There’s a reason our society rarely hands teachers the microphone.
We’ll tell you the truth.
Oh, we’re too good mannered to be brazen about it. We’d rather encourage you for trying than criticize you for getting something wrong.
But if you ask us for truth, that’s usually what you’ll get.
Just ask any first grader.
“Is my finger painting good, Miss Pebbles?”
“Oh my, it is!”
“Why yes. I love what you did with that smear of yellow and blue in the corner. Where they overlap, it turns green.”
“Do you think it’s good enough to compete against the seniors in the high school?”
“Maybe you’d better practice a bit more, Dear. At least wait until you can spell your name correctly before devoting your life to art.”
That’s why I was so delighted to get an invitation to do a TED talk.
Here was my chance to tell it like it is.
Sure, some people look to TED for encouragement and life affirming inspiration.
But the way I see it, the only real affirmation is honesty.
Otherwise, it’s just a bromide, a deception, an intellectual hard candy to plop into your skull and let your cranium suck on until all the sugar is gone.
We’ve all seen these TED talks on YouTube or the Internet – some well-dressed dude or dudette standing in front of a crowd with a headset microphone and a grin offering anecdotes and words of wisdom to a theater full of eager listeners.
But after hundreds of thousands of talks in scores of countries, the format has almost become a parody of itself. At many of these events, you’re just as likely to find some Silicon Valley tech millionaire waxing philosophic about his casual Friday’s management style as you are to hear something truly novel.
No, the way I see it, the TED extravaganzas are just asking for a bundle of truth wrapped in a plain brown box – quiet, unassuming and ticking!
For me, doing one was a long time coming.
The first I heard about it was at United Opt Out’s Education and Civil Rights Summit in Houston, Texas, two years ago.
I was rooming with Jesse “The Walking Man” Turner – an education professor at Central Connecticut University and famed social justice activist. He’s been involved with everyone from Moral Monday’s to S.O.S. Save Our Schools. But he’s most well-known for walking from Hartford to Washington, DC, to protest school privatization and standardization – a feat he did not once, but twice!
Anyway, one night as I was fading into sleep, he whispered to me from across the room, “Steve, you ever thought about doing a TED talk?”
“Huh? Whas tha, Jesse?”
“A TED talk. You ever thought about doing one?”
“Oh I don’t know. That would be pretty cool, I guess.”
“I organize an independent TED event at my school every year. We should get you on the schedule.”
And that was it.
I think. If there was any more to that conversation my conscious mind wasn’t involved in it.
But then the following year I got a call from Jesse asking if I was ready to come to Connecticut.
I wasn’t. I’d just had two mild heart attacks and wasn’t in a condition to go anywhere. I could barely gather the strength to go to school and teach my classes.
What followed was a year of recovery.
I dedicated myself to my students and my blog and made it through the year. In the summer, I put together my favorite on-line articles into a book for Garn Press – “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform.”
After it was published in November, I worked to promote it, going from event-to-event, book store-to-book store lecturing, signing, and listening. I was even invited to Chatham College to address their graduating class of teaching students.
Then another surprise. I was one of three educators in western Pennsylvania nominated for a Champions of Learning Award in Teaching from the Consortium for Public Education. In the final analysis, I didn’t end up winning the award, but it was a huge honor.
And then to top it all off, Jesse called me back and asked me if I was ready to come to Hartford and give the TED talk another try.
I jumped on it.
How could I say no?
This year has been like a second chance, a new lease on life. I’ve been eating healthier, exercising, losing weight and taking nothing for granted.
But that comes with certain responsibilities.
I couldn’t go there and just mouth platitudes and self-help advice. I couldn’t just tell some touchy-feely stories from my classroom and conclude about how great it is to be a teacher.
Even though it is great – the best job in the world.
But our profession is under attack.
Public schools are being targeted for destruction. The powers that be are using segregation, targeted disinvestment and standardized testing to destabilize public schools and replace them with privatized ones.
The school house is on fire! This is no time for heart-warming stories. It’s time for anger, agitation and activism!
So that’s what I decided to speak about.
Frankly, that wasn’t what I originally planned.
At first, I was going to talk about how society expects too much of teachers – how we expect educators to do it all.
But then the opportunity came to “practice” my speech in front of my entire school building.
I thought to myself, is THIS really what I want to talk about?
If I only get one shot at this – and I probably will get only one shot – do I really want to spend it on society’s unfair expectations?
That’s when I scrapped what I had and started over, this time focusing on “The Plot to Destroy Public Education.”
I must have rewritten my presentation at least five times.
Jesse said I’d have no more than 15 minutes so I practiced just about every night to make sure I was within that time.
The word may have gotten out around my school because the invitation to speak to the entire building quickly evaporated. Maybe there really was a scheduling mix up. Maybe not.
But it didn’t matter. My presentation was ready like a bomb – no hand holding, no concessions, just the truth.
The weeks flew by.
Before I knew it, it was time to fly to Connecticut. I couldn’t believe it was really happening.
When I got there, Jesse picked me up from the airport. He was a consummate host. He couldn’t have treated me better if I was royalty. He paid for my hotel, paid for most meals, drove me everywhere, kept me in good company and entertainment and even gave me a “Walking Man” mug as a token of his appreciation.
I was the only person flying in from outside of the Hartford area. Most of the other seven speakers were from there or had roots in the community.
All but two others were PhDs. The list of names, vocations and stories were impressive. Dr. Dorthy Shaw, a famed education and women’s studies professor, talked about surviving cancer. Dr. Noel Casiano, a sociologist, criminal justice expert and marriage counselor, told a heartbreaking personal story about the three people who mentored him from troubled teen to successful adult. Dr. Kurt Love, a CCSU professor focusing on social justice and education, talked about the greed underlying our economic and social problems. Dr. Barry Sponder, another CCSU professor focusing on technology in education, talked about flipped classrooms. Dr. Johnny Eric Williams, a sociology professor, talked about the myth of whiteness and how it corrupts how we speak about race.
Elsa Jones and her son Brian Nance were the only other non-PhDs. Jones is an early education consultant and the daughter of the Rev. Dr. William Augustus Jones, Jr., a famed civil rights leader who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
They were the ones I bonded with the most. All four of us went out for pizza after the talks.
But when I first entered the Welte Auditorium in the Central Connecticut State University campus, it was truly frightening.
The building could hold hundreds, perhaps thousands of people. Yet organizers had limited the audience to only a hundred. All the seats were up on the stage.
There was a little circular rug where we were to stand and the camera people were setting everything up.
Behind us, a ceiling high blue-purple backdrop would showcase the TED logo and any slides we had prepared.
Which brings up an interesting distinction.
This was not a corporate TED event organized by the TED conference and sanctioned by their foundation. It was a TED “X” event, which means it was independently organized.
TED licenses its name for these grassroots X-events. There are a list of rules that organizers must follow. For example, all tickets to the event must be free. Contrast that with the corporate TED events where tickets go for thousands of dollars.
I was glad I was where I was. This was going to be the real deal – a thoughtful discussion of authentic issues. And somehow I was up there with these incredible thinkers and activists.
The moment came. Drs. Shaw and Casiano had already spoken. I got up from my seat in the front row to get my lapel microphone attached.
Jesse gave me a warm introduction letting everyone in on the secret of my tie – the design was a picture of my daughter repeated to infinity.
So I walked to my mark and started speaking.
It seems there was some sort of technical difficulty with the microphone. My voice didn’t appear to be coming from the speakers – or if it was, it wasn’t projecting very well. So I spoke louder.
Then Jesse came from the wings and gave me a hand mic and a music stand for my notes.
It took a moment to get used to handling the microphone, the clicker for my slides and my iPad (where I had my notes), but I got the hang of it.
And I was off and running.
I said it. I said it all.
The audience certainly didn’t seem bored. All eyes were on me. A few heads were nodding in agreement. Some faces seemed stunned.
When I ended, there was universal applause. A few folks patted me on the back when I got back to my seat and shook my hand.
And that was it.
I thoroughly enjoyed the remaining presentations but it was hard to concentrate in the post-TED elation.
Jones and Nance were probably the closest to what I was talking about and we got along like we’d known each other for years.
When I got back to the hotel, I felt elation and exhaustion in equal measure.
I had done it.
After months, years of planning, it was over.
Jesse tells me the video will be on-line in a matter of weeks. (I’ll revise this post with the video when it goes live.) Though he did mention that one point in my presentation made him a bit nervous – I had called out Bill Gates for his role in the destruction of public schools. However, Gates is a big donor to TEDs. Jesse half-jokingly said that the TED folks might take issue with that and refuse to upload my speech.
But whatever. I told the truth. If that gets me censored, so be it.
This will be something I’ll never forget.
I’m sorry this article has gone on so long, but there was much to tell. It’s not every day that someone like me gets such a stage and such a potential audience.
Hopefully, my video and my speech will be seen by many people who have never heard of this fight before. Hopefully it will open minds and stoke people to act.
And hopefully the mic issues at the opening won’t be distracting.
Thank you for following my blog and being there with me on this incredible journey.
I left nothing important unsaid. I gave it my all.
Now to see where it goes.