Wildcat Strike

Screen Shot 2018-03-05 at 9.34.47 AMWest Virginia teachers are on a strike involving over 20,000 teachers and 13,000 school staff. It is the eighth day and I am inspired by the activism following the Parkland massacre. West Virginia teachers are not only exhibiting courage and willingness to stand up for the justice and dignity of the teaching profession, but they are demonstrating to the Parkland youth that adults, especially teachers do have a political consciousness and are no strangers to speaking out and using platforms such as social media to organize.

Like many states across the country, teacher salaries are pathetically low. In West Virginia starting salary is about $33,000 a year. Teachers in West Virginia are also vulnerable to a problematic and unstable PEIA (Public Employee Insurance Agency) health benefit plan with premiums that were scheduled to increase.

What does it take for teachers to go on a wildfire strike? There is real fear, repression and job insecurity in the teaching profession. For many, the financial crisis of 2008 never ended. Families are carrying enormous debt. Many lost property and savings. Sending children to college is prohibitive for teachers and many working class families. There are debt implications worse now with federal parent loan rates at 6-7%. Teachers who speak up about labor rights for themselves or against injustices inflicted on the children in their care are often derided and marginalized. The fact is, few teachers can afford to get involved in political battles these days.

To make matters more complicated, teachers are often caught in the middle of political ideologies attached to class and race. West Virginia, for example, is a high poverty state where a large number of students and families depend on schools for free lunch making a teachers’ strike a strain on an already impoverished community. A teacher’s salary in some neighborhoods, even at $33,000 a year, may appear to be a luxury. Another example is New York City, one of the most expensive cities in the country. New York’s record on school segregation by race and poverty is dismal (Orfield, 2014). The teacher starting salary is $45,000 a year and the teaching population is majority white while the student population in overwhelmingly black, Latino and Asian.  When teachers protest or go on strike, many questions are raised— such as which president did they vote for? Where do they live and what are their views on unions or public schools? What is their definition of social justice and do they harbor confused or mixed feelings about what it takes to reach an equitable contract or agreement that will benefit both teachers and communities of color where they teach?

In spite of the social unrest, uncertainty and necessary self-examination that arises during a wildcat strike, it makes me proud to watch healthy civic engagement. In many respects, adults benefit from the brashness of Parkland youth and young Black Lives Matter activists, however it is important to remind them of the shoulders upon which they stand.

 

 

Ash Wednesday School Shooting

Repentance: A radical change in mindset and heart, a promise to do better, surrender, a confession filled with remorse

griefIn every school or education organization there must be people you can trust. In spite of bureaucracy, complacency, high-stakes political frenzy, we must guarantee a safe space, a place where anyone can find the rhythm and pulse of our collective humanity. Maybe it’s a kind eye, a warm embrace, a second chance or a genuine asking. Or maybe it’s a quiet individual who finds clever ways to make things fair, who listens to truth, who reminds us of the right-minded pathway.

When a tragic incident occurs such as the Ash Wednesday school shooting in Broward County, Florida I think about all the inside people who were perhaps too busy, preoccupied or turned the other way. How could a teenage child be so lost and unfound, so unseen? How could there be such a wide open, emptiness of space for such violence to occur when schools are so micromanaged, organized and contained? What are we looking at in our schools if so many children are lost, lonely and afraid, left to slip away in the fury of desperation, hate and insurmountable shame?

There is something to be said about the loss of humanity inside our schools and education organizations. There is something to be said about our stubborn blindness. This is yet another cry out for change, a desperate plea for us to reconcile with ourselves, our true purpose in education and our moral obligation to design schools that are responsive and sensitive to the inner lives of children and adults.

***

There is this mirror between the world and me.

Standing upright I hold it one foot away.

It is this distance that reveals, or rather—

Conceals the sadness and the shame.

It is this distance that keeps me from feeling pain.

 

Ode to Dewey: Powers, Prophecy and Dignity of Teaching

I believe that this educational process has two sides – one psychological and one sociological; and that neither can be subordinated to the other or neglected without evil results following.

Dewey, My Pedagogic Creed, 1897

The last few days have been dreadful— a real deep freeze. Not only has the weather been unbearably cold, but our boiler collapsed on New Year’s Eve leaving my family without heat and carbon dioxide scares for three days. On the third morning, I lay paralyzed with madness. I was cocooned in an old blue sleeping bag, several layers of fleece and wool covered feet. In that moment I thought, I’m losing my mind. Trust in my existence waned. I sank deep into my sofa and considered what happens to our body, mind, spirit when outer conditions become increasingly challenging?

My eyes land on the portable heater we borrowed. The steady hum muffles my brain. It didn’t help that I had seen the Mountain Between Us and The Zookeeper’s Wife over the holiday. Everything felt like it could spiral out of control in a minute. What happens when outer conditions become increasingly challenging, arduous and pained? What happens to us when the world fails us, when society fails us— as it happened for the millions of Jews, Poles, Slavs during World War II, the African slaves for over three hundred years, for the Puerto Ricans after the hurricane?

It’s only been three days and I’m feeling bi-polar. I am tight lipped, sullen and defensive. Then suddenly, I’m running outside with a surge of energy and gratitude for life. I log onto the internet. Diane Ravitch posted Dewey’s Pedagogic Creed on her website. I want to read it, to feed my intellect, but I can’t. I’m too cold and lethargic. I decide it makes better sense to drive my daughter to school. I can do this, I think.

I am driving her to school and a yellow bus suddenly stops holding us hostage in the middle of a narrow block. Usually I’d feel agitated, but I’m warm so I relax and observe the scene. Shortly, a mother appears out of the house ushering two children. She zips a coat, tinkers with a hat, hugs, kisses and onto the school bus, one by one they go. There are four cars behind me. The longer we wait, the more I become breathless, the more I surrender to this image— the love and devotion for our children and their education has the power to stop a stream of traffic. It is in an instant a lesson on how our inner world can dictate social consciousness.

I am zooming down the West Side highway. My high school age daughter snoozes in the back seat and I am filled with gratitude for her life, my freedom, her school. The dead boiler and the cold feels temporary and insignificant suddenly. I think about the day to day life of a teacher and school leader who choose a life of service. They build learning communities for children and families who may be experiencing hardship and challenges caused by cracks and gaps in society. We hear stories of fires, natural disasters, trauma. We imagine or know intimately the life of a refugee where suffering and displacement are prolonged. Homelessness, family illness, separations, poverty. So many of us come to school as part-time survivors. How should we approach teaching and learning when our outer conditions appear to be increasingly challenging? How might we design learning communities that are conscientious, that are responsive to the frailty of our society, structures and political arrangements that often fail us miserably? How can we institutionalize our universal love and devotion for the inner and outer lives of all of our children?

When I get back home, I am ready for Dewey’s Pedagogic Creed.

I highlight and bold so many beautiful lines. I interrogate his thinking. Then, I close my lap top and think, what is the best way to share my day’s important discoveries.

I believe that every teacher should realize the dignity of his calling; that he is a social servant set apart for the maintenance of proper social order and the securing of the right social growth.

       Dewey, My Pedagogic Creed, 1897

 

The Weight or Weightlessness of Courageous Conversations

The heaviness of a small segment of dark brown bodies at the end of a long color line that curves around the room going from dark skin to medium to light. Two outliers insert themselves and evocatively defy the trend. They are motivated by something else; the unexpected psyche of an individual who defies the very notion of a ‘fixed’ color line. For them, notions of color remained equivocal and complex. Even after interrogation, there was an explanation, defensiveness, squeamishness. How do you identify yourself? Is your experience the same as the others on your side? The answer remained surprisingly yes…and no. I wondered, Is there a space in our consciousness that defies color?

It reminded me of the label ‘trans-gender’ or ‘trans-racial.’ I think about the many youth who are creating new labels that for them communicate a desire to transcend the narrow-minded materialism of the body form. Are they giving rise to a new, boundless human consciousness?

Alternatively, the outliers on our side of the color line who were seemingly ‘white,’ could have been in denial or exercising privilege. Dr. Lori Watson explained, the color-line is not the entirety of our experience, but it is critical that we isolate race so we can understand it and intervene in the inequities that exist in society.

Across the color-line, I see three white women standing side by side. One is squirming, the other crying and the third—the younger of the three— is standing confident, firm, wide-eyed. The latter, we learn is angry at her colleagues’ surprise at what we are witnessing. We were all grateful she chose to express voice, like many others. Three white bodies, the same and yet different. Three brown bodies, the same and yet different. And yet, we were grouped accordingly based on a survey of our experience in the world.

Some of the comments that ensued were, We don’t want pity, we want understanding. We want voice. We want to bring our whole selves to work. I’m tired of carrying the weight of this experience. One added, I have never experienced functioning in a predominantly white organization.

I was thinking, now what? What do I want to see? What is my expectation moving forward?

I want each individual regardless of racial, cultural or ethnic background to get paid equitably for their service and have an equitable scope of work. I want each individual to have equal access to leadership positions and to be developed in that direction, especially those who come from underrepresented groups. The real lever for transformation is the redistribution of power across the color-line. Access to leadership, job-security, adequate pay and a well-balanced scope of work allows individuals not only to thrive in society but to engage in making decisions that matter. Such as policy, company norms and processes, strategic planning and importantly, managing and allocating money. It also involves hiring and retention which is crucial to the integration of new perspectives, capacity building and sustainability.

I am not saying that awareness of race and racism and inequities don’t matter. Or that equity of voice in a meeting does not matter, or bringing one’s ‘whole self’ to work is not a fundamental human need called Belonging. However, in order for us to walk the path we must value all human beings both in awareness and acts. Adequate and fair compensation. Allies across the organization who communicate safety and job-security. Ongoing investment in an individual’s professional advancement. Access to real decision-making on issues that matter. These are demonstrations of equity that have the power to shape a new practice in education so that our children will inherit a place that values all life and is committed to the sustainability of our collective humanity.

It has been a heavy two days. Yet, I am beginning to feel light and hopeful as I sit and write in my hotel room in San Francisco just before getting ready to return back to New York City. I wanted to take a moment to share —Courageous Conversations are important. Moving beyond diversity is important. Learning our history is important like— who knew Rosa Parks was a trained activist surrounded and supported by the NAACP community who had a long-term Civil Rights strategy? How much of our history has been modified or deleted denying our right to truth?

On a more personal note, I will say I felt enormous pride and gratitude for standing amongst my people. Latinos, Asians, Arabs and Others often get lost in the conversation. We get lost with each other, in confusion or by being passed over or coopted. We are a diverse and rich community. Let’s look at each other more.

I didn’t want to attend the conference, I confess. I get emotionally, physically and spiritually fatigued by the topic. But, a colleague wisely pointed out that when we receive an invitation to such an event, it is not just an invitation for your Self. It is an invitation for you, your forefathers, your ancestors— who without your presence remains voiceless and unrepresented.

So, yes. In the end I moved from action and thinking to the emotional quadrant. I got teary eyed and sensitive standing alongside my brothers and sisters. Real action, compensation and retribution for a people’s suffering are all important. But so is standing up publicly and holding hands with your friends, colleagues, family and ancestry. It is because of your willingness to embrace these rare, very present moments that we have the power to touch many lives that span and blend and even by death transcend the color-line.

 

 

Where Do Important Lessons Begin and End?

“The pressures of inequality and of wanting to keep up are not confined to a small minority who are poor.”

~Wilkinson & Pickett, The Spirit Level, 2010

“While preparing for a presentation, I start a conversation with the custodial worker assigned to our room. He tells me that my type of work is important, but no matter how much we try to perfect the school and the teacher, nothing will change until we realize that a perfect school in the middle of an impoverished ghetto can never amount to anything. I look up from my neat binder and pile of handouts. The African American man leans over with a squint in his left eye and asks, “What message are we giving a child when we invest in the school but neglect his parents and his community?” I think about this for a long time and I am transformed.” 

~Ríos, Teacher Agency for Equity, 2017

Two important events have happened that carry important lessons.

Lesson #1

My fish got sick. His name is Mr. Anderson. Mr. Anderson is a Betta. Betta’s are very lively and friendly. Since I bought him, I’ve had him in a very small tank that seemed to suit his needs. But with the change of season he started withering. His usual energetic self was now laying at the bottom of the tank. He was lethargic and often buried his head under rocks. Since the weather changed, I decided to add a small heater but it didn’t make a difference. He ate less and less and within days, I began to worry Mr. Anderson wouldn’t make it.

When my son came home for the weekend, he pointed out that Mr. Anderson was depressed. Depressed, I asked? Depressed, he repeated. Maybe you should change his environment, he said while he read up on Bettas on his phone. And you need to talk to him too, Mom. Bettas live alone but they need company.

I bought Mr. Anderson a larger, more vibrant home. I added a filter and some colorful rocks. We all made a special effort to talk to him a lot. Mr. Anderson has not been happier! He swims and darts around all day. His eating habits have improved and he dances for me when I am near enough to see.

While watching Mr. Anderson jiggle his beautiful red polka-dotted body, a feeling of profound appreciation and warmth swept over me. Call me sappy but I felt like he was channeling love, gratitude and the spirit of God to me.

I learned that even a small, loner fish like Mr. Anderson can have needs. I learned that mood is important and moods are tied to our environment. We all need a good space and change. I am reminded of a post I wrote a few years ago called, Mindfulness for Poor People—on the power of space and how often We are forced to stay small to accommodate.

Mr. Anderson gave me permission to acknowledge the causes of my own suffering. I too had been feeling sick and lethargic. I was trying to fix it but doing the wrong things. By being mindful of Mr. Anderson and my environment, I knew what I needed to recharge my spirit.

I have grown out of this space and I am ready for change.

Lesson #2

Last week my daughter texted me to say she was in a shelter. A shelter? I texted back. Yea, she replied, there’s been a shooting. Oh, so that’s what they call lockdown at Stuyvesant, I thought. I marveled once again at the power of language.

I instinctively knew my daughter was safe but I wondered about her inner world—was she scared, disillusioned, saddened by the incident? I ran to my computer to get the news. The first update I got was from Twitter, my new ‘go-to.’ Within minutes more tweets were posted with information and photos. It was already being labeled a terror attack.

I slipped into the world of cyber space. Simultaneously, I sent numerous texts to my daughter and husband coordinating their escape from lower Manhattan. Forty minutes passed before I looked up from the screen and my eyes landed on the black bat I had put up for Halloween. Below it was a large bowl of Costco candy. That’s when it hit me. Another holiday tradition usurped by violence, stress, anxiety.

It wasn’t until eight o’clock that I left the house to get my daughter and husband at the train. They crawled into the car with dark circles under their eyes. They were flushed over with that withered, sour smell of the subway.

The next day we decided to keep our daughter home from school. I told her it was important to take time to pause and reflect. I recommended she rest and say a prayer for the dead. She looked at me sideways.

Not surprisingly, her fortress of a school opened ‘business as usual.’ Teachers, administrators and school leaders courageously opened their doors, taught a full day and led. A part of me envied how easy it was for them to just carry on. But then I realized— isn’t that what we keep doing— over and over again? We just keep carrying on?

I learned that violence, stress and anxiety are real, heavy shared universal human experiences. How fast we can absorb, process and digest the daily dose of violence, stress and anxiety is still considered an individual’s mental health problem. We talk about the negative effects of cortisol and trauma on kids and learning. Teachers and school leaders absorb the same chemicals and it results in chronic low trust, depression, poor health and random, peculiar, anti-social behaviors we often see in our schools and communities.

I learned there are no borders, labels, nor identities that can individually claim the type of violence, stress, anxiety we are experiencing as a society. We are one, big, ravaging sponge-like organism, with little fires sprouting out from all over our limbs. Whether you are home alone or in company, whether you reside at the middle or on the top, or even if you’re dead in the roots your soul screeching and squirming—we are all One.

 

How do you know if you’re making a difference that matters?

This is the year that everything seems to matter— and yet no one knows if what they do day-to-day matters very much at all. It’s certainly the paradox of our time and especially for teachers. I think it’s important to reflect on our everyday practice and put into question our views about the purpose of education and how we engage young people.

Jacob Needleman writes about an all too typical experience:

“There they were, about fifteen boys and girls, there I was—talking, talking, talking. I couldn’t stop talking. Hands started waving in the air and I finally called on one of the students. But no sooner did she start to bring her question out that I steamrolled over it with an answer that left her absolutely no room for further questioning. I went on talking, amusingly, animatedly bringing in Plato’s cave here, the Upanishads there… Time flew by. The bell rang and suddenly the class was over. That was it, that was all. As the students cheerfully filed past me and I smiled to each of them, exchanging a few informal remarks, I began to realize in my gut what had happened. To be precise: nothing.”

This fiasco, as Needleman called it, propelled him to engage in deep reflection and eventually to take on a high school class in San Francisco after years of teaching at the college level. Later he writes, “My task is to engage that part of them that needs to achieve while calling gently to the part that dreams of Truth.”

Needleman designs his philosophy class around enduring questions that he categorizes as “real, gut-level questions of life that often students are not free to address in educational institutions.” Questions such as:

Why are we here?

Why are we given more advanced brains than other animals?

Is taking another human life ever justified?

What is a human being?

What can we hope for?

Who am I?

What is love?

While I read Needleman’s words in a thin book I found on a cluttered shelf at Strand bookstore (Schools with Spirit: Nurturing the Inner Lives of Children and Teachers, edited by Linda Lantieri) I inhale and exhale deeply. I am inspired and reassured. It is so easy to question.

This is a message to all my fellow writers, philosophers and teachers out there who feel deeply about the quality and character of life. What matters is your willingness to inquire within and to find the magic that transforms the outer world through honest, everyday practice. It is keeping humanity at the center of all things.

Sometimes we are stuck in a place where we have to ask: How do I break through this robotic stance? How do I metamorphose this lifeless, sterile, empty space, this institutionalized public space into a personalized, soul-searching, heartbreaking, life-altering space where the spark of curiosity dances through us continuously?

It is easy to get bullied or brow beaten especially considering the real challenges of teaching and learning. It is easy to be fooled into thinking that examining, exploring, honoring, nurturing the quality of our character, our souls, the core of our human existence is somehow someone else’s job or not so important.

Mathematics, science, ELA and technology are important, but not so much if we do not have the capacity to use knowledge in an ethical and mindful way so that we better our world, ensure we are working for peace. Without an investment in the soul work of teaching every day, in nurturing a sense of belonging, purpose, meaning, and value for all life– we may be accidentally contributing to the self-destructive, violent, and hateful behavior we see tormenting our nation.

Lightness of Being

“Look upon the world as you would upon a bubble” said the Buddha in the Way of Truth, “look upon it as a mirage.”

In a good dream, I am flying. Soaring high and free. In a not-so-good dream, my flight is wrought with struggle. I go up and down, arms flailing. It’s the inevitable pull of gravity. In a nightmare, I am paralyzed and stuck entirely.

In education we are so serious, so grounded all the time. We don’t tolerate lightheartedness either. Perhaps it’s because we think effectiveness is serious business.

DISCIPLINE. ACHIEVEMENT. ADVANCEMENT.

Sometimes I worry that if I laugh or try to make light of our situation, I’ll be accused of being less-than-intelligent. There’s also guilt. The important work of schooling especially if we care about children requires shouldering responsibility, hard work, demanding hours, self-sacrifice, no-nonsense. There is no time for fun, or frivolousness when we are SAVING LIVES.

Nasrin Jafari describes the hallways at one school she visited:

“The students walk in silent, single-file lines, carefully monitored by adults. They walk to the end of the hall, flank at the corner and walk back up the hall to enter their next classroom. In class, teachers read off scripted lesson plans and students snap their heads every few seconds to track the person who is speaking. Anyone who talks out of turn is docked points.”

Honestly, if I were in that space— it would be a nightmare.

I visited a mentor in a school one day. We observed a first grade teacher together. In the debrief I asked, “Did you notice she didn’t smile once throughout the lesson?” She blinked then replied, “I didn’t notice.”

Just yesterday I was entangled in a meeting. There was tension over the precise definition of academic vocabulary, language and how to assess a teacher’s practice according to standards. The whole time I kept thinking, just stop it. Our narrow focus was hurting my sensibilities.

A spiritual master once told me that the purpose of all knowledge is to move from the visible to the invisible. What does that mean? Does it have something to do with the joyful flight of open space— in other words, the importance of lightness of being?