Learning how to be principled

Jose –

One of the pitfalls of writing an education blog is that I am constantly taking a position on an issue only to to find a counterpoint to my position that proves my previous opinion less right. I didn’t say wrong, just less right. I have come to the point of view that only allows me to say with intense conviction that I believe in balance. So here is some TFA flavored balance for the policy table.

I am not a fan of Teach for America as a way to “fix” education. I am a fan of many of the people I have met who actually participated in TFA. One of those was our co-author, Kilian Betlach. I know that he went into his teaching experience for all the right reasons. He wanted to make a difference, he cared about the kids he taught, he learned a lot and likely got quite good at teaching. At least that is what his students might say.

When he left to work for EdTrust, I figured it was a natural progression for him, he is a brilliant writer with well reasoned and researched arguments that support what he wrote about at EdTrust and especially in our book, TEACHING 2030. Then Kilian surprised me. He dove back into the deep end of high poverty education as an administrator. He is currently the AP at Elmhurst Community Prep, a small middle school in the Oakland Unified School District. One of the things I always liked about my talks with Kilian is his passionate belief and defense of his ideas. I remember shooting basketball with him and talking passionately about the unused time after school when kids could be making academic gains. He thought the day should be longer or at least have targeted tutoring. I thought that kids needed a break after school. Many of my high poverty students don’t get to play outside after school. Their only opportunity for play was within the school setting where there was less of an opportunity for random danger or little minds to learn things they shouldn’t have to. We came to an impasse, I said, maybe if I taught middle school I would see it from his perspective, but from my view point, it I want more play for my young students. He said, I can see your point but I still think after school programs are an important piece of addressing inequality.

We agreed to disagree while both having learned something from it. This is why I say, thank you to Alexander Russo, when he points out educators and their advocates who are generally disagreeable on “principle” with those in power. I read an essay by Michael Walzer (1973) recently that discussed the problem of “dirty hands.” It brought me to the idea that perhaps, when we refuse to get our hands “dirty” we are really refusing to acknowledge that substantive change happens with compromise or at least, the acknowledgement of disagreement while still  finding respect and a way for contrasting visions to be valued. Refusal to participate on principle could actually less morally sound than “getting your hands dirty” and compromising.

According to Russo, Matt Damon refused the NEA recognition to make a statement. He didn’t think the NEA should be in bed with TFA. But, if he met Kilian, or some of the other former TFA fellows like Sophia Pappas, Executive Director of the NYC Office of Early Childhood Education, or Jennifer Rosenbaum, Director of Instruction and Performance, he might think twice about refusing on principle. He might decide to use the recognition by the NEA as an opportunity to express a more nuanced opinion that might make a substantive difference. I know you met Matt at the SOS march and he gave a great speech in Washington but his refusal to accept a recognition from the National Education Association on principle makes his passion in Washington look more like a publicity stunt than a passionate belief. It also casts whatever strides towards teacher voice that were gained in D.C. in the shadow of Damon as just another education advocate against reform. I don’t really think this is the case but it puts my own perspective in relief. How can we have strong opinions without arguing for arguments’ sake. In this case, disagreeing on principle actually made him seem less principled to me because he squandered an opportunity. Maybe he would like to respond here. 😉 I’m just sayin’, its the balance that counts.