Thank you all for welcoming me here today. I deeply respect you and the work of this organization. This room is full of people who have committed their lives to education — whether as teachers, ESPs, administrators, or other leadership roles — and it’s an honor to be able to talk with you.
In his book “Teaching Toward Freedom,” William Ayers wrote, “To be human is to live alone on the nerve islands of our bodies. To connect with another is to imagine with sympathy. The bridge of humanity is constructed of imagination, a certain kind of imagination, mediated by words.” I read that book very early in my career, and that idea — human connection as a feat of empathetic imagination — has stuck with me. We may not be able to step inside of each other’s heads, as humans, but I think sometimes that our work as teachers is to try.
I remember when President Obama was elected for the first time. The next morning, I went into my classroom, ready to talk with my students about his historic election and hear their reactions to it — after they did the Do Now, of course. I stood at the front of my room with my clipboard, taking attendance the same way I did every day, but I only had one student in the room. There he sat, in his assigned seat right in the middle of the room, facing me, as I checked off a little box next to his name. We looked at each other, looked at the clock, looked at each other. After a few minutes, he asked, “Where is everybody?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “but they’re late.”
We heard a commotion outside and saw some of his classmates running past the window. Then my principal at the time burst through the door. “What are you doing?” he asked. “Come outside!”
We followed him to the busy intersection outside and saw the rest of the school — students and staff — standing there on the corner. Some people held up that day’s paper with a huge picture of President Obama on the front. Others had grabbed mini-whiteboards from classrooms and written, “Honk for Obama” on them. The scene was messy, loud, and joyous.
Standing there still holding my clipboard, a symbol of the rules and routines that made school feel orderly and productive to me, I realized that my stubborn insistence on sticking to the plan and following the rules had been silly. My neat little plan wasn’t what such a historic situation demanded. It wouldn’t have given my students nearly enough time or space to express their joy. I had needed a reminder to, as William Ayers wrote, imagine with sympathy. I needed to remember that my students and I were connected by our shared humanity.
When I decided to become a teacher, I imagined it would be a job that would nourish my deep need to be in control. I had done my reading, of course. I knew that I needed to work against the “banking” model, trying to fill my students’ heads up with all of my knowledge and ideas. But I still envisioned my role as one where I would activate what happened in the classroom. I didn’t imagine myself as an authoritarian, but I thought, I’ll write lessons, so I’ll know exactly what is going to happen. I’ll be in charge.
Of course, we all know what a naïve expectation this was. Teaching, like parenting, can show us just how powerless we really are. The most carefully-crafted plan can be thrown off by a snow day or fire drill, a fight in the hallway, a curious student’s questions that lead us off on an interesting, but tenuously relevant, tangent. Sometimes we realize students know more or less than we anticipated when planning, or a protocol that looked so good on paper falls to pieces when we try to put it on its feet. Or there are the days, like that November day when Obama was elected, when what’s happening outside of the school bangs on the door and demands to come in.
When I got hired to teach ninth grade humanities at the school where I’ve worked for the past decade, I inherited a beautiful course called “Justice and Injustice.” I’ve made it my own over the years, but the bones were there: a course interweaving history content with literacy skills, focused on case studies of moments when people faced injustice and fought for justice. At that time, the final case study of the year focused on South African Apartheid.
I’m a history teacher, so I’m going to take a detour here to tell you a story about Apartheid, but I promise it’ll come back around in the end.
Apartheid officially started in 1948 when the National Party was elected to power in South Africa. By 1948, White South Africans, who were descendants of Dutch and the British colonists, had stripped Black South Africans of the right to vote, forced them to find jobs in dangerous gold mines just to afford the taxes levied on them, and dehumanized them by making them carry passbooks wherever they went to prove that they were allowed to be in areas designated “Whites-only.”
Apartheid-era South Africa was brutal. The government used subjective, racist tests to categorize South Africans by race. Those arbitrary racial categories determined where South Africans could live, who they could marry, and which schools their children could attend. South Africans who resisted these laws risked jail time, fines, or state-sanctioned violence at the hands of the police and military. Around the world, other countries’ governments — including the United States’ — hesitated to sanction South Africa because they benefited from its natural resources.
In the 1960s, the two major anti-apartheid organizations had been banned by the government, and many prominent leaders, including Nelson Mandela, had been sent to prison with life sentences. Many South Africans of color who had grown up under this racist system felt trapped, and some were losing hope.
In 1976, the South African government passed a new law called the Afrikaans Medium Decree, requiring that students be taught in Afrikaans, which was the language spoken by White South Africans descended from the Dutch. Many Black South Africans referred to Afrikaans as “the language of the oppressor.”
Not surprisingly, students were outraged at this new law. Black students already attended segregated schools with overcrowded classrooms, insufficient materials, and a racist curriculum. Now they were expected to learn in a language neither they nor their teachers spoke. They drew inspiration from Steve Biko, a Black Consciousness leader who wrote, “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed,” and decided to take action. Students in the township of Soweto, outside of Johannesburg, circulated a petition to protest the new law and planned a march and rally at a local stadium.
At 8:15 a.m. on June 16, 1976, thousands of students walked out of five schools in Soweto after singing “Nkosi s’ikele Afrika” — “God Bless Africa.” Students of all ages — including elementary school children — marched peacefully through the streets toward the stadium holding hands and carrying signs reading, “Down with Afrikaans.”
At an intersection, the students encountered the police and the Defense Force, who ordered them to turn back. When the students refused, the police officers set dogs on them. Then they opened fire.
Within 36 hours of the march beginning, 29 people had died, and 250 were injured. The government lost control in Soweto as protests and riots spread. News outlets around the world covered the story, publishing a now-iconic photo of the first person killed by police: 13-year-old Hector Pieterson.
Although Apartheid did not officially end until 1994, the students’ protest had a dramatic impact on the way the world viewed the South African government’s policies. As news of the Soweto Uprising spread throughout the world, it became nearly impossible to ignore the brutality of the Apartheid regime. In the months and years that followed, more and more countries exerted political and economic pressure on South Africa to end Apartheid.
Each year, my students and I study the Soweto Uprising, exploring the ways in which South African students exercised their agency within an oppressive system that sought to silence them and deny their humanity.
Invariably, when we dig into this history, students draw comparisons between the South African students’ activism and their own power and promise as young people. They begin to wonder about what could push them to stand up in the face of injustice and what forms of political power they have. They debate about whether they would be willing to risk their lives so that future generations could live in a more just world. They ask themselves whether adults will ever listen to their voices.
A few years ago, in the wake of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, my principal received an anonymous email from one of our seniors. It informed him, respectfully but firmly, that students at our school would participate in a walk-out the following day in support of the Black Lives Matter movement.
At this point, staff at the school had a decision to make: would we try to stop the students’ protest? Would we use our authority and power to try to control them? Or would we support them as they put into practice the principles of activism and social justice that we had taught them about since their 9th grade year?
The principal sent a response to the entire school. He explained that, as a community, we supported our students’ rights to protest. He also explained that students who participated would be subject to disciplinary action (like having their parents contacted), since historically, those who chose to protest did so in spite of the consequences. He encouraged students to stay together, to be safe, and to do what felt right to them.
On the day of the walkout, most of the student body left school en masse and gathered on the lawn as one of the seniors went over expectations before they left to travel downtown for a rally. Staff members gathered on the lawn with them, reminded them to be safe, and went back inside with those who chose to stay. That afternoon, the kids at school debated the merits of protest, talked about their connections to Black Lives Matter, and… did class. But no matter where they had chosen to spend their afternoon, our students — and students all over Boston — learned valuable lessons that day.
They learned that adults in their lives would support them in raising their voices at the same time that we worried for their safety. They learned that we would be consistent in our expectations… while also flexible enough to understand when expectations needed to shift. They learned that they didn’t need adults to tell them how, when, or where to organize. They learned that they were members of a community of young people with a shared vision of a more equitable society, and they learned that they had power within that society. They learned that events like the Soweto Uprising aren’t ancient history… and they don’t have to end in tragedy.
A lot of people have asked me what I mean when I say that education can be a tool for social justice, and this is usually the story I tell to show them. As educators, it is our job to prove to our students that adults will listen to their voices. It is up to us to inspire confidence in them that they do have the power to effect change. It is our responsibility to ensure that they are equipped with the tools to insist on a more just and equitable world.
But living up to this vision of our role as educators is not always easy. Sometimes, our kids will point out ways in which systems that we have set up or in which we are complicit contribute to inequity. They will push us to engage in uncomfortable conversations. Their curiosity will force us to question our own assumptions and beliefs. During the Soweto Uprising, the protesting students’ families were rightfully frightened. They had grown up under Apartheid. They knew the danger in protesting. They had seen friends, family members, and political leaders imprisoned or killed for speaking out. They wanted their children to lay low and stay safe. As an adult, one of the protestors recalled, “’76 really represented, in many ways, divorce between black children and their parents.”
We all do this work because of a sincere and collective belief in a better future for our students, and we know that they will be the ones to build it. We have to listen to them and support them in developing their voices and finding their power. And each time we witness our students coming into their own as change-makers, we will be reminded of the value of education: as a site of hope and a community where dreams can become reality.
Looking back at myself as that new teacher clutching her clipboard and wondering what to do when The Plan didn’t go as planned, I can see how much I have grown. I owe a huge debt to the people who have helped me grow along the way: my principal, who encouraged me to “Come outside!” The students of Soweto, whose memories showed me that working for social justice is a long-term project that requires patience, courage, and stubbornness. My own students, who helped me see that, unless I deliberately and explicitly connect lessons from history to our own lives and context, I do them a disservice. And all of you, with whom I share the privilege and the great responsibility of this awe-inspiring profession: to help construct, side-by-side with one another and with our students, “the bridge of humanity,” to imagine with sympathy — or, I’d rather say, with empathy — and strive for justice.
So I have a proposal. As educators, let’s replace our clipboards with time machines. Let’s create school communities in which our students can move from the past to the present to the future all in one day. Let’s work to ensure that education represents liberation. Let’s keep our ears and hearts open to our students’ brilliance, even when it makes us uncomfortable. Let’s envision education as a time machine that helps our students travel to worlds we have only imagined — ones that are built on ideals of justice and equity and collaboration.
In an August, 2015 Politico article by Michael Grunwald called The Duncan Wars, Grunwald writes:
“Dennis Van Roekel, who led the NEA in Obama’s first term, used to meet Duncan for breakfast every month, and says they actually agreed on almost every issue—except testing.
“I constantly told him testing was a disaster,” Van Roekel said. “I warned him if he didn’t bring sanity to the testing craze, everything he was doing would collapse under its own weight. I wish he had listened to me about that.”
At the NEA’s convention in 2011, the union formally declared that it was “appalled” with Duncan’s work. But at the same convention, the NEA endorsed the president’s reelection, as if the education secretary whose family hung out with the Obamas at Camp David was some kind of rogue operative. I heard from several sources that Duncan actually helped negotiate the language of his own condemnation; he’s no politician, but you can’t run the Chicago schools without some sense of politics. “Arne understood the political realities,” a former aide said. “The union needed a target for its anger, and he was happy to take a bullet for the president.” Back then, resentment was starting to build over excessive “high-stakes” testing, and horror stories were starting to circulate about math tests being used to judge art teachers, but the dissension had not yet erupted into a movement.
I was a delegate in 2011 and recall being surprised that this was an NBI C since the letter C indicated it came from the leadership and not from delegates on the floor or from a state caucus/delegation.
The 2017 NEA RA is now wrapping up after passing a major policy statement on charter schools. It is the first policy statement on charter schools since 2001. It came from leadership.
I read that article by Grunwald in 2015 and totally missed the stuff about Duncan helping write his own denunciation.
The Representative Assembly of the National Education Association, 7,500 delegates meeting in Boston, adopted a new policy statement laying out the union’s view towards charter schools.
The last time the union adopted a policy statement on charter schools was at the 2001 Representative Assembly that I attended. George Bush (2) was president, the twin towers were still standing and No Child Left Behind was not yet official Department of Education language.
In 2001, charter schools were still few in number.
That has changed.
The NEA moves slowly on their turn around response time.
It is basically the view that the Bernie Sanders delegates forced the Democrats to include in their platform on education, to the dismay of the Clinton delegates.
The Sanders language on charters that was adopted as the 2016 Democratic Party platform:
Democrats are also committed to providing parents with high-quality public school options and expanding these options for low-income youth. We support democratically governed great neighborhood public schools and high-quality public charter schools, and we will help them disseminate best practices to other school leaders and educators. Democrats oppose for-profit charter schools focused on making a profit off of public resources. We believe that high quality public charter schools should provide options for parents, but should not replace or destabilize traditional public schools. Charter schools must reflect their communities, and thus must accept and retain proportionate numbers of students of color, students with disabilities and English Language Learners in relation to their neighborhood public schools. We support increased transparency and accountability for all charter schools.
From the NEA 2017 policy statement:
As educators we believe that “public education is the cornerstone of our social, economic, and political structure,” NEA Resolution A-1, the very “foundation of good citizenship,” and the fundamental prerequisite to every child’s future success. Brown v. Bd. of Ed. of Topeka, Shawnee Cty., Kan., 347 U.S. 483, 493 (1954). The growth of separate and unequal systems of charter schools that are not subject to the same basic safeguards and standards that apply to public schools threatens our students and our public education system. The purpose of this policy statement is to make plain NEA’s opposition to the failed experiment of largely unaccountable privately managed charter schools while clarifying NEA’s continued support for those public charter schools that are authorized and held accountable by local democratically elected school boards or their equivalent.
That the position of the Sanders delegates and the Democratic Party 2016 platform is now the position of the NEA is ironic given leadership’s successful push for an early Clinton endorsement in the Democratic primaries.
“The NEA seems to be saying that they are not against charter schools as long as they operate just like district schools,” right down to union contracts and same school board politics, said Greg Richmond, the president and CEO of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. “What’s the point?”
Betsy DeVos and the Trump administration have made it more difficult to take a middle road on school reform. When American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten went touring public schools with the Secretary of Education there was a huge blow back from rank and file teachers.
NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia pointedly announced at the RA that she would have “no photo-ops” with Betsy.
I assume this was directed at Randi.
Even Weingarten has seemed to stop those joint appearances.
But like most things that take place each year at the NEA Representative Assembly, nuance and subtlety are mainly for the folks in the hall.
More important than policy statements is how the NEA’s opposition to charters and vouchers (Surprisingly, vouchers were not as big a target at this week’s meeting) will be perceived and manifested.
What resources will be put into bringing charter teachers into the union?
Will the NEA play a role in any fight to remake the Democratic Party?
How will the NEA and AFT respond when the Supreme Court rules, as expected, against them in the Janus case?
Members will need more than policy statements. And they can’t wait sixteen years to have answers for those questions.
It’s not as if the press section is overflowing with reporters. At my last convention a couple of years ago I went looking for Education Week’s Stephen Sawchuk who was writing as if he was there, only to discover he had left a couple days before the convention was over.
I should have been so lucky. I was there for three days of an NEA Retired meeting and then five more of the RA.
My sympathy for the anti-union Antonucci has limits. Aside from the fact that he should be allowed to cover the meeting as he has done for two decades (some strange fetish I would say) we agree on little else.
Bloggers, pro and anti-union, get little respect from the NEA. As most readers would agree, I am as pro-union as you get. Still, former IEA Communications Director banned my blog from ever having a link on the IEA website (even if they published something I wrote), and blocked me from all his Twitter and Facebook accounts.
One year, I got ejected from a state Representative Assembly because only President Cinda Klickna had the power to allow me to be there.
It was a preview of Trump White House press briefings.
I got blocked when I discovered the fact on the Communications Director’s post that IEA Executive Director Audrey Soglin was on some board of some group that attacked what they called “teacher quality.” This was right about the time Audrey was cutting deals with Stand for Children’s Jonah Edelman.
So, while Antonucci should get his seat in the press section (In fact, he should be forced to sit through all the nonsense. Every debate, speech and pointless video. Not even a bathroom break or greasy pizza slice.), the bigger problem with the NEA is member democracy within the national and state affiliates.
They call this yearly show the largest democratic assembly in the world. But the democratic aspects are pretty cosmetic. I appreciate the intent of those who struggle to educate members through one New Business Item or another. But it is what my father used to call when he got cranky, “the pernicious theory of better than nothing.” Does anybody remember last year’s NBIs. Of course, not.
In Illinois, 600 delegates to a state meeting can elect the Association president. There are roughly 120,000 dues paying members in the IEA. 600 separate locals with over-worked, under-trained, mostly unpaid local leaders.
A challenge to the existing leadership?
There hasn’t been one in decades.
That is one way to tell if a union is democratic or not.
Eight hours after the ambush murder of two Des Moines police officers, officials announced the arrest of Scott Michael Greene who had previously been arrested for provocations related to the Confederate battle flag.
I wrote on Tuesday about the IEA’s IPACE endorsement of Illinois’ GOP Senate Leader Christine Radogno.
I really don’t understand what the IEA can be thinking, even though I have taken part in IPACE endorsement meetings for years.
I have frequently left them scratching my head.
What possible rationale could the state union leadership give for endorsing Rauner’s loudest voice in the Illinois legislature?
I know they weight incumbency and electability heavily in their endorsement calculations. Yet they leave plenty of legislative seats go without an endorsement. Yet Radogno?
What turned out to be my last major effort to influence the NEA was my introduction of an anti-confederate flag resolution at the 2015 NEA Representative Assembly in Orlando.
After hours of debate, the resolution passed overwhelmingly.
The NEA leadership had one year to act on the New Business Item – a year that delegates also voted to target institutional racism.
When the year was over I received word that my resolution against the flying of the Confederate battle flag in public spaces had resulted in a single solitary action by the NEA leadership. Somebody in NEA headquarters had drafted a piece of model legislation that state and local affiliates could take to their elected representatives.
I have not heard if any affiliates have acted on it.
If they had, I think I would have heard something.
In a recent YouTube video, a man who appears to be Greene is escorted by officers from a high school football game after he held up a confederate flag while sitting near several black audience members.
In debating the nature of the Confederate flag, we said the flag was more than symbolic.
It is a battle flag for white supremacy.
In a year that the organization claimed it was taking on institutional racism, could the NEA have done more than draft and mail out copies of model legislation?
The NEA’s choice of Republican Lamar Alexander for this year’s Friend of Education award may have been the oddest choice since the Chicago Bulls picked Dalibor Bagaric.
Alexander is at the freak show now underway in Cleveland. He gave an interview to Ed Week.
Alexander and Politics K-12 have talked before about Donald Trump and education policy. And Alexander’s said he wasn’t really sure where Trump’s heart was on the issue. Does Alexander have a better sense now?
In a word, yes, he said he does. Alexander told me he had spoken with Trump about the issue, including when he met with GOP senators a few weeks ago.
Alexander told the presumptive GOP nominee that, “my hope is that if you’re elected you will enforce the new education law the way we wrote it, which is to transfer responsibility for accountability out of Washington back to the states. And [Trump] agreed with that. He said he was very much for local control. So I’m convinced he will.”
What’s more, Alexander said Trump “understands the explosion of regulations across the board in Washington, D.C., is a massive issue, bigger he said than taxes. And I agree with him on that. The jungle of red tape that smothers a lot of college administrators, that makes it harder to fill out a student aid form, that makes it difficult to repay your student loan, all of that is a deregulation, de-centralization of authority that I think he would instinctively favor, so I’m encouraged by that.”
It appears that NEA’s Friend of Education is not exactly a Republican member of the #NeverTrump movement.
Today is the final day of the NEA Representative Assembly.
I wonder if Ed Week’s Stephen Sawchuk, who reports on it, bothered to hang in all the way this year. Sawchuk is like a L.A. Dodger fan. He tends to arrive late and leave early.
Listen. I get it. There are 125 New Business Items this year. It will be a late night.
A few years ago my old friend Bob Haisman and I sponsored a New Business Item at the Illinois Education Association’s state Representative Assembly. We asked that the organization establish an online data base that would allow member to member contact for lobbying and political action work. Since the leadership doesn’t like member to member contact, they wanted the proposal to die.
An IEA staffer walked up to me and said, “We are going to kill it with a cost attachment.” And that’s what they did. They announced from the podium that our proposal would cost $25,000 dollars. And it was voted down.
Crazy cost attachments are a common method the leadership uses to kill proposals they don’t like.
At last year’s RA in Orlando they said that my Confederate flag New Business Item would cost fifty thousand dollars to implement.
Sorry. Not just fifty thousand.
Fifty thousand, five hundred.
That cost was sucked out of somebody’s thumb but was intended to short circuit debate. That time it didn’t work and we debated a long time, nobody brought up the cost attachment and NBI 11 ultimately passed.
Just moments prior to this year’s RA I received word as to how my Confederate flag NBI was implemented. Some model legislation was distributed to state affiliates and just this June 19th they published an article online.
There was nothing in the report about how the $50K was spent. Certainly drafting some model legislation and posting something online didn’t cost fifty grand.
Jeez. What are the billable hours for the lawyers who might have been asked to draft the model legislation? – which to my knowledge has been introduced exactly nowhere.
I’m assuming that given the mostly non-implementation of the Confederate flag NBI there is a couple of bucks left over.
Following her speech to the 8,000 delegates at the National Education Association Representative Assembly, Hillary Clinton received the NEA endorsement for President.
No surprise there.
She received 84% of the delegate vote.
Some friends may have thought there was a larger Bernie contingent. And maybe at one time there was. But no longer. Except for a few boo-birds when Clinton swiftly mentioned charter schools in her speech, she was warmly received.
Her endorsement vote numbers are consistent with past Democrats running for President.
Libertarian teacher union basher Mike Antonucci reported:
The margin exceeds those President Obama received initially (79.8% in 2008) and for re-election (72% in 2011), but short of the margins achieved by John Kerry (86.5% in 2004), Al Gore (89.5% in 2000), and Bill Clinton (91.5% in 1996).
As usual Antonucci is right on the facts even if he wrong on his world view.
Facebook friend Kipp Dawson reacted to a previous blog post of mine:
Well written as always, Fred.
I add this:
An appeal to the wonderful supporters of, and fighters for, our children, our world, our planet:
Hillary Clinton is not, and will not be, our champion, or even our supporter, on education — or on any other major issue facing the people of the USA or the world.
Right now, in November, and after both November and January we need, and history calls on us to continue to build, the movement’s for justice, for our children, for our planet, which hold true promise for a world all people deserve.
Let us not give in to, or be derailed by, fights around the elections that could divide our people against one another.
People who vote for Clinton because they oppose Trump’s crude and open racism, xenophobia, etc., etc. are not an enemy of social justice. People who refuse to vote for Clinton because they just can’t stomach voting for more of the same problems we, and the victims of U.S. policies around the world, struggle with — these people also are not enemies of social justice.
Our real work continues.
I would just add this.
There are plenty of progressives running for down-ticket offices that have a better chance if Trump’s candidacy does well in bringing down the Republican Party in purple and swing states.
And if on the day after the November election Trump and his Party receive a good shellacking, I will have a smile on my face.
Then I will eat a hearty breakfast to gather my energy for the fights to come.
Will the NEA get a pledge from Hillary not to support non-union charters? Will Hillary agree to cut off federal funding of predatory for-profit charters? Will Lily get Hillary to speak out against misuse of testing? Will Hillary lay out a new vision for the federal role in education?
Those are good questions. It is what the NEA should have asked nine months ago before endorsing Clinton after promising not to rush an endorsement at last year’s RA.
They would have been good questions in 1999 when the NEA RA awarded Hillary Clinton their Friend of Education award.
That is the same award they are handing over this year to Tennessee Senator and education privateer, Lamar Alexander.
It doesn’t really matter what Hillary pledges to the RA delegates. She will say what she needs to say or say nothing at all.
I predict that the main thing the delegates will be discussing after Clinton’s July 5th speech is how long it took the 8,000 delegates to get through security to get into the hall. I recall it took three hours for me to get in when VP Joe Biden addressed us.
Following the killings in Orlando, I expect there will be plenty of proposals that address LGBT issues. But I also expect that like the Board of Directors proposal at last year’s RA calling for a union-wide fight against institutional racism as the focus of the work for the coming year, it will all lead to little in the way of action.
I apologize if this sounds cynical. I have nothing but respect for rank and file delegates who attend this seemingly endless convention and who engage in the debates over important education and social issues.
The murder of the innocent in Orlando deserves the attention of the NEA RA. They deserve real action as well. As did the deaths of the nine innocents in Charleston just prior to last year’s RA.
What they got were just words.
The dedication of delegates is not what is at issue. The problem is at the top.
Lamar Alexander, along with Senator Patty Murray, will receive this year’s Friend of Education award.