“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Maya Angelou
“They are going to kill me……….I can’t breathe……please.” George Floyd
“How long can Black people love this country when it doesn’t love us back”. Doc Rivers, Buck’s coach
The historical inquiry about my country and my family has created a new lens I hope I can use to better understand what is happening around me. But I don’t want to stop at understanding. I want to “do better”. The murder of George Floyd, a Black man, happened in the middle of a global pandemic and crippled economy. The disproportionate effects of these conditions on people of color has created great suffering and few of us have been spared from the sorrow. We must continue to do the hard work of exploring the nation’s past and our own pasts, if we want to create a new future that is more equitable and inclusive.
I am a recovering school superintendent. I retired four years ago after a 34 year career in education that culminated in a nine year stint as a superintendent. Thus, began the second half of my life and I am convinced this can be a period of transformation. But I must be willing to work hard at understanding the deep patterns in the first half. Richard Rohr, a Catholic mystic, writer, and philosopher calls this process, “falling upward”. We go down, we may even suffer in doing that, but we are able to go upward again. We can explore new ways of being in relationship with the world as well as new solutions, and new dreams.
Eddie Glaude, Jr described this time in our country as an “after time”. We are experiencing great upheaval, a great fall. As a nation we have an opportunity to “fall upward”, to take this opportunity for transformation. I am not a historian, a medical professional, or a politician. I am an educator. How might a second half of life transformation happen within the context of the world I know best- public schools?
Earlier in my blog posts, I introduced the framework of a ladder to represent systemic racism. This ladder exists within all the institutions that hold up our nation.
Most every school district I know has a vision statement. I have led many groups in creating these descriptions of an ideal state. I imagine that these words could describe the ideal conditions on the ladder, and how those experiences impact the lives of the teachers and students on it. Here is part of one vision:
“Students will be highly engaged in the learning process and see the relevance of their educational experience to the rest of their lives. Educators will have a deep understanding of what students should know and be able to do. They will be designers of differentiated, relevant and rigorous work and active members of thriving professional learning communities. The culture of the organization will not allow failure to be an option for students, and the school system will be the strongest equalizer in the county. Regardless of economic status, ethnicity, or cultural background, all students will receive the opportunities necessary for their success in life.”
I would suggest that all schools and school systems would want this to be a result of their hard work. Teachers and leaders want school experiences to open doors to “good lives” for all their kids. They do not lie awake at night and dream up racist behaviors that they can unleash the next day. The problem is that all those good intentions do not result in open doors for a disproportionate number of Black and Brown boys and girls. We see that clearly in all kinds of health and wealth statistics. We see it clearly in our school data. We see it, we see it, we see it.
Maya Angelou tells us, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Seeing the results in data and statistics is not the same as knowing what it means. Knowing comes from being involved in the stories and with the people behind the data. Seeing is a clinical exercise, but knowing creates discomfort and disturbance. We cannot do better until we know better. Then doing better will take courageous leadership, courageous followership and effective strategies.
In the days ahead, I will try to connect historical inquiry, my personal journey, the literature of Black writers, and what I know about public schools. In my second half of life, I want to give whatever hope I can to students, families, and the educators who care about them. We can know better and we must do better.