Departing Teach For America director calls for civility among educators

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By Tyler Hester

I’ve spent the past decade as a teacher, teacher coach, and as the leader of Teach For America here in the Richmond community.

During that time, I’ve had the privilege of working alongside outstanding educators in our community. Each day, these exceptionally talented folks work hard to ensure that our students have the opportunity to rise to their full potential.

And yet, the outcomes we’re seeing are unacceptably low. As of 2016, only 20-percent of Latinx third graders across our district were reading on grade level. And just 29-percent of African American high school graduates are walking the stage having completed their A-G course requirements, the most basic prerequisite for applying to a Cal State or UC school. In short, the results we are seeing do not reflect the potential of our students. Nor do they reflect the potential of our educators. We can do better. We must do better.

The question is: how?

There are, of course, many things we must do in order to improve educational outcomes. In what follows, however, I’ll call attention to just one particular strategy that I believe is essential to further progress. It’s not a new curriculum. Or a new professional development platform. It’s not even more money. Rather, it’s the way we see one another.

Over the course of the past seven years in Richmond, I’ve seen myriad examples of educators loving their students. And I have seen innumerable examples of adults loving and supporting one another.

But I’ve also witnessed deep division and discord among adults. I’ve seen educators expend enormous amounts of time and energy critiquing and attacking one another’s character. Or managing the fallout of the attacks that others have lobbed at them. I’ve seen educators question the motivation of others who are committing their blood, sweat, and tears to this work.

I’ve heard education reformers question the intention of long-serving teachers, suggesting that they are just “in it for the paycheck” or “just waiting to retire.” I’ve seen others question the motivation of those in the charter school world, suggesting that they are solely motivated by profit or that they are intent on destroying public education through privatization. These are just a few of innumerable examples. Sadly, I’m sure that you can think of more from your own experience.

So, from my perspective, this is clear: We need to change the way we see the folks whose views are different from our own.

No one questions the centrality of trusting, loving relationships to great teaching. What we so often fail to realize, however, is that the same is true among adults. For an educational system to realize its full potential, it is not enough for us to rely on teachers to love and do right by their students. The adults must also love and do right by one another. Rather than fixating on the deficits that exist in those adults we labor alongside, we must instead discipline our attention to focus on the beauty and the worth that exist within each person who has chosen to engage in this difficult work.

Why?

Because when we don’t experience love ourselves, it becomes exponentially more difficult for us to love others.

Because every time we fail to see that which is good and beautiful in those educators around us, we make it more difficult for them to love the people in their care.

At the risk of being cheeky, I’ll say it this way: I don’t believe in trickle down economics, but I do believe in trickle down culture. The culture that exists among adults, the way we treat one another, profoundly impacts the way we end up treating our students.

What’s tricky about all this, though, is that it’s harder to practice unconditional love with adults. With students, we remind ourselves that they are not yet fully formed people. So it’s not a shock when young people goof up now and again, and it’s often easier for us to be gentle and caring in the face of their mistakes.

With adults, however, we frequently hold a different bar. Very often, we expect something close to perfection: “They should have figured this out by now,” we think to ourselves. Or we come to sweeping, negative conclusions about a person’s character, believing that she or he will never change. Too often, our ability to extend grace is limited at best.

It’s hard to overstate the impact of that negativity. As a result of the dim view that we hold of other adults, many people close themselves off from healthy and productive dialogue about the thorniest issues facing our school system. People become afraid of being attacked themselves or become convinced that dialogue couldn’t possibly yield any progress in the face of our fossilized views about the issues of the day and about one another. Many of us are driven to silence, walling ourselves off from folks we might have been able to learn from.

This climate that we have created represents one of the most significant stumbling blocks between our current reality and the realization of our students’ full potential.

What’s so dangerous is that we’ve become accustomed to all of this. “How could it be any other way?” we ask ourselves.

Imagine, however, what it would be like if every adult in the West County educational ecosystem were working together to advance our efforts towards educational equity. Imagine what it would feel like if adults were working with one another on the thorniest challenges, never resorting to interpersonal cruelty. Imagine what it would be like if we could disagree without ever becoming disagreeable. 

As the work in West County moves forward, my hope is that each of us would play an active role in minimizing the divisive dynamics that exist. My hope is that each of us would become more conscious of what we see in one another and of the assumptions that we make about one another’s intentions.

Now, I’m not advocating that we refrain from criticising one another’s ideas. Nor do I think that we should refrain from holding one another to a high bar. On the contrary, it is imperative that we push one another’s thinking and hold each other accountable for doing really good work. What I am advocating for, however, is that as we hold one another accountable, we do so in a way that assumes positive intent and recognizes the dignity and the beauty that each one of us brings. I am advocating that we make an active choice to see the goodness that exists within those we work alongside.

An experience I had a few years ago illustrates this point.

It was early August of 2015, and I got word that one of my former students, Victor, was in jail. His girlfriend let me know that he would be in court early one morning at our local courthouse. She told me that it would be helpful for me to write a character reference letter for him. Wanting to do anything I could, I wrote a letter to the judge that attested to my belief in Victor and his potential.

And then, on a gray August morning, I headed to the courthouse to deliver my letter. There were only one or two other people in the room that morning, and after a short wait, Victor walked in wearing a neon yellow jumpsuit.

We locked eyes, and we both smiled when we saw each other. We weren’t allowed to communicate in any way, but just being able to see one another was wonderful.

After we locked eyes, however, I found myself starting to fixate on his bright, state-provided jumpsuit. I found my eyes gravitating towards the police officer who was eyeing Victor with suspicion.

After the lawyers and the judge wrapped things up, I waited outside of the courtroom in hopes of speaking to Victor’s defense attorney. I wanted to know what else I could do. Could I get his former teachers engaged in his defense? Were there other ways in which I could advocate for him?

Eventually, Victor’s attorney came out, and I asked her how I could help. I expected her to give me concrete tasks to accomplish: write another character reference, get more of Victor’s former teachers involved, etc.

But she didn’t tell me any of that.

Instead, she told me a few words that I’ll never forget: “Every single day, Victor is reminded of who he was at his worst moment. Every single day, his world is defined by what he did at that lowest point. So the most important thing you can do is, when you look at him, keep who he was at his best in your eyes. Keep who he was at his best in your eyes when you look at him.”

My decade in the work has helped me to see the deep wisdom contained in those words. What do we have in our eyes when we look at the student who is driving us crazy? What do we have in our eyes when we look at that colleague who is driving us up the wall? What do we have in our eyes when we look at that school board member or community advocate with whom we profoundly disagree?

In my experience, something close to magic happens when we look at each other and we keep the best versions of one another in our eyes. If we see goodness in one another, we bring that goodness out in one another. And conversely, if we see the worst in one another, well, then, that is exactly what we summon into existence.

My hope is that, moving forward, we would engage in vigorous debate, disagreeing with one another wholeheartedly and pushing one another to be our best. But my hope is that we would do this while also seeing the best in one another and loving one another well. This is, from what I can gather, a fundamental prerequisite to the educational system that our students deserve.

Big love,

Tyler

Tyler Hester has lived and worked in Richmond for the past seven years and has served as the leader of Teach For America in Richmond for the past five. In the fall, he will begin a doctoral degree in education leadership at Harvard University.

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