In The Arena

CMS SquareWhile attending today's "State of Our Schools" speech at East Mecklenburg High School, I was reminded of Teddy Roosevelt's "Citizenship in a Republic" speech:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Few of us are in the arena day in and day like the teachers and administrators who lead our schools. I no longer teach or tutor, but if there was ever something I did that was worthy of my best efforts, it was teaching.

When you're an educator, it can feel like everyone's a critic. Parents can pick apart lesson plans, students can disengage, legislators can do everything they can to discourage teachers to leave the profession. Many are critical of schools in an effort to make them better; others are critical of schools because they expect perfection and haven't yet learned the lesson that all of us must learn, that nothing can ever be perfect. Not every child is going to learn what they need to learn to be successful adults. Still, teachers walk into the arena 180 school days a year.

After three decades with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, newly appointed Superintendent Ann Clark walked into the arena today and gave her first "State of Our Schools" address (full disclosure - Ann is my cousin). "This is our moment to succeed" was the theme and the refrain. She doesn't have an easy task ahead of her, but she was undeterred by the challenges our district faces. At the end of her speech, the Superintendent teared up as she said she was "committing the best of [her] head and [her] heart to the job."

In addition to the new superintendent, the "State of Our Schools" presentation brought teachers, students, administrators, and community partners to the stage to give a face to the policies CMS is implementing so that more students achieve to the best of their ability.

My favorite moment came when Justin Ashley, a McAlpine Elementary teacher, gave a passionate speech of why teachers teach. He went off script to ask the North Carolina General Assembly to bring back the NC Teaching Fellows program, which gave him the opportunity to attend college. Ashley mentioned that without the teaching fellows program, he probably would have become a manager at Burger King. His story is a great reminder of the transformative effect public education has not just on students, but on educators as well.

The presentation ended with a speech from CMS 4th Grader Mac McManus. He compared each school to a team, with students as players, parents as fans, teachers as coaches and principals as owners (thankfully, he didn't extend the metaphor to compare the superintendent to an NFL commissioner). The team metaphor was extended beyond the presentation; as we left the auditorium, East Meck students handed us CMS lapel pins and we were recruited to be ambassadors for "Team CMS."

The impression I left with was a hopeful one - we have a community full of educators, philanthropists, businessmen, parents, and politicians who believe in the transformative power of public education. We have clear goals to help students achieve and keep good teachers around. Like the critics, I don't always agree with every experiment we've tried in our schools, but Char-Meck has a school district with committed educators who are in the arena every day doing the best they can to give every student a shot at a bright future.

Sam Spencer is a proud 2003 graduate of North Mecklenburg High School. For more takeaways from the "State of Our Schools" presentation, check out this write-up from Charlotte Observer reporter Andrew Dunn.

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