…a reflection on optimism, perspective & Arkansans Ask by Stacey James McAdoo…
My husband calls me optimistic. Says that’s one of the things he loves me about me. I hate it when he says this – especially when it’s after I have expressed grave sadness or disappointment in someone or something I’ve seen, read, heard, or experienced. “I don’t know why you actin’ surprised,” he often says with a chuckle accompanied by what feels like a condescending head shake.
He, on the other hand, is a self-described realist: a very black and white, cut and dry, yes or no, it is what it is guy. And while I admire his straightforwardness and his ability to be ducklike (where water and things roll off his back) – That’s. Just. Not. How. I’m. Built.
I’ve spent the last several days replaying my answers to a live television show I was recently on. I got stomped by the very first question. Later didn’t say things that I wish I had and regrettably said stuff that I wish I hadn’t or would have said differently.
My prep for Arkansans Ask: Education involved the creation of lists and talking points of things I wanted to be sure to remember to share. Scribbled in the middle of my notes were the words, “Celebrate What’s Right.” It was a reference to a video made by National Geographic photographer Dewitt Jones. I became acquainted with this video in the early 2000s by Ms. Marie Parker while training to become an Arkansas A+ fellow (which by the way is still the best professional development I have ever received in my entire teaching career). Celebrate What’s Right, like virtually everything else she introduced me to, has had a profound impact on my educational philosophy and general worldview.
“Change your lens, change your life,” is the basic premise of the video. Through various photos and interviews, Jones encourages us to take the time to see more of the possibilities and to celebrate the best of what the world has to offer instead of focusing on the negative and things we cannot change. Growing up, I used to wonder what society would look like if the breaking news segments were filled with “Ah-ha! Look who we caught being good” moments. Today I feel very similarly about education. As a classroom practitioner, I have a front-row view of the possibilities and the best of what the world has to offer through the resilient, creative, and brilliant students I am privileged to teach each day.
With my optimism intact, Celebrate What’s Right at the forefront of my mind, and a legal notepad containing my notes gripped securely in my hand, I left the green room feeling as confident and prepared as I could be and headed towards the studio. Despite being assured days before the show that I didn’t have anything to worry about because I was in good company and it would not be a hostile environment, “Now you’re not gonna throw me any hardball questions to try and make me sink are you, Mr. Barnes?” I asked with a sweet smile a few minutes before showtime.
I don’t recall Steve Barnes’ exact reply, but it involved a shooing of the hands and an encouraging sentiment meant to assure me that I would be just fine. The next thing I knew, I was in the studio facing at the set.
Oh, brother! We’re sitting on a couch and not at a round table. What am I gonna do with this notepad of carefully curated notes? Mayday! Mayday! Houston, we have a problem!
Lights. Camera. Action. We’re live!
“Arguably public education – the whole of it, pK-12 – is better than it was twenty years ago. For whatever factors, can we say that it’s better than it was five years ago,” was the question Arkansans Ask: Education host Steve Barnes tasked each of us with answering immediately after our introduction.
The Arkansas Secretary of Education was up to bat first and began by stating that he believed we are better off. He cited better teacher salaries, an increase in teacher prep programs, overall more opportunities for students, greater partnerships with the business/public sector and an uptick in students who are eligible for prestigious scholarships such as the Governor’s Distinguished Scholarship as evidence as to why we are in a better place.
Next was the Arkansas Education Association’s President, Carol Fleming. She shared how we were on the road to becoming better. Teacher shortages, the need for living salaries for both certified and classified staff, as well as improvements in professional development were some of the stumbling blocks she offered as part of the reason we hadn’t arrived yet.
Then right before me, former State Board of Education Chair and college professor, Dr. Jay Barth, stated that the best of the best schools are the best that they have ever been. Our challenges, he continued, are the inequities that exist between and within the schools, communities, and the state as a whole.
As all of them were speaking, I was thankful I was fourth in line and kept restating parts of the original question in my head. “…the whole of it…better than five years ago?” The legal pad with my talking points, which was now strategically placed under the coffee table, wouldn’t have been any good even had the seating arrangements been the way I had envisioned it because this was a question I hadn’t even thought to consider. “Celebrate what’s right,” I told myself before failing miserably at trying to think of specific overall initiatives or improvements that I could offer as examples. My mind was completely blank.
“Stick to what you know,” a quiet voice whispered inside my head. My brain quickly scanned the faces of the students in my district, in my classroom, in my family, and in my community. I even conjured up images of my colleagues and friends. I wasn’t sure if I could definitively say yes or no to the question.
“…pK-12 as a whole…”
The examples that I could think of – my biological children, certain family members, and my AVID data were pockets of success and not necessarily examples of improvements of the whole.
The words Dr. Barth and President Fleming spoke waved in front of me like glaring red flags screaming no. Instead of saying the hard truth, that for many individuals who I know and love, their psychological and physical place in life (which includes their education) is not much better today than it was five years ago, I spoke of my personal truth – that I am a more effective and better teacher today than I was five years ago.
Some saw my response as weak and playing it safe. And in many regards, they are right. As a newly appointed ambassador of education for the entire state of Arkansas, I often find myself in a peculiar place and having a hard time figuring out which voice to use and when. The conflict resolutionist in me has learned that it is easier to speak in “I statements” and from personal experience so as not to offend or speak on behalf of others. In this instance, however, it would have been much more honorable to have used my words to advocate for the least of us. Doing so could have proved to be very powerful since I, of all people, know how society at large views and treats the people from the place I call home.
Although there were a few other comments made throughout the show that in hindsight I would say differently, overall, I think I recovered from my blunders and represented well. By the end of the night, I had learned a valuable lesson: my forty-three-year complicated relationship with my city, my state, and the educational system make me the perfect person not to speak for but to speak of others. And maybe, just maybe, by doing so, I’ll be able to help change the narrative of what certain students, certain districts and certain communities look like after all.
*Stacey James McAdoo, the 2019 Arkansas Teacher of the Year (affectionately referred to as 2019ATOY), is a 17-year Oral Communication instructor, AVID Coordinator and sponsor of the spoken word collective called Writeous Poets from Little Rock, Arkansas. She teaches at the historic Little Rock Central High School where she is the living embodiment of her ATOY platform of using passion and poetry to close the opportunity gap.To learn more about her follow her at www.stillstacey.com or @2019ATOY on Facebook, Twitter and Instragram.*