I found myself actually asking for “a seat at the table” this week (in a conversation about a potential job). I guess this post by Simon Ensor resonated so much in my mind that it came out in my speaking.
Simon asks us to consider what it means to have a seat at the table. Whose table? Who gets to sit there? Who has the power? Does everyone have power when they get a seat at the table? Who is not invited to sit at the table? He examines all sorts of metaphorical and actual tables–the dinner table, the boardroom table, the inner sanctums of the seats of power and the moneylenders’ tables.
Here are a few examinations of my own.
The Experts’ Table
On Saturday, I sat at a table in a room full of tables. I was happy to sit at that table. Happy to talk to other teachers about trauma-informed practices in schools. Happy to hear from experts and practitioners who were ahead of me on the learning curve and had so much experience and knowledge to share.
And yet as I sat at my table, I wondered how to go about making the transition to sitting at that OTHER table–the one with the printed name tags. The one where the experts sat.
My state’s education system is behind the learning curve in many ways. I have knowledge and experience and expertise to share but don’t yet know how to get a seat at that table. I don’t have a doctorate or even a master’s. I haven’t yet published.
But I have studied. And I have practiced. And I have pushed myself up the learning curve in understanding how learning works and how to help people get better at it. I have pushed myself up the learning curve in what it takes to help schools get better at it.
However, I haven’t yet learned how to help others see me as an “expert”.
I have tried.
When I worked as a temporary educational assistant, I asked to be included in the school’s PLC meetings to share my expertise in the science and practice of teaching reading. They agreed to give me 60 minutes.
Those 60 minutes did not go well. I presented the science behind the methodology I teach and asked those educators as a professional learning community to inquire into some of the practices I had seen in their reading programs that might be counter to the science.
I have become a bit of an expert in reading the room in my years of presenting as a Read Right trainer. This room was not welcoming of my message.
My suspicion is that all they could hear was that I thought they were doing it wrong. And I suspect that underneath that dislike of hearing that they might be doing it wrong was a strong aversion to hearing this message from a temporary educational assistant.
When I present this same information as a Read Right consultant, I come in with the mantle of expert invisibly shrouding my shoulders. The quality of the listening is different. The tone of the questions is different.
The educators whose tables I get to sit at when I am training may start out leery of having someone watch them as they teach, but soon they are actively calling me over because they want the feedback.
In starting my own educational consulting business, I have found it easier to get people interested in what I am offering when I come through the door as a Read Right trainer than when I come through the door as a substitute teacher. So far, all of my clients have been out of the state where I live because those are the places where people view me as an expert.
The Decision Makers’ Table
I have friends who are fighting to keep Read Right in their school. They are passionate advocates for the methodology because it has made such a difference for kids in their school. Yet somehow, the district doesn’t want to keep investing in the program. Somehow, somewhere in the history of this school district, Read Right developed a bad reputation.
The teachers who are fighting to keep the program are not quite sure what happened (because they haven’t been invited to a seat at the table where such things are discussed) but somewhere, someone decided that Read Right was “just a fluency program” that wasn’t really helping kids get better at reading.
The advocates for the program gathered and presented data. They got kids to come in and say how much Read Right had changed their educational trajectories. They had parents who shared how their child had been a non-reader or a poor reader and was now reading for pleasure as well as for learning and was enjoying school again.
They asked for–and got–a seat at a table with the new superintendent and presented their case to him. But, he was not really the person who makes the decision about funding programs like this in the district.
The district sent someone from the district office. She observed the program in action. Communicated that she was impressed with what she saw. Teachers from one of the middle schools came and observed. They were impressed and asked why they couldn’t have the program in their school.
The teachers thought they were making progress in changing the narrative. They thought they would see more district support. But somewhere along the way, there was a meeting in a district office about reading programs and they were not invited to that table.
There was a meeting and the district choose to invest their money in a different program.
I had an opportunity to check out this new reading program when I was subbing at the school and found myself sad and wishing I was more skilled at getting myself a seat at the decision-makers’ table.
This new reading program came with lots of shiny-good-looking boxes and was filled with lots of shiny-good-looking books. But it didn’t come with the secret sauce that makes Read Right powerful–the ability to give each individual student reading instruction tailored to where their neural network for reading actually is–regardless of age or grade–and provide feedback in the moment that encourages the brain to experiment with using prediction as a strategy. And it didn’t come with the seven weeks of in-the-classroom coaching for how to become expert at delivering that in-the-moment feedback.
And then I think about who else did not get a seat at that table. Who else very, very rarely gets a seat at the tables of power in our schools. Our students and their families are not often invited to the tables of power in our schools.
They don’t usually get to have a say in deciding grading policies. Or homework policies. Or discipline policies. Or standards.
I just listened to a podcast that told the story of how the Toronto School District ended their School Resource Officer (SRO) Program because they invited parents and community organizations like Black Lives Matter Toronto to the table and listened to their stories of how the SRO program was impacting students of color and making them feel less safe at school.
Also, the stories of schools moving to competency-based models of learning are frequently filled with accounts of inviting students to the table. Like this story of how of how the Chugach School District’s move to competency-based education was fueled by inviting the community and family to the table.
And then this morning on Twitter, someone sends me the link to this–Participatory School Design.
This is what they are up to:
“Participatory School Design is work through which youth and facilitators co-create new or newly-redesigned learning environments to directly serve the learner-designers and their communities.
It is the best way to maximize youth voice in the structures and issues of their own learning.
It is the best way to ensure that all schools are culturally-relevant, place-based, and community-connected.
It is hands-on learning for consensus-driven deliberative democracy.
It is an experience in previously-unimagined agency for youth, communities, and facilitators/teachers.”
We need more of these stories. We need to be inviting the people to the tables of power in our schools.
The Interview Table
I quit my full-time teaching job in 2006 because I was teaching in one of the most expensive cities in the country and couldn’t imagine ever achieving economic stability on my teacher’s salary in San Francisco. So, I quit and moved to Washington state where I thought I could both teach and make a living.
Except, I couldn’t get a job. I’m not sure why. Perhaps I didn’t try hard enough. Perhaps, I had besmirched my reputation by quitting my job. But, whatever the reason. I could never get a seat at the interview table for teaching jobs in Washington.
So, I subbed.
And, I broadened my job search. I looked outside of schools…
And discovered Read Right.
They gave me a seat at the interview table.
Then, they gave me a seat at the Read Right trainers’ table. And I have spent the last ten years traveling the country as a visitor in other peoples’ schools with a temporary seat at their tables with their teachers and their students.
I love it! I love the work that we do. I love the difference I get to make in the lives of kids and schools and teachers. I love the personal training this work has provided me in the science of reading and the science of learning and the practice of affecting change in schools.
But, since Read Right is not winning the Reading Wars, I have less and less work as a training consultant.
So, once again, I am looking for work as a full-time teacher.
And, once again, I am finding it hard to get a seat at an interview table.
Last year, I applied for over 20 positions in various districts and was invited to one interview. My young coworker, a newly minted teacher in her first year of teaching had 12 interviews. She was hired. I was not.
I do not know the reasons for the lack of response. I have asked for feedback on my resume from principals. They have told me that it looks good. I have good experience. One principal told me that perhaps it was because I have been out of the classroom for so long.
Except, I haven’t.
I have been in classrooms for the past 10 years practicing and honing my skills in the art and science of teaching reading and social and emotional skill building. It’s just that those classrooms have not been mine. Yet I do not believe that makes me less qualified to take on my own classroom again.
I am not the only person in my life who struggles with getting noticed in the job market. My housemates cannot find work. They have tried for two years with varying degrees of effort and enthusiasm with no results. My husband sent out many, many applications with little response and finally decided to go back to former employers who knew and respected him.
And pay him too little.
Earlier I watched this Ted Talk by Zeynep Tufekci about the dystopian future coming into being with artificial intelligence in our digital world. I can’t help but fear the impact of big data on the working lives of the already disenfranchised.
The Read Right Table
One of the things I tell students when I am introducing them to Read Right is that if they have got a seat at a Read Right table, then that is like winning the reading lottery. I tell them it is like getting a golden ticket. It is Olympic quality training in the process of reading.
It is like winning the reading lottery because there are never enough seats for everyone in the school. And if they have got a seat at that table then they are getting an opportunity to engage in deliberate practice in reading with a highly trained tutor. They are getting the opportunity to keep practicing reading until they are truly excellent at reading. And that is a beautiful thing.
But, most of them never enter the room and sit down at a Read Right table thinking like that.
Many of them feel like they are being punished. Many of them feel that being in a reading class at their age is a signal that their school thinks they are not smart.
Most schools use Read Right only as an intervention. They only use it for kids that are not getting good grades or not doing well on tests.
And they rarely give those kids a choice of whether to sit at that table or not.
I am working to change that. I am working to convince schools that this methodology is not a reading intervention–it is a reading empowerment program. It is designed for anyone who is not yet an excellent reader. It is the deliberate practice in the act of reading and it gives people a chance to keep moving up the learning curve (at their own pace) until reading is as comfortable and natural as walking.
I am working to convince schools that everyone deserves a chance to become an excellent reader–not just those who are not making the grade.
While many students initially don’t want a seat at that table, most of them come to understand the incredible power of that seat. (I once heard a story from a tutor about her student who snuck back into school during a suspension so as not to miss his reading tutoring.)
However, every once in a while I find a student with such a dislike of reading and a dislike of being coached in reading that they really hate having a seat at that table. So I wish I could convince all of our schools that if a student really doesn’t want a seat at that table–then they should have the power to decline.
I am on a learning journey. I am up to training and developing myself as a leader in our schools. I am up to figuring out how to get a seat at more tables and have more powerful conversations with other educational leaders.
And hopefully, I can figure out how to be a leader and make a living.