Monday, April 9, 2012

GEM's Mollie Bruhn Keynote at Connecticut Educators Association

GEMers Mollie Bruhn and Julie Cavanagh were invited to give the keynote at the Connecticut Educators Association on March 31, 2012.

Mollie posted an account of the CEA event (at Mohican Sun, those lucky dogs) on the Real Reform Studio web site which is named: The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman:
Direct link: Connecticut Education Association Hosts a Screening, 3/31/12

The GEM/RRS team at CEA, March 31
I talk about the amazing Julie all the time but have not talked enough about Mollie, an 8th year Teach for America alum who "gets" it. Mollie (on the right in the pic) is one of the smartest, logical and organized people I've met and played a major role in shaping The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman. One day I'll tell the full story but suffice to say, Darren, Julie and I thought we had a roughly completed film in Feb. 2011 after 6 months of work. Lisa Donlan and Mollie got more involved at that point and took a close look from the outside. Lisa brought her years as a parent activist to the project and Mollie brought another teacher voice. She hadn't been working on the film in the initial stage even though Real Reform Studios is in her apartment but then played a major role in restructuring the film and refining the message. We ended up shooting more footage and rewriting portions of the narrative, along with redoing many of the graphics and research presented in the film (one of its strongest aspects.) 

I can't say enough about the collaborative process we went through in creating the film and how that process worked out so well. We are excited to be starting another film about high stakes testing and will keep you posted. Diane Ravitch was kind enough to give me an hour of her time this morning for an interview and Deb Meier gave me an interview last week.

Here is Mollie's full speech to the CEA, a wonderful affirmation of the concept of the importance of a public school system and how charters undermine that concept.
I am very excited to be here today. I want to start by thanking CEA for having us here and for their wonderful support of our film. Before we see a portion of the film (which you will all get a copy of today), I want to tell you a little about myself--how I became interested in teaching, and how I developed a strong belief in the power and importance of our public education system.

I normally spend my days sharing a classroom with 25 loving, curious, needy, energetic and frequently clumsy 5-year olds. So, it is refreshing to be surrounded today by so many adults. I can be confident here that their won't be any bathroom accidents, any tangled laces or any debates over who has the "best" pencil. Speaking to my Kindergarten students is rarely a challenge, as they tend to think everything I say is just amazing. While I don't expect this audience to be as easy to wow, I do hope that you'll carefully consider the critical topics Julie and I want to discuss with you today.

I am a product of public education. Growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska, I attended wonderful public schools from kindergarten through high school. Back then, in the late 80s/early 90s, the educational landscape was relatively simple and easy to navigate. While some families in my community sent their children to private schools, the overwhelming majority stuck with public schools- the public system was well-respected, relatively well-funded and well-run. While I benefited greatly from my public education and worked with many inspirational teachers along the way, I never really contemplated the importance, purpose or relevance of public education in our society.

Then, in 2000 I moved to NYC to attend NYU. Like most college freshman I had no idea what I wanted to study and the idea of even contemplating a career was downright nauseating. But, then I landed a work-study job working as a tutor in a local public school classroom. I had always connected well with children (I'd worked summer jobs at daycares and done a substantial amount of babysitting) but I had never been on the real teaching side of a classroom.

When I began tutoring, I was immediately impressed by the way the classroom teacher commanded the attention of her students. They seemed to be mesmerized with her words and she carried herself with such direction and purpose. I was encouraged by her passion for her work but also saw how demanding and challenging it could be--especially given the diverse group of learners in her classroom. With each visit to her first grade room and with each new interaction with a student, I found myself thinking more and more about moving in a direction that might lead me to be in front of a class one day.

As I continued with my studies I found myself drawn to both philosophy and psychology and, in particular, coursework where we explored the relationship between democracy and education.

I began, for the first time, to really think about public education as a necessary condition for a just, productive and healthy society. Our democracy, as Abraham Lincoln so powerfully put it in 1863, was designed to be a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. And the only way a democracy such as this can function is if the people are prepared to participate. I began to see the public education system as the most important democratic institution in our country. What better way to ensure an informed, active public than to provide free public education to all? I began to study the works of celebrated educators like Paulo Freire, John Dewey, Myles Horton and Deborah Meier and was inspired by their collective commitments to using education as a catalyst for social change. I thought, the classroom--that's where it is. That's where the most important work happens, and I want to be there.

By the time graduation rolled around, I was excited to take all of my academic contemplations and put them to actual use in the real world. So, I began searching for a teaching job. I hadn't actually graduated with a teaching certificate as I had focused my studies in Philosophy, psychology and Urban studies. Thus, I found myself unqualified to work for the NYC DOE, but then I came across some job listings for charter schools. I had heard of charter schools but didn't really understand what they were. I knew they called themselves public schools and accepted students by some sort of open lottery. I naively, but enthusiastically, took an assistant teaching job at a brand new charter school. I hoped that I could contribute to the school's vision, make a sizable impact with the students and eventually move on to be a lead teacher.

Like many charter schools, mine was one with an unfortunately inexperienced administrative team. Our principal had only one year of experience and had never actually worked with our schools young kindergarten and 1st grade population. I expected to have a leader who could mentor and guide me, but I found myself stuck trying to figure things out on my own. I asked tough questions, probed for insights and challenged my colleagues to think critically about our work.

As a new school we had many growing pains. One major school-wide issue was classroom management. As is the case with most groups of kindergarteners, we had a wide range of abilities and school readiness. Some students had a difficult time adjusting to the school routines and our overly long school day (730 am to 5 pm). A few of these students continued to struggle as the months went on, and our administrative team actually advised their families to take their children elsewhere to be educated. While our principal did not overtly “kick” any students out of school—he certainly made it clear that our school would no longer be a good fit for these families. This surprised and disappointed me greatly. The genius of our public education system is that everyone is guaranteed an education—no one can be turned away. But, as I learned, in the charter world, the schools were far from public.

As the year went on, I grew more and more frustrated with the environment around me—the discipline system felt harsh and punitive; the school culture seemed to ignore the social needs of young children and the day was much too long for their young minds. I raised concerns in staff meetings and tried to make the best of my situation. Then, one day, my principal called me into his office and without warning informed, me that I was being let go. Just like that. Fired. I had signed a contract with the school, but, like those of most charter schools, the contract made me an at-will employee, basically giving my employer the right to fire me for any reason at any time. When asked for the reason, I was informed, simply, that I “had asked too many questions.” Since I wasn’t a member of a union, like public school teachers are, I was on my own. I had no recourse, no ability to appeal the decision and no one to reach out to.

Initially, I felt heart-broken. While I hadn’t necessarily been happy at the charter school, I had been putting forth unbelievable effort each and every day. Over time, I realized that my hasty dismissal--however unjust--was actually a blessing in disguise. It allowed me to take a step back and examine what I wanted, which was to work in a real public school where I would have the support and backing of a union and have the opportunity to work in tandem with experienced educators. I went back to school and eventually found myself a job teaching Kindergarten at a public school in the South Bronx.

My first year was incredibly challenging. I wish I could stand up here and give you some magical 3-step, no-fail, secret method for being an effective teacher. But, teaching is an art, and it takes on a different form with each individual teacher. The advice I would give to new teachers--and what helped me the most, is to be:
-patient with yourself
-reflective and honest about your practice
-accepting of where your students are--academically, socially and emotionally.

There are often external pressures telling us where our students "should" be and it is easy to transfer that pressure over to our students. Students will show the most growth when we meet them where they are--when we accept them, understand them and nurture them. Now, in my 8th year as an educator, some of my work has gotten easier. My instincts have improved; I've learned to be more flexible; I've found more and more effective ways of delivering lessons. But, the work and the challenge never ends, and I never cease asking myself what I can do better.

While it took me some time to find my way here, I feel very proud to be a public school teacher. Today the landscape of education is rapidly changing, as many in power seem to have lost sight of the purpose of our public education system. We see politicians promoting charter schools and privatization, talking about "choice" and laying blame on our dedicated teaching force. Now may not be the easiest time to be a public school teacher but perhaps it is one of the most important times. Our public education system needs determined individuals who are willing to honor it, support it and defend it. I commend you all for being a part of it and wish you the best of luck in your careers. Believe every day that our work is important. Remember that we change lives every day. And recognize that what we are doing will help ensure, in the words of Lincoln, that "government of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from this earth."

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