School Talk

Reformers Must Speak Up

Wrong is wrong. And it’s high time that people in the education space coalesce around the belief that good and bad things happen in all kinds of schools and that we have an obligation to be agnostic about school governance models when it comes to speaking up boldly for children.

The recent New York Times story about a video of a teacher at Success Academy speaking harshly to a young student, ripping up her paper in front of the whole class, and sending her away from the circle to a “calm down chair” has forced all of us to struggle, at least internally, with how and when to use our voices and platforms to call out wrongdoing that impacts children in classrooms.

Many charter supporters appear wary of speaking out. Perhaps we feel certain that any criticism of a charter school will inevitably lead to more generalized smears instead of targeted and honest conversation about the incident and school in question. And based on experience, we’d be right about that.

Perhaps we worry that by speaking out, we are disrespecting the many thousands of families on the waitlist for the very school where the video was taken, parents who continue to stand by the teacher in question and the school after having watched the video. It’s logical to feel that a public critique could seem like a knock against school choice and parents’ right to choose the environment they like best for their children. And our belief in school choice is so fundamental to who we are and what we support that we worry about doing anything that could undermine it.

We all know it’s common for words to be taken out of context and used to mischaracterize people later. Maybe we worry about that. Or maybe we are supporters and admirers of SA’s Executive Director, Eva Moskowitz, and feel that by denouncing the video, we are somehow being disloyal to her and all that she, her staff, and her students have achieved.

It doesn’t matter what the reason is that we don’t speak up because we have an obligation to do it anyway. We can’t claim to be in this work for the kids if we don’t stand up for them when they are disrespected or mistreated.  At least not with a shred of integrity. We can’t talk behind the scenes with colleagues and friends about how horrible the video is and what we’d do if that was OUR kid only to then pretend publicly that we are okay with it or, perhaps, worse, that it didn’t even happen.

And we also owe it to the many successful charter schools that look nothing like Success Academy but continue to be unfairly associated with them, with charges being leveled at them based on what people are reading in the New York Times about schools that are in some cases, thousands of miles away.

No one is under any obligation to call for the teacher’s dismissal if we don’t believe she should have been dismissed. All of us are right in saying that we only saw seventy six seconds, we don’t know the context, we don’t know the teacher, we don’t know anything about the relationship between the teacher and student. We aren’t experts on anything that happened and shouldn’t pretend to be.

But we are protectors of children who claim to be working towards great schools, strong teaching, and confident kids. And we must look through those lenses when we see examples of something that we know isn’t right.

The teacher in the video probably isn’t as unique in her transgression as most people think except for the fact that she was filmed and the footage was sent to the New York Times. Teachers lose their cool all the time, trying to make a situation about a student when it’s really about them. I’d imagine anyone who has ever taught, self included, would acknowledge times they’ve erred badly in how they responded to a particular situation.

But if this is a pattern, as the article suggests, it seems important that we think deeply about where we draw the line between no excuses, tough love, and emotional trauma. That line will not remotely be in the same place for everyone–that’s why Montessori and military schools both exist, and why some parents rush to their children when they fall off the jungle gym while others sit back and let them get back up on their own. But there has to be some common ground about when the line has been crossed.

When Supreme Court Justice Stewart Potter, in 1964, famously said “but I know it when I see it” in reference to pornography, he was really talking about things that we know to be true in our gut.

No one can define the right way to interact with children because there isn’t one. There are many. But we do know when something doesn’t feel right and the video from Success Academy doesn’t feel right. On the contrary, it feels wrong.  And everyone with a platform about education and kids should be brave enough to come out and say so.

What do you think?

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