Monday, February 17, 2014

Here and Now

When one discovers that one shares commonalities with Woody Allen, one feels decidedly vomitous. His disturbing family saga has been (too) much back in the news lately, with the involved family members proving once again that 1) we’re never going to know what really happened there, and 2) we don’t necessarily want to spend the holidays with any of them.

When the first Allen-Farrow legal media storm hit the airwaves 20-some years ago, my husband and I watched as many of Allen’s films as we could because we were convinced that he would be convicted of something unforgivable, and we knew that we wouldn’t be able to watch his stuff ever again, ethically speaking. And then he was convicted…of nothing. Since then, Allen has made some damn fine films, and each time I watch one, I feel mired in that murky gray ethical zone that feels like being covered in slime—yet I can’t look away.

My favorite Allen films of the past two decades are the ludicrously silly Everyone Says I Love You, the glossily creepy Match Point, the kookily hilarious Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and that English major’s slice of heaven, Midnight in Paris. Midnight in Paris appeals to me for several reasons:

1.      The Parisian set design and cinematography are unbelievably gorgeous. The fabrics alone, people!
2.    Rachel McAdams does not play a sympathetic character. I don’t get the Rachel McAdams thing. I just can’t with that one. I think her Mean Girls character is probably who she really is, and Midnight in Paris backs me on that.
3.    The film’s central thesis is one that I have been spouting forever: The good ol’ days? Maybe not so good.

In the film, our protagonist (played by Owen Wilson) longs for the Jazz Age of the 1920s, the time when he feels that society and writers and the world in general had it right. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein, Dali—these are his icons, and they can do no wrong. Through a nutty plot twist, he is transported to that time and meets his idols. At first, he relishes their glamour and drama, but as he comes to know them better, he realizes that their lives are just as messed up as his own in ways that are not so romantic and delightful. The flapper he falls for (played by the beauteous Marion Cotillard) herself longs for La Belle Époque, her idea of the best time to be alive. The upshot? Every era has its beauty and particular moments of incandescence, and every era has its ugliness and pits of despair.

For a society that likes to say that, “Hindsight is 20/20,” we are incredibly myopic in our view of the past. The extent to which we romanticize bygone eras and bemoan the present one frustrates me every day as a citizen, a woman, a parent, and a teacher. I turn 47 this month, and I hear people my age spew sentiments beginning with these sentence stems all the time:

·        “Kids these days just don’t…”
·        “When I was a kid, we understood…”
·        “You could have never gotten away with that back when….”
·        “Remember when neighbors would…”
·        “When we were kids we didn’t have these problems like…”

Hogwash. When I was a kid, you know what the world was like?

·        The Vietnam War happened.
·        The state of Virginia had not fully integrated its public schools until I was in first grade there in 1973.
·        Women made 59 cents for every dollar a man made doing the same job. (We’re still not at $1 yet, but we have improved.)
·        The President of the United States resigned because he was a paranoid scumbag who was caught in the middle of a rogue’s gallery of criminal behavior. His affable successor, Gerald Ford, was nearly assassinated—twice.
·        Genocide, war, assault, rape, child abuse, and all of the other forms of injustice that occur today occurred then.

Older generations are just as bad. They romanticize the 1950s and 1960s as times of strong moral values, eras in which people knew the rules, followed them consistently, and were punished soundly if they did not. Hogwash. You know what the 1950s and 1960s were like?

·        Schools were segregated all across the South. Interracial marriage was likewise outlawed in most of those states. (And we could talk about lynching, too….)
·        Girls rarely had interscholastic sports in which they could participate (and almost never received college scholarships for excellence in them). (Should I even scratch the surface of the fate of children with disabilities?)
·        Child abuse was even more rampant than it is now because it was rarely prosecuted and nearly never discussed publicly.
·        Many states allowed a husband to rape his wife and made it difficult (to say the least) for the raped wife to leave her husband and still have access to their children.
·        Genocide, war, assault, rape, child abuse, and all of the other forms of injustice that occur today occurred then.

The reasons why people view the past as a more idyllic time are simple: they either weren’t there (like Owen Wilson’s character) or they were children during that time. Our parents protected us, by and large, from the world’s ugliness or at least its most awful parts. People who were not lucky enough to have as much protection from the world probably remember those times differently than us sugar-coaters, kids like Ruby Bridges, kids who grew up in Uganda or in Vietnam in the 1970s, kids who grew up in poverty, in sickness, in war, in despair.

Those of us lucky enough to have had more carefree childhoods not only have the moral obligation to try to offer the world’s children that same safer existence; we also have the moral obligation not to pretend that the past was somehow better than the world is today, not to trash today’s children, not to elevate a time and place we understood as children as better than the time and place we know more fully as adults.

The older we grow, the more we learn about the world, and that means learning more about its ugliness. That ugliness was always there; just because it’s new to us does not mean that it’s new. We are adults. It’s our job to see the world as it is, not as some disappointing comparison to the time when we thought the future involved a lifesize Barbie townhouse and people who interacted as peaceably as our teddy bears did.

I love living now. I love that I know so much more about the world because I have access to so much more information about it. I love that the Iron Curtain is so far in the past that it is difficult to explain to my students. I love that stories from the past like Ruby Bridges or the history of Title IX or the Holocaust make my students gape with wide-eyed disbelief. Does that mean that discrimination no longer happens? Does that mean that genocide is forever gone? Does that mean we have licked all of humanity’s capacity for evil? Of course not. But we’re better. We’re learning. We stumble and fall and cry, and then we get back up again and learn some more.

This is an exciting time to be alive, and if you unfavorably compare it (and especially its children) to those of the past, I know only one thing about you for sure: You are getting older, you are losing perspective, and your soul is the first part of you to die.

This is our time. This is our world. If the world is not all you hoped it would be, you are likely the only one who can change it to suit you, and you are definitely the only one who can make you view it more positively. In the meantime, don’t talk to me about how much better things used to be. My students, my SmartBoard, my friends’ children Facebooking them while serving in Afghanistan, my increased access to Bruce Springsteen tickets, my FaceTime chat with my son in college, and I—we all disagree. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Give It Away, Give It Away, Give It Away Now

I've had this post bouncing around in my head for awhile now but couldn't make sense of it. Thanks to the Red Hot Chili Peppers and their brief appearance at the Super Bowl for finally giving me a title to play with and thus helping to pull the pieces together. Anthony Kiedis, this one's for you.

I came to teaching later in the game than most (starting age for most = 22; starting age for me = 33). By the time I became a teacher, I had held several different types of jobs, I had managed employees, I had been responsible for deadlines and budgets, and I had kept alive two small human beings for the first 6 years of my parenthood. Perhaps this life experience is the key reason why I embraced the idea of becoming a “teacher-leader” from the earliest days of my education career.

Teacher-leadership has become central to my philosophy about what separates strong schools from weak schools, and it is a banner I wave in as many professional situations as possible. A funny thing happened on my way to teacher-leadership, though; I discovered that, the more power I give over to others, the more power we all have and the more we move education where it needs to go.

To the uninitiated, teacher-leaders are teachers who hold leadership roles (either formal or informal) in their systems, schools, or departments. A multi-state consortium that studied the teacher-leadership issue (yes, it’s an issue), defined it thus:

Teacher leadership is the process by which teachers individually or collectively, influence their colleagues, principals, and other members of the school community to improve teaching and learning practices with the aim of increased student learning and achievement.

I believe that, for real school reform to happen, teacher-leaders must have important roles in every facet of change, from classroom implementation to county-wide decision-making, to state and national advocacy. I have two key reasons for this belief.

1.      We stay. Teachers typically remain in a given school building much longer than administrators do, and thus change does not happen without us. A new principal or assistant principal can come in with any agenda (standards, discipline, instructional strategies), but if the key teacher-leaders in the building are not on board, those changes are not only going to have trouble getting off the ground initially; they are also going to disappear once that administrator is promoted or transferred (something that happens usually after only a few years for most).  Teachers hold down the fort, and that makes us incredibly valuable.

2.    We have nothing to lose by telling the truth. As part of my teacher-leadership banner-waving, I have signed up to take part in various seminars, classes, and programs at the local and state level designed for “people interested in leadership.” I am often the only person in those situations who wants to remain a classroom teacher (not always, but typically the others are preparing for administrative roles), and that ends up influencing discussions in so many ways. Because those administration-bound folks are looking to change positions in the near future, they are much less likely to voice dissent with what they perceive as the opinion of the leadership in the room; they understandably view those sessions as “pre job interviews,” and that means they may temper their dissent for the most part--thus the reason I often become the “mouthy broad” in the house.

I can say what I think because I am not looking for any role other than the one I have. I have a strong sense of personal power because I have solid job security, and I don’t want another job. [It boggles my mind when fellow teachers who share those two characteristics are still afraid to speak their minds to authority figures. We have all the power in the world, folks. We have the moral obligation and the job security to let it rip, so do it.]

No one really knows what to do with me in those forums—I don’t fit the traditional leadership model—but they kindly let me come along. I continue to set myself up for these awkward moments to make my case: “Teacher-leaders! We’re here! We’re here! See? We don’t want your jobs, but we want you to include us!”

To become a teacher-leader, one starts by, frankly, working too much. Once one’s school leadership identifies a teacher as smart and/or hardworking, the offers pour in: Want to do curriculum writing? Want to be on the School Improvement Team? Want to serve as the Student Council advisor? Want to coach basketball? An American school has about a zillion jobs to do, and we need good people to do them. This is heady, flattering stuff for a new teacher, and those of us with the work ethic and the heart jump in with gusto.

Because teaching is considered a “flat” profession (no real upward mobility within the job title itself), these assignments are essentially one’s only form of “advancement.” Some roles are tied to pay stipends, some roles are more glamorous than others, some roles involve hobnobbing with fancier school personnel than others, and so forth. Thus, the average teacher-leader goes through moments of feeling threatened by others who have particularly cool roles. Competition develops, and that competition drives many folks to become burned out and to become focused on things like the money and the zazz in selecting which roles to play. A power game develops, and I’ve never seen a power game that benefited students (or that was really any fun to play).

To my shame, I’ve played this game. I’ve signed up for jobs that appeared glamorous or lucrative, and I’ve been bummed out when others were chosen for roles over me. Over time, I have become a strong teacher-leader in my universe, and my successes and failures in that role led me to start seeing the whole situation in a much more realistic light. I began to see a trap developing that I had not noticed along the way, and I see it more and more among my teacher-leadership brethren: We think that the more powerful roles we have, the more power we have. Makes sense, right? Wrong.

Here is what I have discovered:
1.      The more I build up other teachers as leaders (and discourage them from playing the power game), the more powerful I am.
2.    The more I search for roles for others and not for myself, the more powerful I am.
3.    The more I take on the unpopular, less glamorous, less fun jobs that need doing and let others take the cute stuff, the more powerful I am.
4.    The more I focus on actually leading and the less I focus on being perceived as a leader, the more powerful I am.

When I say, “the more powerful I am,” I do not mean more powerful as a teacher-leader. That only comes through two things, ultimately: 1. how well I do my job and 2. whether other teachers believe they can trust me.  Instead, I am more powerful as a human being. Giving up my old ideas about what constituted teacher-leadership helps me focus more on doing a good job (whatever that job is in a given moment) and on fostering trust with my colleagues--just getting better. So you want to be the one who presents at the conference? You go, girl. You want to be the one who facilitates at this month’s study groups? Awesome. I don’t have the right outfit for it anyway. You want to be the major domo at state curriculum writing? Do it. And I’ll help you navigate the process if you like.

I still take on new roles occasionally, and some of those roles are fun. My decision-making process when choosing those roles, however, has changed. My guiding questions are different: “Will this role have a direct benefit for my students, my fellow teachers, or my school?” and “Am I really the only one who can do it? Can I suggest somebody else?” I usually can think of somebody else. I usually can say, “No.” That was not the case a decade ago. Back then, I always wanted it to be me.

Again, an American school has a zillion jobs to do, and it needs good people to do them. I believe in teacher-leadership as a cornerstone of meaningful reform. I believe in the power of teachers to change the world for the better. I believe in the young and their potential to lead us. My husband’s human resources world calls that “development”—working to make ourselves better by developing others to be better in tandem. I call it, "getting over ourselves." If we want them to lead, we need to take our opportunities, our power, and our leadership, and simply give it away.

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