Teaching and Leading While Black (On My Visit To The White House)

Arne Duncan

Arne Duncan

Nancy Flanagan’s recent post on teacher leadership finally gave me the push to dive into my experience in Washington, D.C., where Dr. Jill Biden and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hosted us.

The function was part of the White House’s new initiative, White House Social, a series of events for people who engage with the White House on social media. Of course, my social media presence helped a bit in their decision, despite my obviously socialist points of view (are they obvious?) and outwardly passionate demeanor. Anyone who’s read my work knows what I’m about, so I was curious when I got the invite, and accepted immediately.

Even though I slept about three hours between my book release after-party on Tuesday and hoping on the 5:30am train the next morning, I felt I had to be there. Admittedly, I understood that I wouldn’t just be representing myself, but the 2-3% of the male teachers of color in the nation, and I took that responsibility super-seriously. Representing the hundreds of us isn’t a burden / opportunity that I needed to take on, but, as with most things, I knew better than to listen and not engage in substantive policy talk.

After a quick tour of the White House (and an even briefer appearance by the President as he jumped on a helicopter to Arkansas to observe the tornado relief efforts), we were asked to meet in VP Joe Biden’s office. The rustic feel of the office felt super-comfortable. A few of us sat in his seat. When it was my turn, I engaged the other reasons from his seat.

It was all fun and games until I noticed everyone stand up. I didn’t know what was going on. Then I heard, “It’s cool. Stay right there.” It was Arne Duncan. We shook hands, and I said, “Well, we have a person of color at the president’s seat. It looks like we could use one at the VP desk, too.” He smiled and nodded to it.

After he sat, one of our hosts read off stats about the current state of US education. Rising graduation rates, Common Core, and the elevation of early childhood education were the key points of success. In my mind, I also started to go over the list of failures on the part of his administration: the inflation in class size, the thousands of school closures and teacher layoffs, the over-emphasis on testing and the capitulation of the department’s agenda to wealthy education reformers. But I preferred to hear him out, because I’m a classy guy.

Rather than ask him about things I knew (and that he’d duck), I asked him about the RESPECT initiative and the lack of diversity amongst educators, and how we can improve that. His answers:

  1. The department still goes through its daily proceedings with the RESPECT initiative in mind. Because of politics, they can’t get around to raising teachers’ pay across the nation, but they’re also trying to find ways to raise the prestige of the profession, too. He noted that, in other countries, they don’t pay significantly higher than in the US, but in high performing countries, only 1 in 10 teaching candidates get chosen for the classroom.
  2. This was a frustrating issue for him. There are some initiatives like TEACH.org and others he highlighted that are trying to attract teachers of color, but it’s just a start. Also, he noted that there have been plenty of complaints about different programs and routes for recruiting teachers from different cultural backgrounds (assuming he’s talking about TFA), but there hasn’t been any one program that stands out more than any other.

He seemed a little more candid than usual, and responded to dissent by nodding and moving on. As I expected. After his Q&A and photo op with us (I quipped on Twitter how it was his honor to meet us), he made a quick comment to me about the need for more of me. I replied, “If you’re down, so am I.”

After a photo op and lunch with Dr. Jill Biden, I had a quick thought about the teachers I saw around. Despite their politics and vehement disagreements, they’re still teachers. As is always my stance, I would never judge a teacher for not using my tactics, not having my level of followers, or any of those other arbitrary measures to determine whether they’re “real.” I prefer to see them in the classroom, or at least have a conversation around pedagogy in their specific contexts.

I much prefer a great teacher who may not engage in political debates than a weak-and-not-trying-to-get-better teacher who voices a political opinion I agree with. The best politics in education is making sure our kids are learning. All this other stuff we do is secondary.

The other power in that room was knowing that there were teachers ready to lead the charge on this effort, not in the form of certificates, badges, and medals, but substantive decision-making and designing. If Duncan, etc. were truly invested in listening to our suggestions (and not simply through pre-determined venues) remains to be seen.

Even though he has about five inches on me, it felt good to meet Secretary Duncan eye-to-eye, not in deference, but as equal in importance. That’s the type of respect we ought to fight for.