NBC teacher town hall: Teachers as spectacle

Notes From My Iphone

I’m here at NBC Studios in Rockefeller Plaza for the Teacher Town Hall. I’m standing because they ran out of seats by the time I arrived, even though all participants must be on a guest list. Some teachers brought their children, it looks like. Ah… Now I’m seated. Next to a section of “reserved” seating. I wonder who those seats are reserved for?

This is an unusual amount of bright lights for most public school teachers with no theater background. There is some snazzy house dance music playing on surround sound system. Imagine if the school day began like this, as we all entered the school building.

A voice comes on asking us to silence our electronic equipment and refrain from flash photography. Music turns off. Applause. Peg Thomas (?) introduces a sweepstakes for one lucky teacher to travel overseas for one year with 19 students for cultural immersion in Europe. www.peopletopeople.com/teacher to register. This is the “People to People Ambassador” program.

Music comes back on. Sounds like Nina Simone this time–one of her more energetic songs.

One of the reserved seats is filled by a Brooklyn teacher who is also his union chapter leader. He says he was interviewed several times for a seat on one of the panels, but ultimately didn’t get it.

Now Brian Williams is introduced. “I can tell that you are educators,” he says. “Because when the music turned off, you all immediately went silent.” Laughter from he crowd.

5 minutes before we go on. Brian Williams explains, “This is really going to run like a town hall… I’ll be scanning the audience for ideas and agitation…”

Williams says he comes to this as a college dropout himself. He was fortunate to choose a profession in which at the time he could advance without college. He also names and celebrates the teachers who helped him through his primary and secondary schooling… But, he says, “I’m really kind of an education don’t.”

Raheema Ellis, NBC education correspondent, is introduced and will be taking Twitter comments from teachers across the country. Williams introduces his wife, but I can’t see her. Is she a teacher?

“We have very little formatting for this thing,” he says. “We want to see how it goes.” Brian Williams is good at hosting. He’s charismatic and relaxed as we spend 5 minutes waiting.

The teacher next to me flew in from Fresno, California, and next to her is a teacher from Oregon. They will be on one of the half hour panel sessions, but have not been prepped on what topics they will be speaking about. The teacher next to me is nervous, she says, but knows that everyone here is a teacher, which feels “friendly” to her. Her students back in Cali asked her to please flip her hair (which is nicely blow dried) on television.

The show started…and I stopped taking notes.

Notes from Afterward

Although many strong points were made by teachers from around the country, the conversation was all over the place, with no cohesive message from teachers to the American public about what we need. As it turns out, teachers were not entirely friendly with one another either. They were ready to duke it out over divisive issues like tenure–not that we shouldn’t debate that and other controversial issues, but our debut on national television didn’t seem like the best place for it.

Brian Williams’ first comments to panelists emphasized the “raw passion” of the teachers who presented. I was glad when one teacher spoke up and mentioned that passion alone doesn’t get any teacher very far–in fact, we all witnessed that in the opening sequence film clips depicting the passionate first year teacher who is hit hard with the challenges of teaching without a substantial skill set and experience.

Williams then threw out questions that were all over the map–teacher recruitment, Waiting For Superman, teacher evaluation, why we teach, etc. As teachers took turns responding, he hyped up the crowd with comments like, “It’s just a beehive in here folks…it’s like a cauldron in here…it’s getting heated in here…I just have to take this man’s comments–he’s jumping out of his seat, out of his skin, he’s doing aerobics over there just to get his comment heard!”

A panelist, who was a teacher and coach from the Bronx, sitting in the same row as me, shared that when he was being prepped for the panel backstage, the NBC folks encouraged him and the other panelists to be as controversial as possible, because it makes good tv. According to him, they said that several times. Agitation, indeed…teachers as spectacle for the American public.

I do think it was a milestone that teachers from around the country spoke in a national arena about our profession, and I’m glad NBC had the imagination to create the opportunity. We should speak much more to the public about the work we do. But it looks to me like we really weren’t prepared for it. We are not a monolithic group, teachers. There are many differing viewpoints among us. However, I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of teachers agree that our work is tremendously important, that we don’t have everything we need to do our best work, and that changes are necessary. We need to chose something to get behind so we can put forth a more coherent message for the public and then expect to have some influence.

For an interesting analysis of what the public must think of teachers, based on the media’s portrayal, see Dan Brown’s latest post at Get In the Fracas: If I Wasn’t a Teacher, Here’s What I’d Probably Think About Fixing Education.