Open Letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña

image by krispdk used under Creative Commons lic

January 2013

Dear Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Fariña,

Welcome to your new roles in our great city.

I need not tell you how excited we are, here in the education community, that Carmen will be taking the helm of our vibrant, diverse, challenging, and promising school system.

Her appointment says to many of us that this new administration believes that education policy must be forged at the intersection of ideas and experience.

It says that education, like all vocations, is a unique field with unique levels of knowing and doing. That those who spend their lives in practice–in classrooms and schools–bring a level of insight that no one from outside of the field can possess.

It says that dedicating your life to building expertise in our field–as she has done–is not just commendable but necessary to developing a world class education for every one of our city’s children.

I have been lucky to have worked with Carmen when I was at the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College, Columbia University. This, however, is not a relationship anyone can claim as unique. Her decades of service have put her in touch with generations of educators and children. She has been accessible, personable, and in touch with schools because she is always within them.

More recently, as Deputy Chancellor under Joel Klein she continually toured schools, met with educators, and–most important in my eyes–spoke with students. Every interaction I have observed her in, from classrooms, to staff meetings, to intimate conversations with school leaders about the needs of their school, always at the forefront of her thoughts and actions is this: our children.

This is why I am writing to you both today. Our city’s children need you. I am asking for your leadership and your continued partnership with educators, families, and students.

I do not need to numerate the hardships our field is facing, they are in news reports, television advertisements, and the voices of schools.  The number of educators, new and veteran, that say to me almost weekly, “I don’t know how much longer I can keep teaching,” is heart-breaking and alarming. Their frustrations are always political,while their reasons for holding on remain the same–they deeply love and believe in the potential of every child.

We need your leadership in a number of specific ways:

  • Just as great teachers do in classrooms with students, observe the effects of your policies on educators’ practice and lives. Data that takes more time to collect than use is as useless as no data at all. A high teacher “value-added” score coupled with teacher or administrator burn-out does little to bring real long-term value to our classrooms. Losing hope in our system is a hopeless path for our system.
  • Just as great teachers do in classrooms with students, look at the effects of your policies not simply as a reflections of educator work, but as a reflections of your work. As teachers, we know that if many students fail a quiz, it is the test, not the takers that needs support. The problems that plague our highest need schools are larger than any one solution; no policy will be perfect, no implementation will be without fail. See your policies as works in progress and revise from feedback, versus pressing harder for compliance.
  • Like the best principals (of which Carmen, you have been one), engage educators in your decision making process. In NYC, as across the United States, the greatest distrust has grown from being disenfranchised within our own profession. The greatest administrators, the most effective leaders, authentically involve their constituents – students, parents, teachers, staff. As Hargreaves and Fullan write, collaboration is one of the keys to leading our profession into the future (2013), we need to trust in you by seeing and feeling your trust in us.
  • Like the best principals, shield your staff from forces that can disrupt their connection with students. When New York State or the US Department of Education does right by children, guide us in that direction.  Equally, when they–or other forces–do not, stand with us as we say no. I have been inspired by the stories of NYC administrators who say no for the sake of their children: saying no to using test scores in high school entrance decisions, saying no to untested textbook adoptions, saying no to initiatives imposed solely for initiatives’ sake. Stand with us when we stand for our students.

So many of us are excited by the possibilities ahead. Thank you for what feels like a new day in our schools. I hope, through your leadership for and with educators and families, we can create a new day for all children of New York City and be an inspiration to other cities and schools. That shared leadership and shared problem solving, with dedicated professionals, can bring about positive results.

Lead with us. The world is watching. Our children need us. We are ready.

Most sincerely,

Christopher Lehman

Educator, Parent

5 thoughts on “Open Letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña

  1. Beautifully said, Chris Lehman! I hope that Mayor de Blasio and Chancellor Fariña are as inspired by your wisdom as your Twitter followers.

  2. While I do not teach in NY, I wish that policymakers everywhere could receive such a powerful, articulate plea. Thank you, Chris, for your leadership and heart.

  3. This is such an eloquent letter. Thanks for opening up to all of us.

    What an exciting time to be an educator in NYC. So many possibilities! It is my hope the new leadership will be able to move past some of the mandates in order to improve the lives on teachers and students.

    While I don’t think we’re moving back to NYC anytime soon I am keeping a close eye on what’s happening there. I have a feeling positive changes are coming.

  4. Wow!! What an inspirational letter you have written to the leaders of my 1st home. I now live in CA and am a principal at a great K-8 school. And yes, we are looking closely at NY and this new administration to set a new tone and direction for this profession that I love but most importantly for the ALL the children we serve. Keep up the good work, the good fight, we appreciate you.

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