Uncomfortable Conversations

By Ben Walker, 2018 Alaska State Teacher of the Year

Remarks during the AASB 65th Annual Conference Saturday Luncheon.

I want to start by thanking all the students here today. If you are a student, please stand. Student voice in education is the most important voice in education. Remember that and never stop using it.

So just to warn you, I spent a lot of time thinking about what to say here today with all of you. You are all in positions of great power and have the ability to shape lives with the decisions you make, the words you speak, and the actions you take. I take that very seriously. So I want you to know, that if you are expecting an inspirational speech about how great education is – this is not that speech. If you are expecting a speech where I tell you some stories about other Teachers of the Year that you can take back to your district, this is not that speech. There is not a single Space Camp picture or metaphor in this speech. But if you want to truly think about the big problems at the root of student success in our public education system, my hope is that this is that speech.

I am going to start with a brief story. Last summer I was sitting in a meeting with the Governor, Governor Walker, here in Anchorage. We were at the Atwood Building not too far from here, up on the 12th floor. So I’m sitting there looking out at the Chugach and talking about education here in Alaska. We talked about the Education Challenge and some of the good things coming from that. We discussed our children’s school experiences. His kids actually went to the school where I teach, so we talked about that. As I started to discuss all the things I’ve done this year as Teacher of the Year and how many different ideas I’ve gotten from other states, he got really interested in how these ideas could be adapted here to better education in Alaska. And when I was done, he asked me, “Why don’t we use our State Teachers of the Year more?” I thought about one of those non-answer answers, you know. What could I say to let him off the hook? “Well, people are busy… budgets are tight…” but that wasn’t the truth. So I looked at him, and his department of education paid for me to go to Google and Space Camp and the White House, mind you, and said, “Because nobody asks. Because nobody thinks to ask teachers.”

And this, this, is the biggest problem in the attempt to redefine education, whether it’s here in Alaska or nationwide. The inclusion of the expertise of teachers and students. And for me, teachers has a broader meaning. Classroom teachers, counselors, nurses, support professionals – the people in our schools every day. These are the only two ingredients that education really needs, actually. Students and teachers. Yet neither are fairly represented at the table and are usually entirely left out. There are over 8,000 experts on teaching and learning in our communities throughout Alaska with hundreds of thousands of hours of education and experience on any educational subject you could imagine. These include new teachers as well, for they are often the ones with the most innovative ideas when it comes to helping our students grow.

We have to get over the idea you need “war” experience to be able to contribute to the conversation. We also have to stop referring to education as “war” or “the trenches” or any other military metaphors, but that’s a whole other speech. The problem is we continue to spend what limited money we have to bring in Outside experts. This has got to stop. Additionally, we have over 130,000 young experts on learning in our classrooms. Experts from all different backgrounds and abilities. Yes, students. Students are experts on learning and should be invited to the table. When was the last time a committee, of almost any kind, at the district level, or even the school level, had a respectful representation of student voice? We may throw a bone once in a while, but it is rarely, if ever, a true sampling of student voice. Why isn’t Tanis up here speaking? Why isn’t she facilitating a session on student empowerment and voice?

There is nothing wrong with public education that can’t be fixed by what is right with public education. And this will not and cannot be done by so-called experts and programs making millions off school districts nationwide. This infestation of the parasites of the educational-industrial complex in public education is draining our limited budgets with no real benefit to our kids. As a society, we must prioritize people over programs and classrooms over consultants. That starts with tapping into the expertise of educators and students throughout our great state. And it also includes being critical gatekeepers of funding when looking at giving millions for new programs or to hire consultants. The first things asked should be “Can we find our own people to do this? Where are OUR experts on this?” Every dollar given to the educational industrial complex for consulting, testing, or programs, is a dollar taken away from students and teachers.

Now, this discussion may make some of you uncomfortable. And it should. That’s the reason I’m here, to agitate a little and get you thinking. Speak truth to power. Which brings me to my next point. As people in positions of power, whether it’s because we have power over students or power over districts, we have to be comfortable discussing the uncomfortable. We have to be comfortable, discussing the uncomfortable. We seldom, if ever, truly discuss the heart of many of our problems in education or if we do, we use code words or speak around the issue, not about it, so we don’t make people uncomfortable. But we cannot grow if we are not willing to be uncomfortable. And that takes the courage of our leaders to promote and guide those conversations.

So what kind of questions should be we asking and what kind of conversations should we be having? These often vary in specifics from area to area, but many fall under a few big categories.

First. Bias. Namely systemic bias, both implicit and explicit. And the data supports this. This seems like a data crowd. If you are a student of color in Alaska, whether it’s African American, Pacific Islander, Hispanic, Alaska Native, Asian, you are more likely to not graduate, more likely to be suspended, and more likely to be achieving below grade level. That’s a problem. You’re also less likely to be identified for gifted services or be place in advanced classes. And we don’t talk about that in any meaningful way, because it makes us uncomfortable. Why? Because it has to do with race. Race is one of the biggest issues in education today, yet we continue to speak around it, instead of about it. Our system is biased and it’s biased against students of color, students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, students who are English Language Learners, and students with disabilities. And especially biased against any combination of those. We have rampant bias in our curricula, in our standardized tests, and in our teacher preparation, hiring, and evaluation systems. We have to have open and honest discussions about this and that involves getting comfortable being uncomfortable. But we cannot change, cannot grow, cannot improve for the betterment of ALL students, unless we, as people of power, take the initiative to lead these conversations.

This gets me to the second issue we don’t address directly, which is the diversification of the teacher pipeline. We have students in our state who will go from kindergarten to graduation and never have a teacher that looks like them. That is a problem and it needs to be addressed. We must actively work to train, hire, and recruit more diverse teachers, both urban and rural. By the time a kid finishes public school in Alaska, they should have had a teacher from every background and ethnicity imaginable. Teachers and schools are a student’s entrance to the global world and need to reflect their students. And yes, there are successes here, I think of St. Mary’s and the wonderful work they’ve done as a community to promote local teachers. But we have a long way to go for ALL Alaskan kids to be reflected in their teachers. A big part of this is the attraction and retention of high-quality teachers in Alaska. And again, we don’t have the discussions we need to have. The Alaska retirement system for new teachers is decimating the public education system in our state and our leaders, including school boards and administrations, need to make this their number one priority for teacher attraction and retention. We are last in the nation for retirement for teachers and lose $20 million a year, A YEAR, on teacher turnover. This is a big problem. We have hundreds of unfilled positions in our state and that is no coincidence.

I’m currently 42. I have 13 years in Anchorage. I’m probably going to leave within the next two years as I can take my money with me and still get in 20 years somewhere with a better benefit and health care plan for retirement. And my wife, also an award-winning teacher, and our two elementary students as well. This is a real conversation that hundreds of teachers hired after 2006 are currently having. Districts in our state are getting money back because teachers are leaving before five years. People are giving up money rather than stay and teach in Alaska because they know it’s not worth it for retirement.

And finally, tied together with bias and the teacher pipeline, is equity. We have to truly address our problem of equity. Not every student is getting what they need in our state, partially due to what I’ve already mentioned, but also due to the over-rampant standardization of everything from curriculum to mandated teacher trainings to character education programs. We are standardizing what can’t be standardized. We are spending millions on scripted and canned programs aimed at building personal relationships with an increasingly diverse student body. Does nobody else see the madness in that? We are so worried about equality that we are not holding up to the promise of equity. One size fits all most often means nobody gets what they need.

I’m not sure if you’ve ever seen the show Justin Time on Netflix. I have kids, so I get the distinct pleasure of watching cartoons. The cartoon where the kid goes back in time and learns to solve problems in his own time? So in one episode, they go back to the time of dinosaurs and become friends with Rexie, a huge Tyrannosaurus Rex. Being friendly, they start to play games with Rexie. But because Rexie is a dinosaur, it doesn’t work too well. She can’t play hide and seek because she’s so big. She can’t play mini-golf because she hits the ball too far. She can’t play tag because she’s too fast for the other kids. So after trying all these games with Rexie, the kids were getting frustrated with her. Justin finally says, “It’s not Rexie who’s the problem, it’s the rules of the game. We need to change the rules so that Rexie can play!” We have to change the rules so that everyone can play. We have to be comfortable doing the uncomfortable so everyone can play. We have to identify, address, and eliminate bias to so everyone can play. We have to diversify the teacher workforce so everyone can play.

I’ll conclude with what I’m most passionate about, students. I feel optimistic about the future. I do. And I’ll tell you why. Because I spend all day with kids. I have the absolute pleasure to spend all day with kids who understand their own biases and work, actively work, to address them and have no problem discussing them with me and each other. Who know the outsized role of race in our world and work, actively work, to alleviate it, and have no problem discussing this. Who understand the importance of seeing yourself reflected in people of power and who work, and vote, to help fix that. And kids who understand that not everybody needs the same thing and we have to change the rules so everyone can play. Kids who take to the streets when their classmates are shot in school because adults won’t do anything meaningful. Kids who sue the federal government over climate change because adults won’t do anything meaningful. Don’t talk to me about “this generation.” I am excited about “this generation.” I am excited about these kids taking care of me when I am old. And I implore you to get into classrooms and work with these kids as much as possible. Especially if you’re feeling down. They are the cure for everything.

I hope you enjoy the rest of your time and please feel free to contact me. I’d love for us to have those uncomfortable conversations together. Thank you.

# # #

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Association of Alaska School Boards. AASB welcomes diverse perspectives and civil discourse. To submit a Guest Column for consideration, see our Guest Column Guidelines and email your 400-1000 word submission HERE.