In my 15th year with Operation Respect and my 50th year as an educator, I’m still thinking and educating and being educated, about teaching and learning, and about learning and teaching. I’m thinking that even as I re-entered Brooklyn Tech High School as an educator (I had been a student there) for the first time, I already knew that my personal presence within a group of people—my family, my friends on my street in Brooklyn, my school as a student, a teacher, a leader or now, as facilitator, trainer, and coach—could make a difference in how others felt, how the group felt, how I felt and how we all learn, grow and draw strength from each other and by our presence.
If I had to find one word that, for me, is at the essence of this work, this life in education that I’m living, it’s the word “conversation.” Ted Sizer, who founded the Coalition of Essential Schools, called our work toward quality, public education, “a conversation among friends.” That word still resonates for me. It resonated just yesterday, when I sat with a group of students and their advisor in a high school, and we talked about a project to tell their stories on video and for us to create “the story of us.” It felt, after all these years, like a new day for them. But it was the conversation.
My work at Operation Respect is to help schools find or create a “container” for these conversations—classroom meetings, advisories, restorative practice circles, student leadership groups, peer mediation centers, and more—places where we can have conversations because good conversations are at the heart of quality relationships, and, to jump ahead a bit, quality relationships can lead us toward, in the dream of our extraordinary founder, Peter Yarrow and his trio of troubadours, Peter, Paul and Mary—and in the words of Pete Seeger in “If I Had a Hammer” – “love between my brothers and my sisters.”
Our conversations with each other and with children and young people need to always be safe and caring, sometimes brave, sometimes courageous, sometimes fun. They build community. These conversations live on good questions and deep listening.
I began to know that in 1967, fifty years ago, when I walked into the school as an educator for the first time. As a veteran of this work, I know that now in my soul, I hope I bring that wherever I go. I try to bring a toolbox with me to share the tools of this work with you.
In a new stage of our work, we are looking at some wonderful work with folks who stand apart from each other in many ways, but who are struggling to talk with each other so that we can try to be “one nation, indivisible…”. I look forward to blogging with you soon about this new effort.
Feel free to keep in touch. I love phone calls and e-mails: 646-567-6185; mweiss @operationrespect.org
Written by Mark Weiss, Education Director