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Education Nation: I Should Have Known Better

A teacher encounters media stars.

By Stephen Lazar

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

Over the past few days, I have had the unbelievably depressing and deflating experience of being part of NBC's Education Nation. I was one of the first teachers on stage for Sunday's Teacher Town Hall, and returned on Monday for a panel entitled, "Good Apples," taking up a so-called "Oprah Seat" which promised the chance to respond to the panelists, moderated by Times reporter Steven Brill, and including the Waiting for Superman Three: Randi Weingarten, Geoffrey Canada, and Michelle Rhee.

Unlike nearly all the other teachers involved who either worked for charters or had some previous national education recognition or involvement, I was there randomly. I got a call last Tuesday from a friend of my wife's who works at Scholastic, who seemed to have had primary responsibility for getting teachers to the events. My wife's friend knew I taught at a Bronx public school and thought I could speak well about my experiences there. She did not know that I was my school's UFT Chapter Leader or a National Board Certified Teacher. I told her I would not turn down an opportunity to talk on behalf of good teachers everywhere. Thursday I got a call from NBC, who briefly interviewed me about my views on teaching, accountability, recruitment, and retention, and I was invited to be on stage with Brian Williams at the Town Hall.

Arriving at Rockefeller Plaza Sunday morning was a surreal experience. I am going to give NBC credit for two things: they have poured a ton of human and financial resources into having a conversation about education in America, and they built a beautiful setting to do so. I felt like I had entered a dream world where the voices of teachers were actually listened to and respected at the table where major educational decision were made. I should have known better.

After being escorted downstairs and having makeup done for the first time in my life, I had a good hour to talk with the eight other teachers who would be on stage for the Town Hall. While I did not agree with all of them on all issues, I was very impressed by the passion, intelligence, thoughtfulness, and experience of my fellow panelists, and I was looking forward for the country to see intelligent conversation between teachers with varying viewpoints. I should have know better.

The first read flag was when a NBC production assistant came up to us, and told us that while they had all the "experts" lined up to talk Monday and Tuesday, they were excited to have us share our experiences first. We were implicitly encouraged to argue and to make bold, controversial statements while on stage. Despite the disrespect, we were assured that Brian Williams would merely be on stage to start the conversation, and that the majority of each 30 minute block would be made up of conversations between the teachers on stage. Our block was to focus on recruitment and retention of good teachers. We were told audience participation would only be occasional, and would mostly be in response to things we said on stage. I should have known better.

At 11:30, Monica Graves, the young KIPP Dean from Atlanta, and Bonnee Breeze, a Philadelphia teacher there because of some relationship with the National AFT, and I were escorted to the Green Room to be miked and await our journey to the stage. There were buckets of apples everywhere. It was only then that Ms. Graves was told the video would be shown. Ms. Graves and I began a conversation about her experiences at TFA, which I let her know I would probably critique on stage if given the chance. As the three of us began a very good conversation, another NBC person came over and jokingly asked us to save it for the stage. I was really excited at that point to do so. I should have known better.

Our first interaction with Brian Williams was when we walked out on stage. He introduced us, getting my subject wrong, and the program began. All three of us used our first opportunity to speak to lay the ground for key points we assumed we would discuss later. The next thing we knew, they were going to the audience. During the commercial break, I asked Williams if we would have a chance to respond to the audience, and he said we would. He came back to me with the next question, and then before we knew it, we were being ushered off stage. That was it. Not a single chance for any of us to respond to each other or share anything of real substance with the audience of the nation. As the event continued, and it got eaten up by rapid-fire comments from the audience where everyone just tried to get their voice heard without really listening or responding to each other, the nine of us realized that we had just been pawns for the news media that has little interest in intelligent discourse, the very discourse that teachers teach their students and partake in everyday. I should have known better.

I figured that was the end of my experience there, but I got a call Sunday night to go be a part of the "expert" panel on teacher recruitment, retention, and evaluation. I was not invited to be on the panel, but was told I would be in the first row and would have the chance to respond. Since I could attend without missing a class and it was on my way home anyway, I agreed to attend. After the Town Hall, i had low expectations, but figured I would at least have a chance to speak up for the support and training new teachers need to be successful. I should have known better.

The panel itself was an embarrassment to everyone involved. Steven Brill, the moderator, clearly had an anti-union agenda to push; Randi, Michelle, and Geoffrey continued to make the same points we've all heard them make 87 times this past year. There was a representative of the Gates Foundation who had a couple good points to make based on the Foundation's research, but he hardly had a chance to speak. I admire the guts of the East Harlem public school teacher to attempt to defend public schools, but ultimately he came across as combative and couldn’t go toe-to-toe with the talking heads. Despite Randi's continuous pleas to ask the four of us in the audience who worked in schools what we need to fix our schools, no one bothered to stop bickering long enough to ask us anything. Ms. Groves, one of the four, did ask the panel what they thought we could do to invest in the development of new teachers, but no one bothered to answer her question. By the end, the question I wanted to ask the panel was simply, "Why am I here?" but of course, no one called on me. I should have known better.

At that point, I was a fairly depressed about my whole experience, but the two most insulting and demeaning moments were yet to come. First, I turned to to young woman who sat next to me the entire event. She had introduced herself earlier as an Assistant Principal at Harlem Success Academy, a well publicized charter run by Eva Moskowitz. At one point during the panel, Brill, in order to back up a pro-charter point made by a panelist, asked the young woman to stand and tell everyone what she did. She talked about how she got to spend all day every day giving "real time" feedback to teachers. After the panel, I turned to her, and told her I wish my public school could afford to have someone like that. Her response: "That's why you should cone work for us." My response: "I'm sorry, but I teach wonderful students who need me too."

I then went up to Mr. Canada. During the panel, in a conversation about having a longer school day, he said that he thought all teachers should work "until the job is done." I asked him if he would be willing to go to the NYPD and ask them to do the same in order to protect my students who are regularly jumped and robbed in their four block walk from the subway to school by the YG Gang that has infiltrated the neighborhood in the past two years. His response, "That's why we do the Zone; we had the same problem." My response: well, it didn't happen, because after he made the comment someone grabbed his arm to introduce him to some bigwig in the audience, and he completely ignored me. I left the room in despair.

I admit, I should have known better than to expect anything positive to come out of NBC's Education Nation. It became abundantly clear that while well intentioned, NBC really knew very little about the topic they decided to cover, and instead of any real conversation or reporting, relied on the most famous faces in education to argue over the same old points that get us nowhere. I hoped the conversation would change, but with the people they had involved, I should have known there was little hope for that.

With that said, I've had a lot educators, in person and online, say to me things Iike "that's why I didn't bother watching or participating." I don't think that those of us who are good, committed, public educators can afford to do that. It would make us just like the teachers who say, "these students can't learn, so what's the point of engaging them?" Despite my despair at the end, I know those of us who are actually in real schools everyday can’t stop talking about what we need to improve and what we know works, in hopes that, just like our students who almost always come around in the end, eventually people will listen and realize that we are already the change they have been waiting for.

And if absolutely nothing else, it made my students’ day to see their teacher on TV. My students aren't dumb, they know that with 25-30% annual turnover they're not always getting the most highly desired teachers. It was good for them to see that we are all good enough to have a national news anchor ask us what we think. I might have sacrificed some dignity to be NBC's pawn and a good proportion of what little innocence I had left, but it was good for my students, which at the end of the day, is all that matters.

(Though it's a waste of time, you can watch the Teacher Town Hall online)

— Stephen Lazar
Teacher Town Hall





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