Standing on a name card behind the set, microphone in hand, waiting to be announced to go on stage in front of a live and internet streaming audience, I turned to ask the moderator: “I wonder if this is what it is like to go on Meet the Press?”
Recently I was asked to speak at The Atlantic magazine’s 3rd Annual Education Summit and I jumped at the professional learning opportunity. The Summit took place at the beautiful Knight Conference Center atop the Newseum in Washington D.C. on April 11, 2017. The topic I was there to discuss: teaching civics in the age of Trump. What could go wrong?
When I was first asked to participate in an on-stage conversation with a moderator, I was not expecting a great deal. Who would show up for an education summit anyway? I imagined myself on a dark stage with 3-5 people in attendance. When I arrived, however, my mind was blown. I checked in about an hour before I was supposed to speak and was immediately greeted with a fully catered lunch and around 300 or more people (my estimation), diverse in both race and age, all comingling together talking about education! When I asked who all of these people were, I was told there were people representing different aspects of education policy: interest groups, Capitol Hill staffers, representatives of education corporations, etc.
The format of the summit was purposely informal. Two bright white couches on a colorfully decorated dais, one for rotating moderators and the other for invited speakers. Each “conversation” had a different focus on education. My conversation was with Adriana Salcedo from E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. and moderated by Deputy Editor of The Atlantic.com Matt Thompson. We began with a quip about how the government works, or better yet, does not work. With the bright lights, camera, countdown clock and 300 sets of eyes on me, it was go-time.
The main questions posed to me were how I see my role as a teacher in these contentious times and how I deal with controversial issues in my classroom. I tried to make the point that I am sure many of us who have been teaching for years, and certainly those who have gone through the National Board Certification process, can attest to: our jobs have changed! Gone are the days when a teacher who is the “sage on the stage” is revered for his or her knowledge and great teaching. Teaching today is much more interactive and student-centered.
I tried to convey to the audience that I see my job more as a referee or a coach rather than a teacher. A referee cultivates a field where ground rules and expectations are set but lets the players play the game. Teaching Civics is all about opinion and beliefs. Students, therefore, are resources in the classroom; they bring a wealth of information about their own cultures and family beliefs. Teenagers should not be silent subjects that are talked at period after period. Even in racially or socioeconomically homogeneous classrooms, students are going to have different attitudes and opinions on topics. My role as a teacher is not to import my opinions and beliefs on them; it is to get them to understand their own beliefs and provide meaningful and relevant evidence so each student can support their own opinions.
An ideal class period is one in which the students can have an academic conversation that is rich in quality information, critical thinking and original thought. Creating independent thinkers that can back up claims with evidence and analysis should be the goal of education; not whether every single student can correctly answer D on question 34 on page 322 in a textbook.
This is why I think the National Board process was so important for me and has been for so many of my colleagues in the teaching profession. Teachers in the 21st century are committed to, and responsible for, managing their students learning, not simply relaying facts. We are on the cusp of a major pedagogical earthquake. If teachers are truly committed to their students and their learning, they need to empower their students to be active participants in their own education.
It is safe to say that I thoroughly enjoyed my experience at The Atlantic’s Education Summit and appreciated the opportunity to share some insight from a classroom teacher’s perspective. The moderator asked poignant questions in these charged political times and I hope that the audience took something from our conversation. In order to improve our educational system for our students, it is going to take this type of meeting of the minds between the policy makers, educational groups, citizens, AND educators.
And to Chuck Todd, anytime you need me, I will be there! 😉