It’s hard to describe the experience of the NWP/NCTE Conferences. A gathering of thousands of educators might seem overwhelming to some—and it definitely can be—but this year, more than any other, being with my teacher tribe was rejuvenating, especially after the last few weeks. After just one hour at the NWP plenary, for example, I texted a colleague at school: “My soul needed this.”
I heard more than one person over the weekend lovingly refer to conferences like this as going to “teacher church.” Whatever your religious affiliations may or may not be, I think there is something to this observation. We go to conferences like this as a community, a congregation—not to worship but to gather. To be in a place where our beliefs—and more importantly, our practices—can be explored, deepened, challenged, and forged: all in service of the students we return to.
On Friday morning, I had the opportunity to attend the Don Graves Legacy Breakfast, hosted by Heinemann. A panel of educators spoke of Graves’ legacy, of his belief in “radical humanity” and his “deep conviction” that every child could write if he had one good teacher to help him. “Be that one teacher,” Graves urged us.
Penny Kittle led the panel in a discussion on this year’s theme of credo. What do we believe about teaching and learning, ourselves and our students? One by one, the panel of leading educators stood and claimed their beliefs. Katherine Bomer began with her belief in the power of children’s voices, that “the desire to express themselves is relentless.” “Writing,” Bomer continued, “is a way that children’s voices come to power.”
Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell spoke of their belief in the power of mentors, of educators as a “connected family tree.” At the previous Don Graves breakfast, three years ago, Allison and Rebekah heard Tom Newkirk’s charge to carry on the legacy of Graves, and that’s when the two Virginia educators got to work on their first book, Writing with Mentors, published last year. Smokey Daniels stood and listed many of the beliefs that Graves’ inspired in him: “Respect children. Listen first. Be generous. Follow your heart.” “We need,” he added, “a relentless barrage of kindness.”
Heinemann Fellow and high school teacher Kim Parker stood and claimed her belief: “that persistent achievement gaps do not need to be.” Thus, she argued, “I believe in rage. I believe in action.” Teachers College educator Cornelius Minor urged us to “cultivate our best person persona” and to teach “not for mastery but for revolution.” Georgia Heard: “I believe in those who don’t think they have anything to say.” She reminded us that we are all “turning the corner” in search of ourselves.
When the panel finished, Tom Newkirk cleared his throat, and with candor and passion, he looked out into the faces of the hundreds of educators gathered. In times like these, he argued, “We have to learn how to march.” Though we may feel overwhelmed at the challenges educators—and the country—face at this time, one small way we can move forward is to “cultivate the habit of deliberate acts of kindness.”
Not random acts of kindness. Deliberate.
I walked away from the breakfast feeling inspired, empowered to walk deliberately, even if it’s just one step at a time, to reflect deeply about my own belief in the power of education, and my own power as a teacher to make a difference. To be that one teacher. Be kind and generous, I remind myself.