In education, we seem to deal in absolutes far too frequently. Positions are black or white. You are either with us or against us. Friend or foe. Right or wrong. There is far too little gray. And we are far too dismissive of those with different opinions or a different take on the same perspective.
When I was on the front lines of education reform in Connecticut, I used to often say I actually agreed on far more with “enemy” than I disagreed. And I meant it every time. Most of those who commit their days to education and education reform are in it for the same reason — we all want to improve opportunity, learning, and the odds of success for all students. We may disagree on how to measure those improvements or what it means for a particular student or community, but are motives for engagement are quite similar.
Yet we continue to see education as a battle of absolutes. For good or bad, we think more is gained by fraternizing only with those of like mind and by engaging only with those who are drinking from the same pitcher of Kool-Aid.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Some of the most meaningful conversations I have regarding education are with those who hold an “opposite” viewpoint than I do. I always learn a great deal when I speak with AFT President Randi Weingarten. I am always forced to think about urban education in new ways after a discussion or email exchange with Oklahoma City teacher and blogger John Thompson. And I am constantly amazed with what I learn about what really happens in the classroom when talking with my mother, a (now retired) terrific high school English teacher and passionate NEA member.
So I was absolutely thrilled when I read of a new education challenge from Becca Bracy Knight, the executive director of the Broad Center. It seems Becca and I are of similar mind in understanding the value (and the potential power) of engaging with all corners of the discussion and looking for those areas of commonality or those opportunities to construct a new bridge.
As Bracy Knight recently wrote:
I need your help with a maybe dumb idea that could also maybe make a difference.
Earlier this week I met up with someone for coffee and we talked about the latest happenings in Newark, education policy, and the slippery slope of putting heavy cream into hot beverages. It was fun – I like connecting with other people in education and talking about big and small issues. What might surprise you is that the person I was talking and laughing with has been publicly critical of The Broad Foundation and “ed reformers” and was involved in a process that resulted in a confidential memo I wrote to board members ending up on the internet. So, yeah, Ken Libby was an unlikely edu-BFF for me. But I was following him on twitter, saw that he made a lot of really good points, had a sense of humor, and lived in my city. I emailed him and asked if he wanted to meet for coffee. I admit I was a little worried this might not go well, but I figured it was worth a shot. I was getting sick of the increasing cyber-snarkiness and general lack of dialogue among people in education and wanted to have some human interaction and perhaps even find some common ground. Turns out we agree about a lot more than we disagree about. And we have confirmed that neither of us is or works for the devil. Phew.
We both agreed that the simple act of more people actually talking in person one-on-one with someone they see as being on an opposing side or someone they assume they disagree about everything with or someone critical of their work would do a lot of good in an increasingly toxic environment in education. Personal attacks, dragging people’s families into the debate, refusing to open your mind even a little to an alternative viewpoint, refusing to acknowledge that you or your organization ever makes mistakes – all of that is inhumane and ineffective.
We want to start an informal campaign to encourage anyone working in education to meet up with 3 people they do not normally talk with, see as allies, or even agree with. Just go out for coffee with 3 different people. Talk with them. See what happens. If you feel like it, share how it goes. It might not change the world, but then again…it might.
I’m writing to you since you are someone I know and respect — and someone who other people in education respect and listen to. If you and everyone else who is getting this email does this and writes/posts/tweets about it, we can get a lot more people on board! While this is not a formal thing, we do have two things that might help it spread – a hashtag and a tumblr account: #justhavecoffee and justhavecoffee.tumblr.com (which I’ll put some other thoughts on as soon as I figure out how to use tumblr).
What do you think – good idea? dumb idea? Will you try it? #justhavecoffee
If you’re in, please share the idea with folks in your network and maybe 2014 can be a better year for everyone.
P.S. As Ken pointed out, some people may be so isolated in their respective “camps” that they don’t actually know people to just have coffee with. We’re playing around with the idea of using the tumblr site or some other way to actually help match people up who want to broaden their circles. In the meantime, if you’re fired up for coffee but don’t know anyone to ask, email us and we’ll try to help from our networks.
What do you think? Will you join with Bracy Knight and Libby and others who are committed to #justhavecoffee? Can we make this more than just an informal thing, and actually look for ways to build some of those bridges and encourage meaningful discussion and collaboration in the pursuit of improve student performance and learning?
This post originally appeared on Eduflack on February 14, 2014.