Last week, I had the honor of speaking to superintendents and network leaders of NYC schools as part of an NYC Department of Education expert series. They asked Barnett Berry and Ann Byrd to lead a workshop on teacher leadership around the themes of the book Teacherpreneurs. As one of the teachers in the book, I had a chance to expound on the themes of the book, not as a puppet for any entity, but as a real teacher working in the schools. Taking a stance often gets me into a bit of trouble, none that people actually say to my face, but would whisper at water coolers and back offices.
But, at the end of the workshop, I left an impression with folks that, despite and because of my openness about my activism (and clear disenchantment with the DOE’s direction over the last nine years of my career), I actually have similar goals that many in central offices want. My CTQ board member self felt good about Barnett Berry and Ann Byrd crossing into my professional space and promoting teacher leadership. My professional self felt odd having this conversation because, as a teacher, I see myself as public servant #1 for my students, and everyone else “above” me can number themselves accordingly. My writer self saw it as a backhanded compliment, as if the musings of a nine-year veteran in an underprivileged school shouldn’t have the same voice as many of the people within the DOE offices.
My NYC self already knows that the watchtowers created for the skyline’s benefit never give a full picture of what happens inside them.
Indeed, our schools have had many innovative practices, including progressive visions for helping underserved children. Regardless of your definition of innovation, our schools have the talent pool to rethink schooling to help our system move forward. This doesn’t always come through when groups in NYC get together. Instead, the politics and bureaucracy do. Resentment and fear do. Conservatism and exclusion do.
In environments such as these, it’s obvious why even the progressives within DOE feel constricted to the corporate culture of central offices. Teacher leadership, like anything, can’t thrive in a system like this. With Carmen Fariña at the helm, I do hope some of this culture changes because, as with everything in DOE, it trickles down early and often to the schools that espouse the message.
This is not an either / or, but an either / and, hoping schools can do their part while we get the systems pieces figured out.
In the meantime, having a collective amplified voice is threatening to a crumbling watchtower, and the people all along it have better ideas for it. Maybe more of us will feel welcome to watch along.