This morning I had coffee with a former student. These past weeks have been full of such encounters, some of which I described in my most recent blog. I won’t identify her or describe her work because the conversation was personal, and I didn’t get permission to share the details of our talk. I will say that she has accomplished things as a teacher that many would envy, but now she finds herself questioning the impact of her work. Is she in the right place, serving the right population of kids and their families? Is the entire path she has chosen a mistake?
The best teachers I know – and I’m fortunate to know many gifted and dedicated practitioners – set high expectations for themselves and are constantly challenging themselves about whether their work is good enough and in what ways they’re falling short of the vision that brought them to this important, difficult and under-respected work. I’m writing this on my birthday, and although I’m enjoying the hell out of the words of praise from former students and colleagues, I am plagued even now, eight years into “retirement,” with the feeling that I didn’t do enough, didn’t do it well enough. That feeling strikes in waves, alternating with feelings of satisfaction over the small educational victories I’ve contributed to.
These moods alternate in rhythm with the swings between modesty and grandiosity of ambition against which I’m measuring my work. When people learn that I am/was in the ed biz, they sometimes ask me what I would do to change the system if I were its CEO. This kind of question usually draws a blank from me because I don’t have a credible answer, which means that at the end of the day, despite my best efforts, I leave behind a system that continues to fail too many children, thereby setting them and their children on another cycle of misery. But then, I switch to my more modest lens and I can see the individuals I’ve helped in various ways – by inspiring them, by helping them find a fulfilling path for themselves, by connecting them to people who will be helpful to them, even just by listening – I can feel a glow of accomplishment. Maybe it was a life well-lived, perhaps not if you looked at it from a vantage point on Alpha Centauri, but at least from ground level. Readers who will respond to this with outpourings of praise and reassurance miss the point. They may be right from one perspective, but there’s also a grander reckoning which points up all the shortfalls.
I realize that this isn’t just about teachers and teaching. My wife is going to read this when I finish typing and she will nod in agreement that she and other writers look back on their work and their accomplishments with the same split vision. Like my lunch companion, she has had a career which is the envy of many. When she was lionized at a lifetime achievement award a few years back, what was in the foreground were the 11 books she’s published and the hundreds of writing students she’s mentored so wisely and skillfully. But pull the camera back a few cranks and it all seems small, not monumental enough to resist the downward pull of obscurity. The only way to stay sane is to cling to the more modest expectations. The other inevitably leads to despair.
Finally, I want to return to my coffee companion of yesterday. I shared one piece of advice with her that I think holds for everyone who has lived through this most unnatural and corrosive year. Take a sabbatical from self-evaluation and from any radical decisions about your life. Whether we’re aware of it or not, all of us are suffering from some degree of PTSD as a result of the profound disruption of our lives since March 2020. We all need some time to decompress before we resume the never-ending process of beating up on ourselves.
Yesterday the University of Chicago announced the death of Hugo Sonnenschein who served as the University’s president from 1993-2000. The notice went on to enumerate some of the critical and controversial positions for which he advocated, including the expansion in size of the student population. Arguably these positions laid the groundwork for many of the University’s current successes.
One action that went unmentioned had a profound impact on my own life. Hugo, as he was known to most of us, was a strong and steady supporter of the creation of the North Kenwood Oakland Charter School, the University’s first charter school for which I served as the Founding Director. Linking the University’s name to a school serving Black students on Chicago’s South Side was a risky business, hardly a slam dunk success.
Hugo invited me and Tony Bryk, the director of the Urban Education Institute which was to oversee the school, to a meeting of the University’s trustees to present plans for the school. His critics were primed to use this meeting to attack what seemed like an unwise decision. When Tony completed displaying his slides on the overhead projector – these were the pre-power point days – the first trustee jumped right in to ask two related questions: Why is the University doing this and what is our exit strategy?
I’ve told this story many times in different settings, but what follows still stirs deep feelings in me. Hugo launched into what sounded like it was going to be a safe and evasive response that began something like this: “The University of Chicago is a great research university, and the school will allow us to engage in valuable research…” And then he stopped in mid-sentence to pivot in a completely different direction. “Besides, it’s the right thing to do, and there is no exit strategy. We are totally committed to making the school a success and a valuable asset to the community.”
Hugo had shed his bureaucratic lab coat and traded it for a simple cloak of humanity, a rare exchange for a man in his position. He remained true to his word through his entire tenure as president. This act of courage is what I would like to remember and thank him for.