Saturday, October 16, 2010

Open Letter to DC Teachers


To the Educators in DC Public Schools:

This letter represents a first for me – a public statement challenging the commitment of my counterparts.

In Toni Morrison’s letter to Barack Obama, endorsing him for president, she writes:

“…in addition to keen intelligence, integrity and a rare authenticity, you exhibit … a creative imagination which coupled with brilliance equals wisdom. It is too bad if we associate it only with gray hair and old age. Or if we call searing vision naiveté. Or if we believe cunning is insight. Or if we settle for finessing cures tailored for each ravaged tree in the forest while ignoring the poisonous landscape that feeds and surrounds it.”

With the recent resignation of Chancellor Michelle Rhee, the nation suffers a great loss. As an educator and advocate for youth development, I watched closely as this young woman stood with head held high, a ravenous passion for educating children, and an integrity that parallels our President’s. I cheered her on as I read articles in the Times and watched interviews on CNN. I believed that we just might get a glimpse of what it would take to transform public education, with DC as a microcosm, a case study.

I watched Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman. Much of the horror illustrated in that movie I have witnessed - first as a public school student in California, later as an elementary school teacher in New York City, and now as a youth programs architect doing work nationally. I have offered co-workers magazines with amazing articles about innovation in education, only to be met with “I leave work at work.” I have extended invitations to other educators to join me in seminars to expand our personal and professional capacity; I have been turned down far more than I have been accompanied. And each time I’d think to myself, “Why on earth would they be so opposed to strengthening their ability to teach our children? What happened to them that they think it’s enough to get a degree and never work that diligently again to master their craft?”

Knowing that I do all I can to provide children access to their wildest dreams always enabled me to hear their banter and their ignorance, and remain inspired. Holding fast to the notion that there are many people like me in the nation, working tirelessly to go beyond what our contracts say kept me inspired. Waving to colleagues in the stands of our students’ away games and church recitals reminded me that we are the inspiration we so desperately need while working in this field.

However, a bit of that fire was threatened on the afternoon of October 13th when I read that Chancellor Rhee had chosen to step down. And it was time that I let go of my fear of calling out other educators.

Washington DC’s teachers have let their children down. I apologize to children nationwide for my years of silence. I take responsibility for all that you, and schoolteachers nationwide, have failed to do – put the children first. I ask you, how many children will have to know a prison in their lifetimes? How many children must become illiterate adults? How many children will have children out of their deep-seated desire to be loved? How many children will choose to self-medicate on alcohol or drugs because the work they are capable of leaves them empty at the end of the day?

I know that single moments of intervention, as social entrepreneur Danya Steele has reported, can alter the course of a person’s life. I had four educators in my 18+ years of education that made a significant impact on my life. How dare we not ensure that every child have poignant educational moments every year of schooling.

There may be some of you who were scared to go against your colleagues and support Chancellor Rhee. While I sympathize with your position, I argue that you too are complicit in failing our children.

Toni closes her letter to the then Candidate Obama with: “…unleashing the glory of [a ripe and outrageously rich future] will require a difficult labor, and some may be so frightened of its birth they will refuse to abandon their nostalgia for the womb.”

I ask: What will you do now? If Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s resignation is what so many hoped for, what plan did you have laid out to address the ills she was attempting to rectify?