It's been a tough secret to keep but the news is finally out -- Seth (Chicago School Wonks) Lavin is going back into the classroom in the fall, and shutting down his year-old weekly email newsletter as of today.
As he explains below, it's been an eye-opening year for the TFA alum, watching the Emanuel and Brizard team try and make CPS better. The experience hasn't wrung all optimism out of him, but it's certainly been confusing and disappointing.
"Now, after a disastrous year of clumsiness, spin and buffoonery, it frightens me how intractably I’ve come to mistrust Brizard and this entire first attempt at Rahm-style Chicago school reform."
It's been a pleasure for me to get to know Lavin a little bit and to read his work and follow his thinking as it has evolved. The energy and enthusiasm he's brought has been great. It's too bad it couldn't go on any longer. But I'm sure we haven't heard the last of him.
This is the last Wonks.
I started this thing a year ago. The school year was ending. My TFA commitment was ending. Chicago was inaugurating a new mayor, who I’d voted for, and welcoming his new superintendent, who I was excited about. We’d just had our son, Moses, so I was for the first time seeing my city and its school system through a parent’s eyes.
I’d started TFA a pretty naïve reformer-type but the realities of teaching in a start-up charter school grew me up quickly. I was still a reformer when I wrote that first Wonks but I’d become a fearful one. It was so hard, I remember thinking, finding change that’s meaningful, sustainable and holds up to scrutiny. So much of the reform that got talked about got talked about because it was shiny or well presented, not because it was real. I feared that by putting the not-so-good on the same pedestals as the good, we reformers were building a movement that people would never trust.
But, like I said, I was still a reformer. I believed, more than anything, that our school system was failing Chicago’s children. I still believe that. Only I’d come to see how waves and waves of reform and short-lived reformers—some good, some bad—had over the years blended together in people’s minds. There was so much fatigue. So much suspicion of any disruptive new promise. I myself had grown wary of anyone who said “impatience” and “hatred of the status quo” defined the leadership Chicago’s children need.
Now, after a disastrous year of clumsiness, spin and buffoonery, it frightens me how intractably I’ve come to mistrust Brizard and this entire first attempt at Rahm-style Chicago school reform. Yet maybe it’s fitting that just as I finally give up and dismiss these guys they come up with a message that inspires me.
Writing as a guest-poster on Marilyn Rhames’ blog, Brizard this week said:
“The task for my team at CPS isn't to start the education reform project in Chicago, it's to thoroughly, deliberately and systemically complete it. We've learned a great deal about improving public education and we intend to learn from the successes of some and the missteps of others.”
“Disciplined implementation is critical, not only because of the city's complexity, scale, and current fragmentation— but also to overcome the widespread and increasingly debilitating distrust created by failed reform efforts of the past. Transforming the system will take strategic focus, political courage and a fierce commitment to equity and excellence unparalleled in CPS or any major urban school system."
It’s exactly right. It’s exactly the message and mission we need—radical change, but change that’s built with buy-in, built with trust and built to last. If Rahm and Brizard had messaged this way a year ago I would have applied to try and come work for them. That’s not a rhetorical device. It’s literally true.
A year ago I was 25. I’d just finished two years of TFA. Before that I’d worked two years as a Bain consultant. I’d always dreamed of moving up into the world of city leadership—being the energetic young guy in the room helping leaders I believe in make real change happen. As a perk, that kind of work is a thousand times more prestigious and better paid than teaching. I won’t say it’s easier, but it also comes without the unbelievable, gut-wrenching responsibility teachers bear by being part of people’s childhood. Or the terrifying instant accountability you get working in a classroom.
But Rahm and Brizard didn’t message that way. They announced one-off moves that made me wonder about their focus. They made me question whether their data-obsession was stronger than their willingness to spin data they’d analyzed poorly. They put on pedestals things I didn’t think should be on pedestals. So I hesitated. Eventually I took a job entirely outside of schools and began re-imagining the kind of contribution I saw for myself.
But I kept writing Wonks. And what a privilege it’s been—the weekly meditation, the fascinating and wonderful people I’ve met, all the ways I’ve grown through these conversations and readings and visits. I’m so lucky and thankful for all of it. It’s been amazing being able to spend a year, outside of everything, analyzing school reform, weighing all the ways I could jump back in.
That question—what should I do? How can I be useful?—is the one that’s been most on my mind during this year off from schools. A few months ago I found the answer. It’s an obvious one and it’s come to me with a clarity that makes me feel wonderful. I want to be a teacher again.
Teaching is hard and scary and exhausting but it’s also the best and most important work I know how to do. I could buy all of us diet cokes if I had a nickel for every wonk who’s told me they feel most whole in the classroom, with students. I feel exactly the same way. So I’m going back.
Next year I’ll be a sophomore world history teacher at Noble-Rauner. I cannot wait.
I’m excited about the school. I’m excited about the subject. But most of all I’m excited to be a teacher again. To be with students again. To proudly tell people, when they ask what I do, “I’m a teacher.”
And that’s why I have to end Wonks.
Ron Swanson says “never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.” The man’s right. I have huge respect for teacher-bloggers and would never suggest they need to pick one. But for me, for where I am right now in my growth as a person and as a professional, I want to whole-ass my classroom. That means no Wonks.
It also means stepping back in a bigger way. It’s humbling and weird and unexpected that I’ve become (a tiny) part of the public conversation on Chicago schools. I’ve tried, with the small microphone I have, to keep people honest and to make people smarter. I hope I’ve been useful to you in that way.
I’m rooting for this reform wave to adapt and change and last. I also know that I’m very young and have many, many productive decades ahead of me. Maybe, down the road, I’ll want to step back into the conversation or to try being useful to the movement in a different way. But that will be after learning a lot more and teaching a lot more. There are plenty of people who can be effective leaders in this work without having taught much or even without having taught at all. I’m not saying otherwise. I just know that in my own heart I’ll never feel credible if I don’t go back to the classroom.
As for Chicago, I’m optimistic. Being mayor is hard. Hopefully Rahm’ll get stronger. Ditch Brizard. That mission statement I excerpted above suggests an incredible leader, someone who’s tough, honest, no-bullshit and obsessed with the details. Brizard’s spent this past year showing us all he’s exactly not that. Find someone who is. Restart, with just as much passion but more patience, and that new message. Lead that way and, like I’ve always said, I’ll follow.
But I won’t put in a job application, because I’ll be teaching.
Thank you, everyone. You’ve made this such a great, fun, rewarding experience for me. I’ll miss it.
PS- here’s an archive of all Wonks ever: http://bit.ly/KLKopa. (ChicagoSchoolsWonks.com).
PPS- if you want to stay in my address book, getting an occasional life update or maybe a classroom request, click here: http://bit.ly/Koltgo.
PPPS- I’ll remain easy to find. You all have my email address. I’m on twitter @sethlavin. Say hi if you’re passing through Logan Square.