“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.”—Proverbs 13:12 These days when you hear about D.C. Public Schools (DCPS), you probably don’t think of students winning the National History Day Contest, dreaming on an aerospace career during a week at NASA’s Space Camp or gaining four years’ worth of reading comprehension before winter break. The news is filled with
high-level resignations, a
trending hashtag during the Emmys and an
attendance investigation. Yet I have hope. I’m just waiting for it to be rewarded. I think back to a sweltering mid-August day when 35 teachers, aides and other staff piled into a meeting room at 8:00 a.m. at the D.C. middle school where I work. It was the start of the new 2017-18 school year, with a new principal and a new chancellor. We learned, as the ubiquitous slide deck swooped across the screen, that the chancellor had apparently heard teachers’ outcries. The “New Initiatives” slide was. . . Blank. Empty. Our principal confirmed it—there were no new DCPS initiatives this year. Stunned silence gave way to applause—and hope, that something real and new was unfolding right in front of us. Next, we read our district’s
new vision and mission statements. They were unlike any we’d seen before. I was especially struck by the call for 100 percent of students to feel loved at school. Did the chancellor just tell 5,000-plus teachers and staff that we are responsible for ensuring 50,000-plus students feel loved every day at school? Personally, I’d been telling students and parents I love them for years—I don’t know any other way to approach this work. For me, it was part of my core being. But is “love” something you can mandate from central office?
Walking the Talk
Putting the vision into practice called for DCPS to join the greater push in education for teaching the whole child, through a
systemwide rollout of social-emotional learning (SEL). Every few months at staff professional development days, we would pack into auditoriums for central office staff to walk us through slide decks designed to give teachers the strategies for increased self-awareness and wellness. Then we would apply these to our work with students. I wanted to jump in with both feet—in spite of the 10 years since mayoral takeover of the D.C. school system, in spite of being pushed and pulled as the political winds blew, in spite of the revolving door of leaders who have come and gone. I saw the potential for improving staff relationships and increasing student voice in academics. But a thought kept pulling me back from fully buying in: How can “love” or “joyful learning environments” be prescribed? These are organic. They grow where there is trust, not because someone declares it in a vision or mission statement. Well, you know how this story ends. My hope is again deferred. But my heart is rebounding. I’m back to waiting to see how the new interim chancellor, who already visited my school last week, will lead in the wake of scandal and broken trust.
Forging the Future
Does all this mean teachers can’t keep moving forward with SEL? Of course not. But it does mean that once again, the air is heavy with the unknown, and organizational momentum is stalled. While painful, I believe it’s a positive thing that the broken parts of our district are exposed and, in time, made right. And my hope, while deferred, is still alive. My hope now is not only in what’s rolling out next from central office, but also in how teachers’ voices can start to co-author the narrative of where DCPS goes from here. The rest of the “hope deferred” proverb, by the way, is “but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” While I’m uncomfortable putting my voice out there, I’ve come to believe teachers sharing their stories is a key to letting some light in and, maybe faster that we may expect, to grow something new.
Beth Dewhurst has been serving Washington, D.C., students since moving to the city in 1992. After growing up in rural Pennsylvania, she became the first in her family to graduate college. Now with an M.A. in teaching from George Mason University, she is in her 10th year at Stuart-Hobson Middle School, where she teaches reading to seventh- and eighth-graders. She also spends her days engaging with ...