Today was the first day back for teachers and staff. The kids come tomorrow afternoon and I see my first students in the art room Wednesday morning.
But today we gathered in the middle school gym. We heard greetings from the board president and the president of the learning foundation and before a “state of the district” presentation from the superintendent, a speech of welcome from the union president. That’s me.
Here is a portion of what I said.
There was the referendum which I thought we won. We won in part because people who had been nasty to one another just a few years ago were speaking together at coffees, and sitting in long meetings together and walking precincts.
It seemed like we were not just working to get the referendum passed, but we were working to rebuild something that had been broken. A community. Not just in the geographical sense. But in the sense of common values and concerns.
So it didn’t really surprise me that the referendum passed.
But it did surprise me that on the very evening it was passed we started hearing terms like “spend management.” This is like politicians who don’t want to say “taxes,” say “revenue enhancement.” But we know “revenue enhancement” means taxes and we know “spend management,” means budget cuts.
It’s not like we teachers don’t understand that we can’t go out and spend money like drunken sailors. Of course, when exactly have we spent money like drunken sailors? We understand the pressures on the board and on administration, although I know they think sometimes we don’t.
But here is how it went down: Once the vote was in nobody ever came and talked to us. Nobody asked questions. Nobody asked questions about what WE thought about how to deal with cost containment. Nobody asked questions about how we thought we might contribute. No questions. Just directives.
All during the campaign for the referendum, it seemed like we were talking and asking questions of each other.
Like I remember this one evening I was at home when the phone rang and it was some lady from the campaign committee and she was asking if they could use my name and the PREA in a full-page ad in the Advocate. And I kind of paused and said, “Are you sure that’s what you want to do?” Because the PREA and I were not trying to be too out front on the referendum in terms of name recognition. But, no. She was sure.
And then a day later I got a second call. She sheepishly said that the committee had met and thought it might be better if my name wasn’t on the ad and she was all apologetic and slightly embarrassed. But I assured her it was ok. All that mattered was getting the referendum passed and I sure didn’t need my name in the paper. Because what we were building wasn’t the PREA, or my public profile, or anyone’s ego. We were building a pro-education community. It wasn’t really just about the dollars. It was about teachers, parents, community and students.
To be very honest, after more than ten years of being in the leadership of PREA there are certain things we only talk about with the board and administration. In fact we only seem to talk to each other about two things: about dollars and whether our decisions are data driven. I don’t know a single person who came to teaching because they wanted to talk about dollars and data.
Before some people get all agitated, I’m for money and for data. I don’t know anybody who is against dollars or the use of data to give direction to and improve their teaching. But it is what we call a means to an end. It’s data to answer questions.
Let me say it again in case it ends up on somebody’s blog. There is no debate that I am aware of in this district about whether we should be careful in our spending or if we should use data in our instructional thinking and planning.
Last year I invited some district leadership to my school. Walk into any room. Any room. And ask the teacher in that room to talk about what they use to identify the learning needs of their kids. And I’m telling you that what you will hear in nearly every room, from nearly any teacher is a sophisticated, insightful explanation of the use of data, data of all kinds, formative data, summative data, performance data, statistical data, empirical data, quantitative data, qualitative data, ethnographic data, testing data, Dibels data, Rit data, ISAT scores and that’s not even including all those scores that are used in special ed.
Now the people I invited did not take me up on my invitation. But the offer is still out there. Although they don’t really need me to invite them into a classroom.
But here is what those scores and that data will never show.
About the girl who for six years never said a word in class but made a movie last year in which she appeared. She used just the right amount of make-up and in front of a camera for hundreds to see acted the news anchor with the poise and diction of Katie Couric.
Or the 4th grade boy who struggles in school daily and who walks the halls with his two friends arguing over the relative strengths of Darth Vadar and some character I’ve never heard of and who imagines, designs, films, edits, narrates and sings the score of an animated film about a superhero hedge hog.
Or the 8th grader who comes back to see his music teacher on the last day of school, who has been practicing piano since second grade. Mrs. Seputis asks if he will play something for us and he says, “of course,” and then on her untuned junky elementary school upright announces he will play a Chopin sonata and does. And it is more than just technically proficient; it is art, and it is a sweet and lovely thing and leaves us with smiles on our faces because the music is so good.
I believe that it was our desire to experience these kinds of events and have our children experience these kind of events that brought us all to education. I believe it is these kinds of events that provide the basis for finding common ground among administration and board, parents and kids and teachers. We can return to the conversation. Ask each other questions. It’s not too late for that. A moment may have passed, but we can grab it back before it gets away. Ask each other questions.
We can do this. Have a great year.