Meeting Betsy DeVos
Why it’s important to meet with those who don’t agree with you.
What you need to know first is that there was little to no drama in my meeting with Betsy DeVos on July 11. For some, that’s a major disappointment. They want — and I’m sympathetic to this desire — confrontation and vindication. Considering the suffering and potential suffering wrought by this Secretary and the Trump administration, it’s not unreasonable to want, if not the wrath of God Almighty, at least a good old fashioned whoopin’.
As viscerally satisfying as that might be, it’s not something I’m very good at, nor something that I think serves the larger goal of protecting and serving children.
This opinion is partially built on experiences with politicians in Texas, particularly with Greg Abbott. Because the gulf between people like DeVos and me is so wide, it’s tempting to choose a pole and adopt its major emotion: Either the meeting was a complete waste of time or by God, you are a game changer. Both extremes are delusional in equal measures.
“[We] cannot be truly human apart from communication…to impede communication is to reduce people to the status of things.” Paulo Freire
As Freire believes, we become more human the more we are willing to listen and to speak. Sitting down with each other is the first step to rediscovering that we are humans, not the stories we’ve been told about each other. Without sitting with DeVos, I would’ve stayed safely within a narrative that paints her as The Enemy, as Punchline, as Type. Without meeting with us, she could’ve stayed wrapped in right-wing rhetoric that identifies teachers as “what’s wrong with education today.”
So, was the Secretary changed at all by meeting with us? Perhaps just the decision to invite us changed things in that it’s a break from her past behavior. And meeting us, she listened, which is another behavioral change.
I tried to be attentive to what surprised me, for what was different, to not come in with preconceived notions. And what surprised me was her attentiveness. Because she is not a practiced bureaucrat, her response felt more authentic than some interactions I’ve had with political figures.
Before we began, she introduced herself to each of us, shaking our hand and listening for our names. Sure, that’s simple graciousness, but even handshakes can be fraught with gamesmanship, so I’m grateful that this wasn’t that kind of greeting.
I sensed that she was somewhat anxious, but also seemed truly curious and interested in our remarks, asking for clarification on what several of us meant when we talked about systemic change. She also asked about the times we’d felt empowered. Some of us were assertive in letting her know that her office is responsible for ill will and bad policy, but none of us were rude.
When we listen with less judgment, we always develop better relationships with each other. It’s not differences that divide us. It’s our judgments about each other that do. Margaret Wheatley
Teachers are the most forgiving, the most willing of professionals to participate in a conversation (and if you doubt that, please read the commentary on my Facebook post about the meeting). As a profession, we yearn to be heard, yet so many of us are fearful of authority. Most teachers are pleasers, approval seekers, and/or rule followers, which keeps us from asking for a seat at the table where decisions are made.
Some in power take advantage of this trait, shaming and insulting those who would dare ask to be heard. They also take advantage of the absence of teacher voice, using the absence to confirm their own biases and misinformation. So it’s an important act when an authority invites teachers to talk.
Most people want to make a difference, they want their lives to have meaning and purpose. We can agree on that. We can agree that our purpose, if we’re involved in education, should be about what is best for our children. We can and do disagree on how to accomplish that or even the definition of “best.” I can disagree with policies, can even attempt grievous verbal harm to them, but I screw up when I confuse policies with people.
Attacking people instead of policy certainly feels good for a minute (and I guarantee you it will boost your retweets and drive traffic to your blog), but it only increases the conflict. Attacks don’t create the solutions we so desperately need, especially in education. It’s good and proper for you to call me out on my opinions, and for me to call you out on yours, but if we’re not careful, it becomes a game. How many points did you score off of me? Or me off of you?
Being so busy with the game distracts us from the work. That’s why we like it. The work is hard and complicated and time consuming. It helps if we remember that the work will bring more of what lasts and what’s important (connection, learning, improvement) and less of the trivial (snarky tweets, cheap outrage, and easy offense).
Does the world change from one conversation? No, but it’s a start. And every change has to begin somewhere, even in a 45-minute conversation inside an ugly government building.
A few days after the meeting, I found this quote from the poet, Rilke about the faith required to begin the long and difficult work required of any advocacy. If we are to resist the despair that is so easy to embrace right now, if we are to feel strong enough to take up the work, we have to, as Rilke says, allow ourselves to be daring enough to dream of better. And in dreaming it, we begin to bring it into reality.
You must give birth to your images.
They are the future waiting to be born.
Fear not the strangeness you feel.
The future must enter you
Long before it happens.
Just wait for the birth,
For the hour of new clarity.
Part Two of this piece, which describes more of the substance of the meeting, is here.
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