Burning Down the House

burning_down_the_house_by_onyxcarmine-d8i910zLast month, professional educator and blogger Gary Rubenstein wrote a piece about Teach for America’s 25th anniversary. In this piece, he described a panel where Kevin Huffman, the former Commissioner of Education in Tennessee, was asked about his shortcomings in Tennessee and what he thought led to his downfall. Huffman responded that it was hard to be the one who burns down all the bridges and then have to be the one to rally everyone to rebuild them. Initially, I dismissed that sentiment as just Huffman spinning words like always to generate sympathy, but for some reason, I kept turning his words over in my head.

That phrase arose again last week when I was talking with a fellow education advocate, and he was telling me the story about a friend of his who was constantly attacking the State Department of Education. But then that same friend had turned to my friend and asked him to put in a good word at the DOE to hire him. My fellow advocate’s response was, “You don’t really expect them to hire the guy trying to burn the system down only to rebuild it, do you?” Bam! Suddenly, I felt like I’d been hit by a ton of bricks. That was the point my mind had been circling around after Gary’s post.

The last several years have been very contentious ones in the educational world. Rightfully so, I would argue, because the stakes couldn’t be higher and the positions couldn’t be more polar. The lines have been clearly drawn and teams have been chosen. When I initially got involved with education advocacy, I believed that everyone had the best intentions at heart when it came to the education of our children, but this is a belief I no longer hold. That statement in itself should give some clarity as to the level of acrimony involved in educational policy discussions.

To compound things, so-called education reform has gotten more profitable for the private sector while public educators are continually asked to do more with less. Obscene amounts of private money pours in, yet there has been little increase in wages for those doing the actual work – like teachers, counselors, and nurses. Take, for example, Chris Barbic, who, until recently, was the head of the state’s Achievement School District and is now a member of Chiefs for Change. He worked with the poorest of the poor in Memphis while pulling in over $200K a year and returning home every night to his affluent Nashville neighborhood. Forgive me, but I find that offensive.

We should give Chris a break though. He’s not the only one. Rhee, Huffman, White, Perry – none of these folks are hurting for cash.  They’ve all made a ton of money preaching no-excuses discipline policies, charter schools, and the value of testing while teachers struggle on a salary that makes it almost impossible to support a family. We see so-called experts with little or no classroom experience get more money and more influence, while those actually doing the work see their financial rewards and influence recede. It makes it hard to temper emotions.

I myself have been known to throw a few bombs. To be honest, though, some of it is intentional. A number of years ago, I had a conversation with fellow blogger Crazy Crawfish, who explained how he saw his role in the conversation. His was the boot needed to kick open the door and call attention to issues so that smarter minds could come in and address the issue. I’ve since used that model as a guidepost. I may not be the one to have the answer, but if I can get those who do to the table, then I’ve played my part.

However, I have to remind myself that the goal shouldn’t be to burn the system down. With all our educational system’s imperfections, it is an enticing idea to scrap the whole thing and start over. It’s extremely tempting to want to play Jesus and throw the merchants out of the temple. However, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my role to end with the destruction of anything. If I’m going to invest this heavily in anything, I want to make sure that I get to be a part of any rebuild or remodeling.

Here in Nashville, we are about to embark on the campaign for 5 school board seats. This is going to be an election that promises to be quite contentious and expensive. I’ll be honest, I believe some of the candidates have been manipulated into running or are running for all the wrong reasons. In their defense, we are a democracy and they have that prerogative. Though I challenge them to say they are putting kids first and not just working to dismantle the current system. In spite of my opinions on their intentions, they are still eligible participants.

Jackson Miller is a candidate running for school board, and I think on some level, he’s running for all the right reasons, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t polar opposites on the issues. Jackson and I run 5 miles together every Tuesday. We obviously discuss the issues, and he often makes me half insane with his positions. To be fair, I probably have a similar effect on him. The thing that has happened, though, is that Jackson has transformed from an annoying presence on social media to a real person. One who I certainly don’t endorse for school board, but one who I can talk to and find common ground to work with on challenges facing our schools. That, to me, is more important than chasing him out of educational politics, and hopefully his impending loss won’t do that either.

There is a administrator at a local charter school that I’ve had a similar experience with. We were at a forum together recently and while she was speaking I was tweeting critical comments. After she finished speaking she sat down and a few minutes later turned to me and said, “Please stop making comments about me. I respect you and those are hurtful.” At first I was defensive, but on reflection, I realized she was right. Whether I agreed with her or disagreed with her didn’t change the fact that she was a real person, with real feelings and my words had hurt her. That’s not what I had set out to do, but I’d fallen into the trap of objectifying someone based on my interpretation of their beliefs. I don’t have that right.

Years ago, I sold beer at Bridgestone Arena. After a couple months one of the younger sellers came to me and said, “Why do I only make $40 a night while you are walking out with over a $100 every night?” “Easy,” I explained, “You never talk to them. So in their mind you are just the beer man. I talk to them while I’m serving them. It’s easy to stiff the beer man. It’s a lot harder to stiff TC, the beer man who’s taking this job to pay for college, loves the Predators, music, and working these games.” The same holds true here. We need to work hard to ensure that we do not become caricatures of ourselves and that we never lose sight that we are all more then our political positions and that everyone of us has people who love us. We need to continually strive to be worthy of that love.

There is so much in education policy right now that I disagree with. There is so much that I find morally offensive. But I need to temper that indignation because I don’t want to be just the guy who carries the matchbook, and I surmise most of us don’t want that role either. We want to make sure that we retain our seat at the table moving forward, and sometimes that means talking to people we don’t agree with. It’s very important that we keep in mind what Nietzsche said, “Be careful when you fight the monsters, lest you become one.”

Please don’t mistake this as some call for civility or some kind of kumbaya moment. Because I firmly believe that if you say something stupid you deserve all the rebuke you’re going to get, and I’ve been on both sides of that. Maybe what I’m calling for is a little thicker skin. Instead of getting your feelings hurt and refusing to talk with anyone outside of your echo chamber, put your adult clothes on, self-evaluate, and if necessary, try to be more informed. If you still stand by your position, then stand up for it and be willing to take the shots until you provide enough evidence to support your position. I always tell my kids that if your religion can’t stand up to slings and arrows, perhaps you need a new religion.

Look across Tennessee and you’ll see so many grass roots Parent/Teacher groups that have sprung up in the last couple of years. The Momma Bears, SPEAK, Tennessee BATs, Middle Tennessee CAPE, TREE, and Williamson Strong are just a few. They have all been organically formed in opposition to state and local educational policies, but if you look at the work they are doing, you’ll see that it’s become as much proactive as reactive. They are also doing their work with very little to no financial resources. Sorry to let the cat out of the bag, but unlike groups like Stand for Children, Project Renaissance, and Students First, that, despite their pretty words, are dedicated to the disruption of our educational system, there are no money men hiding behind the curtain financing the aforementioned grassroots groups. They are just teachers, parents, and community members donating their own time and money.

As we move forward, I’m always going to try and keep in mind that if you’re burning it to the ground, they are not going to invite you back to rebuild it. I hope others do too. It’s been well documented that certain people are interested in completely dismantling our current educational system. I’d encourage all of us to refocus our efforts into strengthening and renewing our system because, after all, it has served us well. For some, that might not be appealing, and they will continue to try to burn down the current system. Just know, that if you fall into that camp, they’ll be a bunch of us ready to take away your matchbook and your can of gasoline.

I’ve been very blessed to find a teacher, Mary Holden, that is willing to spend her precious free time editing my thoughts. After I finish a piece, I send it to her and she edits it. She also sends back her thoughts and suggests areas that could be strengthened. Invariably she challenges me thus, you outline a good case about what we should not be doing, but what do you think we should be doing?

I always bristle a little at that question, but it forces me to think deeper. Upon reflection though, perhaps once again it is a teacher giving us our best directive. We are all well versed in what we are opposed to, maybe it’s time to put some focus on what we are for. I can’t think of a better place to begin shaping that idea then by talking to a teacher and I challenge everyone to talk to a few this month. I promise you’ll find that there is more good then bad being done and together maybe we can tilt it even more in the direction of good.



Categories: Uncategorized

5 replies

  1. If we were to actually burn down the system (public education) and start all over, and then gave the new version a decade or so to settle out and settle in, I wouldn’t be surprised if the new system looked remarkably similar to what was burned down.


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