I was contacted recently by a friend from high school, who informed be that a teacher we both had, one we valued tremendously, Mary Catherine Bradshaw, had been removed from her position as head of the International Baccalaurate program, involuntarily, and was told she will be transferred elsewhere at the end of the year. Ms. Bradshaw put in 27 years at this school, working ridiculous hours, with an unparalleled level of committment to public education and to her students.
My own experience was that once I entered her classroom, the world opened up in a whole new way. In her American Studies class, I learned to ask critical questions, to look at issues from new perspectives, to question sources of information, and to construct strong, cohesive arguments. I learned how to learn. I developed into a stronger, more well spoken person than I would have thought possible back then, shy as I was at the time. I began to feel that so much more was possible for my life.
Perhaps the most telling thing about the way Ms. Bradshaw approached her students was that when we disagreed with her, about a grade, or about the way she handled a topic in class, we were encouraged to voice our concerns. I had one such disagreement with her my senior year, and when I wrote her a letter detailing my objection, she made the time, on her lunch hour if memory serves, to meet with me one-on-one to discuss it. In other words, she approached me like a young adult who might have something valuable to say, something she could learn from, when she could have just as easily approached me as a kid who needed to be put in her place.
Today, many of her current students, and their parents, staged a sit-in at the school in response to her removal. I am awestruck by these students and the admirable way they have handled this situation. These students held a meeting outside of class, elected spokespeople, and wrote a sensible and well thought out statement of their objectives. They planned activities outside of school hours so as not to disturb classes, a thoughtful and respectful touch. It’s hard to imagine a better testament to an excellent teacher.
The school’s administration, and indeed the officials of the public school system, have refused to engage in a meaningful dialogue with the many students, parents, and alumni who have voiced serious and legitimate concerns. Their response, in short, is along the lines of, just trust us that this is a good decision. But it seems clear to me that while Ms. Bradshaw has earned the trust and respect of her community, these school system officials have not. Indeed, they are approaching these students, and even the parents, alumni, and other community members, as children who need to be put in their place, rather than approaching them as Ms. Bradshaw would have, as intelligent adults who have something valuable to say.
I’m heartsick at the idea that their approach could win the day. It shouldn’t win the day. I so want to believe that it is still possible for thoughtful people to have a genuine voice, for exceptional teachers to get the recognition they deserve, and for students in public schools to have access to a truly top notch educational experience. Please tell me this is still possible.