insisted, through his words and through his example, that we examine the implications and impact of education policy and politics through the lens of race and ethnicity; that we deconstruct and challenge the facile assertions of some policymakers and pundits that they are fighting for “the civil rights issue of our time;” and that we recognize and honor the many, many thousands who won’t have a seat at a table until and unless we demand and create a shared, inclusive, respectful, and honest Common Conversation.
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To make a long story short – though I suppose that’s absurd to suggest after all this carrying-on of mine – I can’t help but wonder what will happen when – not ‘if,’ but when – the dynamics of relational learning, community, solidarity, and inclusion I witnessed in Austin begin – not just in pockets, and not just in gatherings such as these – to inform the national conversation about education in this country. The increasing trepidation of neoliberal reformers in recent weeks suggests an unprecedented moment of vulnerability, if not of welcome; the swelling resistance of students, teachers, and parents throughout this land bespeaks the turn, if not the time, of real change; the power of this experience demonstrates, by example, the inevitable impact of our efforts to reclaim the national conversation, to restore our collective sanity, and to reinvigorate a collective and inclusive insistence that our schools should be the laboratories and the proving grounds of our democracy.
As Diane Ravitch concluded her keynote, with words that were both inspiration and confirmation for us all:
The walls of Jericho will come tumbling down…. Blow your trumpets. Wake the town. Tell the people.
It’s a well known-saying, but I never tire of reading it or writing it: Margaret Mead says, “Never doubt that a small group of individuals can change the world. That’s the only thing that ever has.”
We will reclaim our schools as kind and friendly places for teaching and learning – not profit centers for corporations, and entrepreneurs, and snake-oil salesmen, and consultants.
We are many, and they are few. And this is why we will win.
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You can follow Chris Thinnes on Twitter at @ChrisThinnes