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Everything That is Right With Public Education

Monday night, I tweeted:

SLazarOtC: The last time I cried was 9/11. Ending a day of teaching by coming to #educationnation panel on Good Apples brought me close. What a waste.

On Tuesday night, the tears did come, but they were tears of joy, triumph, and pride. I could not have hoped for a better catharsis following my experience at NBC’s Education Nation.

That night, my school held an event that I’ve never heard of happening anywhere else: a graduation ceremony for the 10 students who did not graduate on time with their classmates in June, but finished up over the summer. It was obviously an emotional night for the students and their families, but it also served a direct rebuttal against nearly every critique I heard of unionized urban public education at Education Nation over the previous few days.

A small group of us who had been teachers and advisers to the Class of 2010 organized the event on our own independent of the administration. We were supported by other staff at the school. We reserved a small room, made numerous calls to the students and their families, and reached out to some of our June graduates who are in local colleges to help fill out the audience. The school provided food for dinner.

Having been the teacher to work with all of the students who needed credits over the summer, as well as preparing them for the U.S., Global, and English Regents exams in August, I was filled with pride the moment I saw my students in their caps and gowns. I was most proud of my two advisees, both students that many schools would have given up on long ago.

I emceed a small ceremony for the students, filled with pomp and circumstance, but highlighted by the speech of one of my colleagues, Michael Waelter. Michael was the person most responsible for making sure this event happened, and it hit a lot of emotional notes for him. Each of the three classes my school has graduated had a teacher who most cared and advocated for that class. This class has belonged to Michael since he taught them global history in ninth grade. His speech — centered around the refrain “You are better than me” — talked about his own experience not graduating high school on time 30 years ago, and how he was too proud to take the opportunity to finish that following summer. He talked about how much more impressive it is for students who have failed, but continue to strive towards their goals regardless.

After the speech, we each presented our advisees the diplomas we had worked over four years to help them earn. We then opened the microphone for anyone to speak. Students thanked us for never giving up on them despite their faults and mistakes. Family members thanked us for all the phone calls and support. And we teachers thanked the students for inspiring us.

As I got up to close the ceremony and move us towards dinner, all the emotion of the past few days and months hit me head on. Before I even started talking, tears were streaming down my face (meeting with gasps from my colleagues and students who have never seen me loose my temper, let alone cry), and then I spoke to the room:

I have spent the past few days down at NBC for their Education Nation summit listening to so-called education “experts” talking about everything that is wrong with public education in this country. I wish they could all be here with us tonight, because everything that is right with public education is in this room right now. It starts with the parents and families who bring their children into the world and support them in the best way they know how. None of this happens without you, and it is ridiculous that NBC did not include parent voices in the summit. Then you pass your children onto us, their teachers. I couldn’t be more proud to be standing up here with these fellow teachers, who give everything they have to make sure our students learn, mature, and succeed. We have all worked so hard for you [students] the past four years, and are so proud to see you graduate today.

But most important, what is right about public education is the ten of you graduating today. Your path wasn’t easy, but you never gave up. We are so proud to see you here today. You are the reason we work so hard, why we do what we do, and why we put up with the crap our profession has heaped on us. We love you, and can’t wait to see what you do next. Congratulations.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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