Not long ago, I met with a fellow education wonk and we talked about the latest happenings in one of the country’s most contentious school-turnaround efforts and whether there’s a tipping point at which adding heavy cream to hot beverages becomes too much of a good thing. It was fun. I always enjoy connecting with and learning from others in education, discussing issues both big and small.
What’s different about this meeting, though, is that the person with whom I was talking and laughing has been vocally critical of my employer as well as “education reformers” in general. Not long ago, in fact, he posted a confidential memo of mine on the internet, accompanied by a blog post that left no question about his opinion regarding the work I do.
To be sure, Ken and I were not likely to be edu-BFFs. But I had been following him on Twitter and often found his posts to be smart, thoughtful and funny. I also noticed that we live in the same city. So I rolled the dice, sending him an email and inviting him to join me for coffee.
I did that even though I wasn’t convinced that it would end well. Increasing cyber-snark combined with a general lack of dialogue in education has left me pretty disheartened:
“They are complete idiots.”
“There’s a special place in hell for them!”
“That bunch of roaches…”
“…a racist… a murderer.”
“…just an evil shrew.”
“They’re a terrorist organization.”
“Slavery isn’t over.”
And that’s not even the worst of it.
Having said that, it seemed worthwhile to explore a real-life conversation and see if we could find common ground. As it turns out, Ken and I agree about far more than we disagree. We also realized that neither of us is — or works for — the devil.
We found that talking face-to-face with someone we perceive as an adversary could do a lot of good in the increasingly toxic world in which we live and work. Abraham Lincoln got it right when he said, “I do not like that man. I must get to know him better.” That doesn’t mean that we will always, or should always, agree. Nor does it mean that to improve the public discourse we need to feed trolls. But in our quest to improve public education for all kids, most of us could connect with far more people than we realize — people who may have a different definition of success or who believe in taking a different path to get there.
We have a tremendous amount of work to do to ensure that all children in America have the excellent education they need and deserve. And while we need to do it quickly — every minute matters in the education and life of a child — we can and should take time to engage in honest debate to improve the quality of our solutions and even our definitions of the problems.
But personal attacks and inflaming the conversation to create superheroes and super-villains is underproductive and overindulgent. It’s a vain distraction from working to improve the life chances of kids who can’t yet read our fiery blog posts or Twitter zingers. It’s harder to build bridges than to burn them. But if we’re serious about creating a truly world-class public education for all, we need to work harder at this. After all, when the elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.
With a new school year underway, now could be the time to set some new-school-year resolutions. And you may already feel like you need an extra cup of coffee. So, the next time you find yourself at a professional gathering or conference, don’t spend the day chatting with the usual suspects during breaks and meals. Instead, just have coffee with someone you don’t normally interact and agree with. Talk with them. See what happens. Use the hashtag #justhavecoffee to share how it goes on social media or write about it on a blog. And encourage others you know in education to do the same.
It might not change the broader conversation. But then again… it might.
Becca Bracy Knight is executive director of The Broad Center.
This was adapted from an earlier post featured on Pass the Chalk.