I had a lot of reasons to stay away from this year's Network for Public Education conference in Raleigh, and up until the last minute I thought I wasn't going. Finances, family stuff, social anxiety, time off, general work stress, concerns about the venue-- all that and a few other things made me balk.
I'm certainly not unique. Lots of folks have lots of reasons not to attend a conference, some of them damn good reasons. But in the end, I went. And I'm glad I did.
Here are some of the reasons why.
* Ten hours in the car with my wife, both ways. My wife is my best friend, and we travel well together. It's always a treat, and last weekend it made a nice break for us to sit down in the same place for a while.
* Bonus student reunion. Because we are facebook friends, one of my former students received a facebook alert that I was in her town. I got to see her for the first time in seventeen years, meet her husband and some of her friends. Of the six, three were former North Carolina teachers, so I got offer condolences to some of the people that NC has driven out of the profession.
* Hearing Reverend Barber. The man has a voice, and he has something to say. He put the struggles of education and race and building a better, more just society in context, and with clarity.
* Listening to Tammie Vinson, Margo Murray, and Patricia Boughton from Chicago make a bit more clear how, on the ground, black teachers are being pushed from the profession. Also, learned a terrible thing I did not know-- that CPS had a history of extending tenure only to white teachers.
* Watching Jennifer Berkshire and Peter Cunningham do their thing.
But mostly it was the people. Seeing people that I'd first met last year, and meeting more people that I hadn't had the chance to talk or meet to before. The conference is remarkably plain and simple, and leaders Diane Ravitch, Anthony Cody and Carol Burris set a tone that is warm and open. Ravitch is a hugely important figure to the movement, nationally known, respected and recognized, and yet she spent the weekend looking like she was just hanging out, casual and approachable and so constantly surrounded by people who want to talk to her. One of the lessons that both conferences have underlined for me is that you don't have to posture and put on a big show when you are talking about what you truly at your core believe.
The value of a conference like this is that it reminds you that you're not alone, that you are not the only person who sees what's happening. That mutual support, that building of a national network of people who share a concern and passion for public education. Their interests may not align perfectly, but that for me is one of the beauties of the pro-public ed movement-- I am automatically suspicious of any movement that demands we all be on the same exact page.
Ed reform is barely covered in the press, and coverage is often simply reprinting press releases or presenting unquestioned comments from the reformster side. We could lean just on the blogs and articles that we read and continue to pass them along, but to see the actuals live and in person, to hear their voices, to ask the questions and hear the response is all so valuable (almost in the same way that a live teacher is more effective than education by computer screen).
And while it would be a mistake to just keep preaching to the choir, it's good to spend some time with the choir, to know that we're sharing the same music, to be reminded of just how the song goes before we go back out into a world where other clangorous tones fill the air. My thanks to the leaders, organizers and funders of the conference. For me it has meant renewed focus and energy, and I'm grateful.