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In Support of Respect and Civility

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Dr. John King, New York's Commissioner of education has been met with disrepect and an exceptional lack of civility.  How many of us, as leaders, have had to stand in front of a hostile audience and deliver an unwelcome message? More and more of us are in those situations. So when we see someone else in that situation does it bring up compassion and empathy or does our darker side of judgment enter and say he/she could have done it better or differently? Does seeing this make us want to join in and stand shoulder to shoulder with that person or back out the door? 

These questions occur to us after  NYS Education Commissioner John King has begun presenting at public forums about the Common Core State Standards across the state. Hundreds turned out at each one, angry and prepared for disruption...shouting over his attempt to answer questions, assaulting him with name calling, and booing and cat calling.  The tension was palpable from the beginning.  Police were present and were needed.  In the last one, he left the stage without a salutation, a sign, a farewell.  There was no applause for his valiant effort to carry his message to the field.

The Dutchess County event, held just last week, had been hosted by the NYS PTA in order to provide parents information about the reform agenda and to answer their questions.  The word was out that parents and teachers who would be attending were fired up and were intending to demand answers.   The auditorium was filled to capacity, just over 800.  The event was live streamed on the host district web page and into the cafeteria. The Commissioner opened with a slide presentation that briefly captured the data that reveals our students are not college and career ready and the steps being taken to remedy that.  Then, Gregory Ahlquist, a high school social studies teacher at Webster Thomas High School in Webster, NY, a NYS teacher of the year, spoke about the value of teaching the Common Core in his classroom.  He spoke with confidence.  He reported realizing too much of his instructional practice had evolved around fact recall.  He described his learning journey as he made primary sources the focus of his classroom.  He said, "Common Core is about changing my practice and what children can do."

After the applause for Mr. Ahlquist, the program returned to the Commissioner. The evening deteriorated. The Commissioner was called a Nazi, challenged about where his children attend school and shouted down on almost every answer. How have we come to this level of disrespect for our leaders?  How is it that we are this angry, this disempowered, this entrenched? Can we no longer listen to those with differing views? We are at a very dangerous place.

The federal government has shut down. The inability or unwillingness to negotiate has become a rallying call; a country created by knowing when to fight and when to compromise finds itself locked in an imbalance of those forces. We have lost the ability to have civil dialogue with each other. This does not bode well for the future.

Similarly, the reform agenda in New York State has become volcanic in its implementation.  This comprehensive, multifaceted plan aimed at shifting what and how we teach children flows from Race to the Top. Common Core is part of the plan.  Are there really still people who believe we didn't need to change?  Do any of us maintain that what we needed to know to be successful in the last century is exactly what we need to know for this one?

We must be calm enough to do our best thinking not our fastest reacting.  Reaction often takes the form of opposition. Strong bonds among strange bedfellows can be formed in communities of resistance. Who could imagine the teachers' union and the conservative right on the same page? We need those who can create pathways of hope through this abyss.

Over and over, the Commissioner spoke of local control. Most in the audience have felt none.  Can both things be true? There remains some serious lack of understanding about the Common Core and its implementation. Most educators find the standards a change for the better. So what's the problem? Is it the implementation timeline and assessment process? Is it that teacher and principal evaluation are tied to them? Is it that our systems are financially exhausted and so are our human resources?

The state can help but it is the work of local leaders to explain curricular changes to our communities. The state is not telling Johnny or Abigail that they have failed. Those messages are conveyed by us, locally. The state tests are only one part of the child's educational evaluation, and only one part of the teachers' and principal's accountability.  Highly stressed teachers have transferred stress to our children and to their parents.  In an honest moment, can we agree change was required, not by the Commissioner, but by every one of us who wants to serve children well. Why are those voices silent now?

We stand behind the words "We are protecting the children." Or are we hiding there?  The business of education is a high stakes one; it always has been but now data drives it. Our responsibility is a personal one to each child and a public one for all children. Classroom by classroom, school by school, district by district, state by state, we are out of time. Pure and simple...we may resent it but it is true. Our best intentions no longer count for data. It is not because a federal or state government told us so; it is because our own moral, ethical compass tells us that there are many children we are failing. It is the system's fault. We are part of the system.  We all suffer if it doesn't change.

Commissioners have jobs to do and so do we.  We will accomplish nothing without respect for each other and civility in our interactions.  Remember in this, too, we are teaching the children.

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