“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” Dickens-Tale of Two Cities
Times are tough in public education right now. In back channel conversations, I hear administrators and teachers alike express a troubling sentiment that battles have just become so overwhelming it’s hard to keep coming back to work. Many long for time to “just close our doors and teach.” There’s a reason why this phrase became a mantra. I suspect it emerged when public education in the twentieth century slid more deeply into an institutional model; schools enlarged in size; and anonymity increased as educators and students grew apart.
In my first teaching year, I heard that phrase from an experienced teacher with whom I shared science equipment storage. She was, fortunate for me, a “one in a million” teacher who enthralled learners. From her, I learned the power of metaphor, story, and inquiry, not because I knew what occurred in her classroom but because we co-sponsored a club. She also taught me the “independent contractor” model. As long as we colored inside the lines and knew the unwritten rules of who not to offend, we controlled our classrooms. However, I found I needed something more than to simply live inside a box called Science Room 2.
I began seeking practitioners who could help me become a better teacher. I learned with them what it takes to keep coming back to work in a career that’s never been easy, financially lucrative, or 9–5. We supported each other to figure out not just what to do, but why we continued to do it over and over again.
I didn’t buy “close your doors and teach” as a maxim I wanted to emulate as a professional. Now, as a recently retired and “recovering” superintendent, I’m even more certain it has no place in contemporary learning either. We’re at a pivotal moment in America’s educational history; a time of high tension as great as any we’ve experienced. We need each other more than ever to ensure that we don’t give up coming back to work.
It’s not just the politicizing of education that’s gone far beyond reasonable governance under the Constitution, state codes, or local policies. It’s not just about bad business decisions that have led to devastating losses of resources needed to educate learners when this nation needs to close educational gaps, not widen them. It’s not just about the inequality of personal wealth that’s created a “haves and have-nots” schism unlike anything in this nation’s recent history. And, it’s not just about the 24/7 media preoccupation with market share that’s caused reporters to chase negative stories that no way reflect the mainstream of learning occurring day in and out across America.
It’s the unified impact of current politics, economics, class divides, media, and educational institutionalization that’s supersized a national paranoia threatening the Statue of Liberty schooling that inspired many of us to enter teaching. It’s no coincidence that first generation college graduates became the educational workforce of the last century, fueling the life cycle of public education. Many of us pursued teaching because we aspired to become the teachers who helped us become college graduates. Today, some of us discourage those we teach from considering the profession. I hear teacher-parents say their own children watch educators work and say “I’d never want to teach.”
In the middle of the night, I ask, “How close are we to endangering the life cycle of public education by disrupting the flow of energetic, young people into teaching? What will be the impact of a workforce of teachers stopping in for the short-term rather than being dedicated to an extended journey towards masterful teaching? Who will teach our children in the future?”
Now, more than ever, we educators need each other. We need each other to make sure we keep coming back to work; that we don’t quit. We need to learn from each other- new technologies, strategies, and ways of connecting with young people. We need each other to challenge the status quo and take responsibility for critical shifts needed to advance our work.
We need each other not just for inspiration and to reach our own career aspirations but, importantly, to lead on behalf of all the young people who depend on us for inspiration, to reach their own aspirations, and to sustain hope for the best of times as they journey towards their own futures.
We live in a crucible of heated discontent, often generated by variables we don’t control. However, of this I am certain, there is nothing more powerful than the work we do. Now more than ever, we must open our doors and talk with each other. We must maximize our voice in every forum available to us. We must remind each other and every community in this country that educators still keep alive the “spring of hope and season of Light” for all of America’s children. We’ve “everything before us.”
It’s our story. It’s our nation’s cycle of life.