By James E. Ford
As I arrived at the US Department of Education on Tuesday morning, I didn’t fully know what to expect. I had been invited to participate in a roundtable discussion with fellow former teachers to discuss teacher retention and why we left the classroom. I have many opinions on the topic and was more than happy to provide both some anecdotes and research.
I hopped out of my Uber and stood in front of 400 Maryland Ave in the muggy DC heat with an emotionless face. In part, because I didn’t know what was happening. In 15 minutes, I was going to be in the room talking with the US Secretary of Education. This would not be the first time interacting with the nation’s top education advisor. I’d both met and corresponded back and forth with Arne Duncan while in office, as well as spent time on US DOE sponsored phone calls with John King. But this was different. This is was Betsy DeVos.
I’ve been an outspoken critic of the Trump administration and even written an article explaining my concerns about Betsy DeVos’ appointment prior to her confirmation. I watched the Senate confirmation hearings and cringed at all the gaffes. Since her installation, I’ve followed intently as she proposed a budget that makes $9 billion worth of detrimental cuts to K-12 education. I watched as she refused to answer whether or not LGBTQ students would be protected from discrimination and planned to scale back activity in the Office of Civil Rights. Among many in education circles, she is perceived as being anti-public school.
Given the context, I’ll admit, part of me was conflicted about the whole thing. I wondered, “Why are we really here? What is the motivation? Does she really want to hear from me? Is this an empty gesture – some attempt to appear responsive to teachers’ needs, while intent on doing nothing?” I wasn’t in the mood for a photo op.
On the other hand, in all fairness, this could really be a sincere effort to gain insight from practitioners who know what it’s like to be in the classroom in order to craft better policy, right? The prospect of the latter was enough for me to include my voice among the number.
There were nine of us, former teachers each with stellar accomplishments, including 2015 National Teacher of the Year Shanna Peeples. We represented a cross section of communities: white, African-American, Asian, Palestinian, & LGBTQ. The irony being that these are some of the same populations most adversely impacted by this administration’s policies. We each spoke our truth candidly but respectfully in the 45 minutes allotted. We answered questions about why we left the classroom, what would have made us stay, and the future of teaching. The answers were almost unanimously lack of equitable pay and a desire to have greater impact on a systems-level in education. Most of us didn’t feel the profession has adapted to the changing times. Without leadership pathways, other than being a teacher or principal, we were left to explore alternatives. Some of us work for think-tanks, have central office roles, became academics, and even do consulting.
Some of us desired more autonomy and support as professionals to attend conferences and develop networks, while others spoke of simply having their growth stifled by inflexible school leaders. We spoke about the opportunities within ESSA to build in teacher leadership positions that can help to satisfy that need for advanced roles, and doesn’t pull talent out of the classroom. At one point, Secretary DeVos paused after hearing one of us speak about having to cover costs for workshops and needing more resources by saying “What I hear you saying is there needs to be better allocation of resources.” This of course was not exactly what was said, but did tell us a bit about how this all was being interpreted.
I decided to take the approach of addressing race in the context of teacher retention by explaining the needs of teachers of color as a group. I referenced the work of Dr. Travis Bristol, which looks specifically at why black male teachers leave. I also mentioned the “invisible tax” (the extra unspoken burdens laid at the feet of black teachers). Additionally, I made it clear that the demographics of the country are changing and the majority of public school children are now of color. This shift is not however reflected in the teaching population, which means students don’t see themselves in a teaching capacity and those that do teach are left on an “island” without community. I implored her that conversations about retention can’t be had without recognizing the role of race.
Midway through the conversation, Secretary DeVos asked for clarity on what we meant when we talked about the desire to make “systemic change”. She kept hearing us say it, but wanted to know what that looked like for teachers. We were talking about teachers being present and given power when decisions are made. I quipped, “Part of the problem is people making policies have never been a teacher or know anything about education.” I wondered how this would go over, as one of the chief criticisms of Secretary DeVos is her absence of experience in the education sector. It was a broader point, but one that had implications for her as well.
As we concluded the meeting, Secretary DeVos closed by thanking all of us for attending and speaking honestly. She assured us that despite the headlines and news coverage of her, that she is an advocate for teachers and that we have an ally in her. She summarized the conversation by saying, “I think what I hear everyone saying is that you want more local control and that’s something I’ll always fight for.” Well…I guess that’s one way of interpreting it although certainly not the inference that I would draw. But a familiar refrain for those advocating for a smaller federal role in education. As we left the room, we shook hands, exchanged pleasantries, and yes, we took a picture. Before departing, my colleagues and I all discussed how we felt it went and what we expected to see. I think we took comfort in showing up to the table when we were requested and knowing we all spoke to our convictions. Still the question remains, was this all for show, or will our feedback lead to the systemic change we all desire to see? That remains to be seen.