A Love Letter to Public Education Leaders

Written by Natasha Trivers, Chief Executive Officer of Democracy Prep Public Schools.

It is 5AM. Wake up. Kiss your daughter. Stroke her hair. She woke up last night covered in sweat. Bad dream. Fears abound with her lately. Bees. What if she is allergic? Mass shooters. No elaboration needed. Global warming. 

What if the world ends before she gets to live a full life? Kiss your son. Remember to put some cash under his pillow. The tooth fairy has been generous to him lately. After all, it’s a wonder you have cash at all, never mind having time to break it. 

Drink coffee, catch up on the news, take a shower, get dressed. Read your leadership team slack channel. Read meltwater alerts. The private security co. is poised to scan students again today. 

Your school had to go into a 19 minute lockdown. 19 terrifying minutes. You are conscious of the need for increased security for the next couple of weeks, especially given Buffalo and Uvalde were just a few weeks ago. But you also don’t want to over-correct.

You grew up with metal detectors when you were a kid. To say they are dehumanizing is an understatement. No COVID concerns today except for staffing. Walk into your office. Ms. Watson is already there. You know before she speaks that she plans to quit.

Try to hide your extreme disappointment. She was one of your best teachers. Taught for 8 years. But she’s exhausted. Emotionally and physically. She’ll work for an EdTech company next year. Making great tools for teachers like her.

Observe teaching in 6 rooms. You are almost brought to tears in Mr. Grey’s classroom. With his KN95 firmly affixed to his face, he asks the class, “What kind of figure is Joe Christmas?” “What is Faulkner doing?” One student says, “This may be dumb but JC…Those are the same initials as Jesus Christ. Joe is also thirty something years old…” The teacher smiles but doesn’t say a word. Ten hands fly into the air. 

Go back to your office. Grab lunch. Walk over to Marcus Garvey Park. Sit down. Listen to the drums. Watch the senior parade. Listen to where the kids are “taking their talents in the fall.” Seniors are going to Emory, Howard, Dartmouth, SUNY Binghamton, SUNY New Paltz, Buffalo, Syracuse, Wesleyan, City Tech, Hunter, and Morehouse. One is doing a Multiverse apprenticeship next year. Two are taking a gap year. Look around at the crowd. Wave to parents. You’ve worked with this community for ten years now. Approach the podium.

Give your closing remarks. Tell everyone gathered that your heart is full and you are reminded today about the power of the mission at a time when you needed the reminder most. Inspire. Say the words forcefully. You are immensely proud of your students… but right now, you are not talking to them. You are talking to the adults. You are also speaking to yourself.

Exit the park. Walk east on 123rd street. Smile at a homeless man who is gathering his belongings on the side of the street. Dodge the feces smeared on the street.

Walk briskly. You have to get back to your desk before heading home. Answer a dozen emails. Prepare for a board meeting tomorrow. Wonder whether you will hear accusations that the temporary safety measures are deeply problematic as they amount to…treating kids like criminals. Ask yourself if you can keep doing this for another year as you head home on the MetroNorth. Get home. Eat dinner with your family. Put the kids to bed. Go upstairs to your bedroom. Work on this love letter for 37 more minutes.

Stop and reflect on the word love. Is it a love letter? Tell yourself yes. You’ve been at it for a couple of weeks now. Every night before you go to sleep. Give a special nod to public education leaders serving kids in historically disadvantaged communities.

Being a leader of any school has been a beast for the past 27 months. But doing so in a poverty dense community? A new level of impossibly difficult. Schools have been the hub of societies for centuries. The pandemic laid bare how damaging it can be when that hub is not respected…or allowed to operate. The pandemic also thrust school leaders into a level of leadership which should have been occupied by state and federal government officials, not a principal or district superintendent. School leaders found themselves weighing scientific data, the needs of their students and families, the safety of their buildings for all community members with an airborne virus afoot, and the damaging effects of closing down the hub for weeks or months on end in order to slow the spread as they made decisions that would make them Public Enemy #1 to many if front line workers, including teachers, have had to carry the terrible weight of doing the on-the-ground work every day without fail, wearing a mask for 10 hours, being exhausted by teaching in multiple modalities….not always feeling heard by the higher ups…dealing with their own personal needs and the needs of their families throughout the pandemic, school administrators have been buckling under the weight of the decisions they have had to make all along. They have tried to honor the fact that schools are at the heart of society, ​​fielding the questions, absorbing the anger and frustration, taking a myriad of arrows, and carrying the load of personal losses (You lost your mom on June 6, 2020), the losses of their educators, and the losses of their students/communities as well. 

Reflect on 27 months. There have been excruciating moments but also tremendous moments of solidarity. Fellow education leaders banding together, comparing notes, offering words of hope and encouragement. Watching students hug each other and giggle across a table again.

Watching graduation, Senior Signing Day, prom, the school play, the basketball championship game. Human beings are social creatures. And if schools are the heartbeat of the community, schools are vital to bringing a sense of normalcy and connection in a routinized and predictable way.

Education leaders have been masters at fostering community when proximity and physical contact could not happen. They have maintained a hub even when they had to reshape the hub to fit a new reality. And all the while they have faced a barrage of criticism at every turn. 

Take a look at the love letter in its entirety. It’s longer than you intended. Smile as you read it, remembering fondly the words of Toni Morrison: “If there is [something] you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

Send the message off with all the love and power of a movement.
Follow Natasha on Twitter and Instagram @NatashaTrivers.

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