November 7, 2013

I Am Whatever You Say I Am...

NOTE: I took the month of October off to finish my dissertation.  I hope everyone understands.  It is now in completed draft form and awaiting revisions and edits. Thanks for your support...

Part I:

In the past month, I have been continually challenged about my "credentials" or background to speak on public education, Philadelphia and pretty much everything else relating to public policy, education reform and education policy. This is the first, and last Blog post I will write to finally address the naysayers who think I'm a drive-by educator, have no business talking about these issues and/or worse. 

Let me begin with the personal and then get to the political.  I was born into an education family.  
 Being raised by a single mother who earned her PhD while little 5-7 year old me wanted to go out and play, go to the movies, to Red Sox games (we lived in Cambridge, MA at the time) and the like must have been difficult. I can only imagine how difficult it was being away from our family.  After my recent experiences, I know how hard it is to grind out a dissertation with multiple distractions.  However, my experiences pale in comparison to the experiences of a typewriter using, single Black mother from Chicago, away from her family and friends in the equally segregated Boston area in the mid-1970s. 

My first two years of formal schooling (I spend several years in pre-school in one of the best nursery schools on the South Side of Chicago) were spent at a public school in Cambridge, MA.  Upon returning to Boston recently to present at the Eastern Sociological Conference, I drove by the school and saw it to be much smaller than remembered, but still at the forefront of educational excellence.  The building today is home to several clusters of classes, is a Montessori school and continues to pursue educational excellence for the children of Cambridge, MA.

 I have a profound respect for my teachers who saw in me a student who came to school with many of the tools necessary to succeed.  I could read, write and express myself (imagine that) above grade level.  Rather than assign me work that I already knew, my teachers pushed me to the next level.  For example, rather than continue to read silently alone, they recommended I go next door to the Kindergarten classroom to read to them out loud, which of course helped me advance my reading ability further.  They also pushed me in the other disciplines, but I especially remember them pushing me towards things I was interested in - history, sports, numbers (not necessarily math)  and reading.  I knew the history of the Red Sox, White Sox, Jackie Robinson and the Negro Leagues from doing research and book projects well beyond what any 5-6 year old should know. These public school teachers were my 3rd wave of role models in education and the foundation they help build, with the help of my mom and my nursery school serve as invaluable lessons to me to this day.

I said all of that because I want it to be clear.  My first years of formalized schooling were in the public setting, and my mom, godmother, godfather, and numerous family members and family friends were all a part of the Chicago Public School System from the 1960s through the 1990s.  Even today I have many friends who are still educators (both public and independent school) in Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Philadelphia and elsewhere.  I get it.  Public schools are the lifeblood of the existence of the middle class and of upward mobility in this country.  Of course there are structural and historical barriers to that success, but those complicated issues are for another day. 

Fast forward to 1995. 

After graduating college with a political science degree and minor in philosophy, I moved to DC in January of 1993.  After some time interning on Capitol Hill and working for a non-profit as a Research Assistant, I decided to part ways with the non-profit I worked for.  I was at a crossroads in Washington DC.  To me I had three options - I could either know somebody and use nepotism to advance my political career, go to grad school (which at the time for me was law school), or move back to Chicago.  What ended up immediately happening in 1995 was neither.  A year later, I did eventually move back to Chicago, but first I was hired to be a Faculty Advisor (FA) for a conference that brought in high achieving students (3.6 GPA or higher) from around the country to experience DC through simulations on the 3 branches, Embassy visits, trips to Capitol Hill to meet their Members (or staff) and a Model Congress held in one of the office buildings of the US Capitol. 

It was during those 8 weeks of intense 6 day conference sessions that others realized I had the "gift" of teaching.  In my mind, I still had plans for law school, and never intended to get into what I describe education to be, the "family business."  Several mentors (fellow FAs) kept insisting that I should get an education degree, and that I should forgo law school.  They explained that I connected with the students in a way that was indicative of a deeper level of teaching ability beyond just a week long intensive 8-week conference.  I pushed back that it was just dumb luck, stupid jokes and the fact that I was 7 years or so older than most of the participants and was part of their generation.  I ended up doing that conference 3 different 8-week cycles.  Each time I had the same rapport with the students, same high marks from the leadership of the organization and same ability to get the information to the students in a humorous, but straightforward manner.  I went home to Chicago with an experience in education I thought would help me in law school, and one that gave me a greater understanding of politics, but not one that would change my career trajectory or life's mission.

In 1996 I was fortunate enough to work for the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.  It was a political and professional goal I had ever since I entered politics.  If the Convention EVER returned to Chicago (after the 1968 debacle) I wanted to be there.  What I thought was going to be the pinnacle of my political career ended up being my swan song.  Shortly after the Convention ended, I had the opportunity to interview at a very prestigious public relations firm on the 40+ floor of an immaculate North Michigan Avenue building. 

During the interview, the Senior Account Executive who was interviewing me asked me about my background and professional experience.  I spoke of spending time in DC on Capitol Hill and the non-profit doing advocacy work for women and children.  I spoke of the most recent experience with the DNC and the great time I had there.  Finally, she asked me what I did in the interim between those two gigs.  I told her of my experiences at the Conference for high school students.  After what seemed like a few minutes, she sat back in her chair and said that I'd make an excellent Account Executive and that I would do a great job for the firm.  Of course I smiled.  She then said something that changed my life.  She said that when I spoke about the Conference, my eyes lit up and that the passion and specificity in which I described the experience made her feel that I would be doing myself a disservice if I didn't try to enter the education field.  She said to think about it and get back to her.
As I was going down the elevator, I was torn...Did I just get a job, or was that the nicest rejection ever? After talking about it to a few people, of course my mom included, I decided to take the Senior Account Executive’s advice.  I went down to the Chicago Public Schools main district offices which were still on Pershing Road.  After a few hours trying to navigate that dark, confusing, bureaucratic maze, I came away with the forms to become a substitute teacher.  However, I had more questions than answers.  The whole experience left me cold, isolated and confused.  At this time I also applied at several independent schools and a newly opened charter school on the northside.   After a glowing interview, I immediately began subbing at the charter and was eventually hired at one of the independent schools to serve as the Community Learning Program Assistant.  I was well on my way to becoming an educator...

Next week: Part 2 of my journey to PhD...

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