Milty Goes to Connecticut

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Feb 18 2011

Summit on the Summit (Sorry, Lupe…)

Clearly I love a good oblique, incomprehensible reference. This post is about TFA 20th Anniversary Summit. Be patient; you have to get through the framing that occurs first.

I’m not a teacher by trade. I wasn’t even an unemployed (-able) English major. My major is journalism. To me journalism is so much more than a major, a job or a trade. It’s the group containing Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings, Daniel Pearl, Woodward & Bernstein and Carl Kassel. The war correspondants, the muck-rakers, the investigators, the instigators. I know that we’re all __________ (liberal/negative/intrusive/other). But what we aspire to as a group is to be “truth-tellers”. I appreciate the value of strategic communications, branding, etc. but because of journalistic convention, I believe deep-down in the search for objective truth, using our platform to serve the public interest and viewing everything with a critical eye. Let the eye-rolling commence. So as Kermit says to Peter Falk in The Great Muppet Caper, “Why are you telling me this?” To understand that this is a view of the summit from a critical eye, searching for objective truth.

That being said, I thought the summit was full of vague puffery. More specifically, the plenary (what does that even mean) and closing sessions were full of vague puffery. From Kaya Henderson’s opening remarks to Wendy Kopp’s address to the panel discussion and 90% of the “testimonials,” it felt very similar to the welcoming and closing ceremonies at institute. Introduce the student/corps member; illuminate the struggle; illustrate the resolution; present the lesson learned. It’s a good formula, and for those who are emotional, it’s probably pretty effective. To me it was just that – emotional, not substantive. Why is that a problem at a huge TFA pep rally? Because I heard all forms of the word “transform” over and over at the summit. The story of the individual teacher reaching the individual child or the one remarkable school leader transforming the one remarkable school reinforce incremental change. What we do not want as a movement is to be a bunch of well-meaning emotional do-gooders. I can say with a great deal of confidence, we are smarter than that.

I sat totally dry-eyed during the whole opening and most of the closing until Arne Duncan mention that “a child in Massachussetts and a child in Mississippi should be measured by the same yard stick.” Perhaps it’s a little ridiculous that I would mist up over a policy issue, but national education standards aren’t a warm, fuzzy, vague feel-good statment designed for applause. That would be a real transformation, a concrete goal to work toward. Bill Ferguson and Michael Johnson were worth listening to for the same reason.

I haven’t been sure how to respond to all the emails intended to capitalize on the rush of inspiration from the summit because I didn’t leave inspired. I didn’t leave uninspired. I just left. I am accutely aware of attempts (however well-meaning) at emotional manipulation and avoid them. My ardour about most things runs very deep and below the surface. I am highly motivated to be an excellent educator while I’m in the classroom and to be an advocate for educational equity in whatever profession I land in. But I feel I will be taken more seriously through my continued action than my words. (Irony about blogging this acknowledged.) I appreciate the calls to action. Can I still participate if I don’t have mountaintop zeal?

One of my favorite quotes says, “Let our love not be a thing of fine words and talk but of action and sincerity.”  To me, that’s where the future of Teach For America as an enduring American institution lies – in our actions. In addition, we need to be careful about our rhetoric. Instead of focus on individual success stories that lend themselves to “look how cute these under-served children are who incidentally have overcome obstacles,” we need more stories about massive sweeping change. We need continued alumni involvement.

Do keep in mind this one person’s opinion not very far off from the summit. Writing first drafts of history and all that nonsense. We won’t know the true value of the event until sufficient time has passed to measure its impact. Perhaps it’ll be seen as a land-mark event of the 21st century; perhaps it won’t. Either way, it’s too early to tell. Keep in mind, this is the opinion of a peson also who won’t decide whether a first date was a success until the 6 month anniversary.  I move at glacial pace.

I’m looking forward to the next summit.

5 Responses

  1. Wess

    I agree that we need more stories of massive sweeping change. First, though, we need massive sweeping change.

    For me, the moment at the summit that held the most impact was listening to Amanda Ripley telling me to “call that reporter” if an article upset me, and to really know the facts about were US education is and where it’s going. But why not indulge in a little pathos? If you’re careful that your judgement stays clear, I think life’s too short not to let yourself feel as much of it as you can. We’ve all heard the individual success stories too many times to count–but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel good to let yourself ride the ups and downs.

  2. adrilicious

    I wasn’t at the summit but I really, REALLY appreciate your reflections. I feel like actions, at the end of the day, show the measure of an organization, so well said at that point. I, too, am anxious to see what happens.

  3. Wess

    P.S. I really like your blog. Also, the rest of your readers called me and they said they wanted me to tell you to post more often. : )

  4. Love this post.

    I can get pretty emotional, especially for the big guy that I am But emotion without action is just snot from my perspective. I have big plans for my time in the classroom and my time out of the classroom. As you are a journalist, I AM a teacher. But as I’m reading through all of the TFA stuff, both good and bad, I’m starting to wonder if my true place is in the classroom where I envisioned spending the next 30+ years of my life, or is it stepping up and using my voice, my charisma, and my analytical skills to help make those sweeping changes you write about. I am just stepping into my time with TFA (Dallas ’11), but I am not new to teaching or to the deep need this nation has to address the vast shortcomings in how we do eduction.

    So, Lauren, I may be in contact with you when you are prepping to anchor the national news so I can highlight my plans for the DOE to overhaul how we make this education thing happen. Just thinkin’ big….

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Charmingly (maybe) Existential (possible) Musings (read: rants) on My TFA Tenure

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