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Three Reasons for Hope

Every time I feel dismayed by the problems that riddle our education system, I go to one of two sources of inexhaustible hope: students and teachers. This week it was teachers, the 300 of them I worked with throughout the three-day ECET2 (Elevating and Celebrating Effective Teachers and Teaching) national conference.

These teachers reminded me of a few simple truths at the heart of our work.

1. We keep promises.

Jon Spencer, a 5th grade teacher in Florida, flew and drove the 1,200 miles that separated him from a former student so he could be there to watch her graduate. Why? He had promised her he would.

The promise was made when she was in his class in Florida, and he had no way of knowing that she would move way up to Ohio for high school. But he believes, like many teachers I know, that the promises we make to our students should never be broken.

Jon spoke a word that I have never heard from a politician or policy wonk in the context of education: love. He described a "problem student" who hid under a desk and answered his rote pep talk with four devastating words: "You don't love me." Throughout the rest of that year, Jon Spencer showed this student that he did love him, not through hollow words, but daily actions. The 5th grader thrived as a result.

Jon's student who graduated in Ohio thrived, too, because of that focus on her as a human being. Not her test scores, not her degree of compliance with his class rules, but her potential and her interests, her world and her ideas about it.

She went on to achieve academically through high school and college, but when she wrote a letter to invite Mr. Spencer to her graduation--and to remind him of his promise--she didn't talk about math lessons or test scores. She wrote about the respectful way the class treated her, the potential he saw in her, and the way she came to see herself differently as a result. Her "college and career readiness" began in 5th grade, with a teacher who traveled across the country to keep a promise.

2. We work for our students.

Jozette Martinez came to teaching after starting her own small business. She now sees her students as her customers. In the same way that Panera or Zappos constantly seek customer feedback, she seeks out her students' constructive criticism on a daily basis. Ultimately, she wants the students--not just her principal--to be satisfied with the level of rigor, organization, and fun she provides them in class.

On paper, we work for administrators, or the school board, or the state department of education. But in reality, we work for our students and their families.

True, we scramble to beautify the bulletin boards when the superintendent or school board pay our school a visit. We turn our school environment into a sterile wasteland for a week or two during testing, in order to satisfy pages of guidelines that read like they were written by asylum lunatics playing Mad Libs. But what we do every day and every hour--the focus, reflection, patience, and creativity our profession demands--is undertaken in service of the kids in our class.

3. We see our students' entire lives, not just their lives in our classroom.

Ashleigh Ferguson, a high school math teacher in California, spoke about the realities of children who live in foster care. She talked about individual children she has gotten to know through her school, her church, and travels abroad.

She described the grim reality that faces these children when they "age out" at 18, many of them becoming homeless. 70% of the inmates at San Quentin were formerly in foster care.

Ashleigh is not one of those smooth public speakers who stride the stage with PowerPoint clicker in hand, dropping clever lines with the ease of Jimmy Fallon. She was nervous up there talking beneath bright lights to 300 colleagues, and she told us so. But she spoke with power and conviction, a moving example of the line by activist Maggie Kuhn, "Speak your mind even if your voice shakes."

Ashleigh is currently seeking to adopt a child from the foster care system into her family. She reminded all of us to look beyond the seven hours our students spend in our care to their existence beyond the school walls. She ended with a simple line: "We all want to be seen."

There is plenty that's troubling about the state of education, from the gulf between policy and reality to the fragments of NCLB still embedded in our system like shrapnel. There's plenty to divide us, too--charter vs. public, Common Core supporters vs. Common Core opponents, Gates haters vs. Gates partners.

But these three teachers reminded me of how much binds us together, whether we teach high school English in a Kansas suburb or 3rd grade in inner-city L.A. We keep promises to our students. We work, in the end, for them. We see them for who they are and for who they can become.

These three teachers also reminded me, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that I chose the right profession. When our job exhausts us of hope, we often rely on our students' courage, brilliance, and compassion for one another to remind us why we do what we do. But we rely on our colleagues, too.

To Jon, Jozette, and Ashleigh, to the other 300 teachers in the room last week, and to all of you who choose to teach: thank you. I'm proud to be in your company, and I'm grateful for the example you set.

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