Friday, July 22, 2022

United In Struggle

Teacher Jesse Hagopian had no choice but to become an activist. As he tells his story at the upcoming Teacher Tom's Play Summit, he arrived at school on a Monday morning to find his Washington, DC classroom flooded and his students' projects, ones they had been working on for weeks, destroyed. The cause had been a simple rainstorm and a hole in the ceiling that he had been trying get repaired for months.

It was the era of 9/11 and military mobilization. As our government found billions to spend on unnecessary war, there was nothing in the budget to fix his classroom ceiling. As he tells it, the injustice of it made him understand that if he was going to truly serve children and their families, he had no choice but to stand up and, in his words, "struggle."

Jesse's conversation is riddled with the word struggle. For instance, when he talks about the fight against high stakes standardized testing in Seattle's public schools, he says it was "the scariest and most joyous struggle" with which he's ever been involved. It was scary because he and his colleagues were threatened with punishment and termination. It was joyous because "teachers, parents, and students linked arms" to work together.

I was in Seattle in 2013 during that struggle against what is called the MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) test. The teachers at Garfield High School were fed up with the testing regimen that had come to dominate school life. "We found that the average Seattle public school student was taking an average of 112 high stakes standardized tests during their K-12 career," says Jesse. High stakes testing had come to dominate the lives of both teachers and children. It was getting in the way of learning and instruction, it was unnecessarily stressing the kids out, it was an objectively unfair way to evaluate schools and educators, and, perhaps worst of all, the teachers all agreed that the test provided them with no useful information at all. As they dug, they discovered that a key school board member was heavily invested in the company that created the MAP test, an appearance of corruption at the very least.

At first, the district attempted to push forward with the test despite the teachers' unified resistance, threatening the teachers, but then the solitary kicked in as a majority of students refused, or in some cases outright sabotaged the test. Then the parent association threw its support behind the struggle. The rest is history. As I spoke with Jesse about the Seattle boycott that sparked boycotts across the country, I could see nothing but joy in his face. I could hear nothing but pride in his voice. 

There is no force on earth that can stand in the way of teachers, parents, and students united.

Jesse would subsequently take a lead role in the successful "Lunch and Recess Matter" struggle in response to the fact that far too many elementary school kids were getting less than 20 minutes a day for a combined lunch/recess, a phenomenon driven by the very same standardized testing regimen. The district again fought the teachers, but today, Seattle schools are mandated to provide a minimum of 45 minutes of recess to all children, still far too little, but at least movement in the right direction. Again, it was the story of teachers, parents, and students linking arms, united in struggle.

The same phenomenon, Jesse tells us, is happening with the Black Lives Matter at School movement, a struggle that again finds Jesse at the forefront, both as an activist and as well as co-editor of the namesake book Black Lives Matter at School

As Jesse puts it, "Parents come to see that our struggles as teachers are also struggles for their kids. That's why they join us."

All of these struggles, Jesse points out, are ongoing.

Talking with Jesse is inspiring. In his mouth, the word "struggle" loses its negative connotations because time and again it involves a linking arms, of people working together, shoulder-to-shoulder, on behalf of our children.

Perhaps we don't all have the courage of Jesse Hagopian to step out and take the lead, but listening to his stories convinces me that as adults who care deeply about children, it's incumbent upon us to always be prepared to link arms with one another. As Jesse's career as an activist shows, it might be frightening, but together, united in struggle, nothing can stand in our way.


To watch my inspiring full interview with Jesse please join us August 13-17 for Teacher Tom's Play Summit. Click here to get your free pass and learn more about all 20 of our incredible sessions with early childhood experts and thought-leaders from around the world. Professional development certificates are available and you can upgrade to unlimited access. Please share this far and wide. Let's link arms to change the world!

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