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Mission

By: Steve Fleming - June 01, 2013

The only time my wife and I went out to the movies in our 4 and a half years in Santa Barbara was to see Waiting for Superman.  My wife, Lee, had seen it the weekend before but wanted me to go with her because she wanted to be able to talk about it with me.  Lee works for the New Tech Network, a non-profit organization that is involved in school reform, and was therefore very interested in a movie that addressed those issues.

Seeing this movie about the plight of education in the US in general and urban schools in particular was a rather jarring experience for me because a number of years earlier I had taught high school in a poor neighborhood in Los Angeles.  So I had an up-close view of what those schools were like (they struggle) and what kind of education the kids got there.  This was a rather painful memory since, because I walked into the classroom with no training (and very little aptitude, I soon discovered), I struggled mightily and delivered a very poor product to my students.  Thus I knew first hand of the educational struggles of urban children that the movie was documenting.  Again, this was a rather painful memory that also felt like a personal failure and I wondered what could possibly be done to address this problem.

Then I thought of the work that my wife’s organization did.  They had a lot of success in urban schools and had gone a long way to close the achievement gap between rich and poor kids.

At that point, I had a rather powerful spiritual experience as my adult life passed through my mind.  I was working on my PhD at UC Santa Barbara, which had been our primary goal.  It had been a meandering path that took much longer than either of us hoped.  In the meantime my wife had engaged in her teaching career which we both viewed a supportive of this “larger” goal.

But at that moment, while watching Waiting for Superman, I saw another view of our partnership.  It went like this: if I hadn’t taught in LA, Lee would not have become a teacher (she did not major in education, she got into teaching as a substitute teacher in LA during the year that I taught there); when we moved to Turlock, California, the next year for me to get my master’s, Lee started teaching high school full time; when we moved to Sacramento while I struggled to get into a PhD program, Lee began teaching in a school that was a part of the New Tech Network; and when we moved to Santa Barbara for my PhD program, Lee began to work for the larger organization.  We had been very prayerful along the way and I had found the lengthy and meandering path to be something of a trial.  At that moment, I felt that I understood: this wasn’t about me.  This was about Lee.  This was our calling. [1]

After sobbing through the lottery scene that concluded the movie, I had a whole new perspective on my purpose.  Thus a couple of years ago when Lee came to me and said that she wanted to get her master’s, I figured I’d better say yes (even though I was still working on my dissertation).  I had this confirmed during a blessing I gave her before she took the GRE (she was nervous): this is what God wanted us to do.  So even though I had chronic stomach pains that started the month Lee began her program that April, which didn’t let up until Christmas break 8 months later and started right back up as soon as the break was over, I felt like we needed to stick with this (I started feeling better later).  I don’t know why Lee needs a master’s right now, but the direction was clear.

So with that context, it was particularly gratifying to hear President Obama endorse the New Tech Network (or say very positive things about it).  That prompted its own flashback of sorts: the challenging weeks when Lee was travelling and I was watching the kids while working on the PhD have been hard for me.  Lee said she cried when Obama gave his endorsement and so did I.

The speech was given recently at the New Tech school in Manor, Texas.  The endorsement begins at 9:40 but I was particularly touched by the way Obama ended his speech.  Part of New Tech’s model is smaller high schools and a collaborative model, which they believe facilitate greater student-teacher interactions.  Lee was very close with her students when she taught at a New Tech high school.  So the way President Obama finished his speech at 19:20 was particularly meaningful to us:

One sophomore summed it up nicely when she said, “This school is a lot more than just a school, it’s a family.  And it’s filled with people that are going to care about you and are going to help you.”  Well Manor, that’s what every school should be.  That’s what our country should be: caring for each other, helping each other, being invested in each other’s success.  You know, we’re not just a collection of individuals, we’re one American family.  And if we follow Manor’s example, if we give every child the chance to climb new ladders of opportunity, if we equip every American with the skills and education they need to succeed in the jobs of the future; if we make sure that hard work pays off and responsibility is rewarded; and if we fight to keep America a place where you can make it if we try; then you’re not just going to be the ones to prosper, we’ll all prosper.  And together we’ll write the next great chapter in America’s history.  So thank you very much everybody, God bless you, God bless America.

Amen.

Link to Speech

[1] I’ve also felt strongly prompted to do the PhD thing, so I persist.



5 Comments

  1. This is a beautiful post, Steve. Thank you for sharing.

    My husband and I both struggled with the decision for him to go back to school for a MSW (his second masters) while I was still slogging through my PhD. And many of our choices have been and continue to be driven by our mutual commitment to his work as a social worker specializing in addiction and trauma. Like teaching, it’s often a terrifically hard job, and certainly woefully underappreciated and underpaid, and yet it brings him (well, both of us) enormous satisfaction. They’ve all been tough decisions (and I, too, struggled with whether or not to finish that pesky PhD thing, but finally did…), but all rewarding. Bravo to you for the work that you do, separately and together. I’m glad for you both that you’ve had this wonderful moment of recognition for the work that you do.

    Finally, and on a separate note, I think it’s wonderful that you’re willing to acknowledge that teaching was something that you struggled with and did not, in the course of a single year, totally figure out. I’d love to see more conversation about the fact that teaching is a skill that must be learned, and one that those of us in various roles in “the academy” need to work together to cultivate.

    Comment by Cristine — June 1, 2013 @ 1:20 pm

  2. Thanks Christine and thanks for sharing your experience.

    The LA teaching situation was particularly touch because I did what was called an emergency credential, which meant I was not credentialed but worked on the credential while I taught. That meant that the first time I set foot in a class room was a month after the school year started (for some reason it took a while for my finger prints to clear). All this was less that ideal. California implemented emergency credentials because they couldn’t find enough credentialed teachers; not enough teachers wanted to teach in schools like the one I taught at. All of which added to the low quality of education the kids got.

    One of the saddest things the kids said about the situation was that they could not believe that I chose to teach there; they thought I was teaching there because I was being punished for something. That came up in one of the classes and that was the opinion of several of the students.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — June 2, 2013 @ 8:53 am

  3. Great post, Steve. Thanks for sharing.

    Comment by Ryan T — June 2, 2013 @ 7:04 pm

  4. Thanks and best wishes to you and Lee.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — June 3, 2013 @ 9:24 am

  5. Glad to know you feel your lives were inspired- I’ve sure found you both inspirational!

    Comment by Michelle M — June 9, 2013 @ 10:16 pm