“Don’t give up”: Veterans share their experience with young educators

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Liz Kirby, 38, has been principal of Kenwood Academy High School for six years. At a recent event, she asked Deborah Meier, 80, who has been an activist, author and reformer for 45 years, an important question: “How do you remain true to your principles, especially in a time like this?”

Meier responded by saying that educators must “be a citizen of the world but also have a little tunnel vision about what you want to accomplish.”

“You have to have a picture in your head of what’s possible. But you don’t give up. Not ever,” Meier continued. “If people try to stop you here, you find a way to go over there. If they stop you there, you find a way to go here. A little civil disobedience. You never do something you know is wrong for children.”

And so began an intergenerational conversation among education reformers convened by National Louis University, Chicago Shakespeare Theater and the Golden Apple Foundation. Joining Meier and Kirby were veteran activists, authors and educators William Ayers, now retired from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Sonia Nieto of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Harold Levey, former Chancellor of NYC public schools.

The veterans shared their experiences and beliefs about staying engaged for the long haul in the hard work of school reform with five young and promising educators  including Kirby; Eve Ewing, a Pershing West Language Arts teacher in her third year; Ignacio Lopez, a National Louis professor and former teacher; Ky Adderley, founder and principal of a KIPP school in Brooklyn; and Melissa Barton, currently finishing her one-year teaching residency at Chicago Academy High School (operated by the Academy for Urban School Leadership). Barton will have her first solo classroom next year.

As planners of the event, my colleagues and I wanted to create an opportunity for such an inter-generational exchange, to bring together young people who are inheriting the world as it is with the people who, for better or worse, helped shape that world.  I want to advocate for more opportunities to have the generations come together and offer each other the perspective, hope and courage they need to persist over time. 

We all know there is no shortage of reasons to despair over the current state of schooling in America. While policymakers and pundits argue, point fingers and call each other names, children arrive by the millions every day at our school and classroom doors, each asking in his or her own way, “What have you got for me today? Give me your best shot. I don’t have much time.”

In his book, So Much Reform So Little Change, University of Chicago professor of sociology Charles Payne stated our dilemma with chilling precision: “Change takes time and children don’t have it.”  No one feels the magnitude of that truth more acutely than the students who bear the weight of the burden; or the parents who sent their children to school this morning; or the principals like Kirby and Adderley who watched the kids arrive; or the teachers like Ewing and Barton who looked them in the eye and searched for a way to say, I am ready for you, and I am ready for this day. It is arduous, complex work in the best of times.

Education is a profession that requires sustained apprenticeships and a continuous give-and-take among practitioners, veteran and novice, if it is to be resilient and continually renewed. Yet young educators rarely get that lucky.

When I was just starting out myself, struggling and feeling quite alone as a high school English teacher, I read Deborah Meier’s The Power of Their Ideas. It revived me with a sense of purpose, a longing for professional connection, and a desire to dig more deeply into the nature of our work. I wrote to her and included something I had written about my own struggles in the classroom. She responded and said that she would be speaking in Chicago soon. “Perhaps we’ll run into each other,” she wrote.

I made sure I was in the audience when she came. I stopped her in the hall after her talk and introduced myself. To my amazement, she said, “Ah, I was hoping you would be here.” She inscribed my copy of her book: “To my fellow author, teacher and co-thinker.”  Just when I had felt most alone with my struggles, that response from a senior member of my profession and someone I admired meant the world to me. It kept me going. 

First Debbie, then Bill Ayers, again and again, and more recently Sonia Nieto, plus countless others over the years, have found myriad ways to say, “We are in this together. You are welcome in this club. We need you here. Let’s figure this out together.”

During the question-and-answer portion of the evening, one audience member expressed his frustration that the event had not been more of a debate.  Although I appreciate the need for robust argument, debate was not our intention this time. Why, in an increasingly polarized nation, call for the one thing that is hardly in short supply? 

This evening was a chance to return to our corner of the boxing ring. We need that, too– a chance for the young to ask their questions and test their ideas in the presence of elders, to be responded to, and to convey what it is like to be in the early stages of their careers in 2011. In that, they are the emerging experts.

The day after the event, Deborah Meier sent an email to all the panelists and conveners: “It gave me such a lift to think that there is such an articulate school-based crew ready to lead the inevitably too-slow revolution! They may not follow the prescriptions of their elderly reformers to a ‘T’ –thank God–but I wish I could join this panel again in a decade and see how it’s going.  Doing the right thing is and will be possible.  I feel reassured.”

Liz, Eve, Ky, Melissa and Ignacio need to hear that. And, I believe, Debbie, Bill, Sonia, and Harold need a chance to say it.  For the moment, I am reassured, too.

Mark Larson is director of partnerships and an assistant professor of education at National Louis University.