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.