Daniel, Founder of Under A Tree, NJ
Daniel Meyer is a former history teacher and principal. He refers to himself as "a recovering charter school executive." He is most passionate about working with high school students, through his organization Under A Tree, to cultivate a generation of more ethical, accountable, and unrelenting civic change agents. Check them out at: http://www.underatree.org/ . Danny is part of our Education Leader series (#edleader) and is also a Catalyst for RE-ENVISIONED. He was interviewed by his friend and Mentor Catalyst, Erin.
Tell me about a child you care about. What makes them unique?
Danny: This is a really hard one. It’s like picking your favorite cereal. I mean, I like Lucky Charms and I also like Grape Nuts.
It’s not your favorite kid; it’s one kid you care about.
In this case, it’s hard to separate the two. Her name is Farrell Ann Ocasio. She’s now a teacher herself, an American history teacher just like I was for her. When she became a teacher, I gave her every single lesson plan I had, everything I had up on my wall in my room when I was a teacher, every project, picture, assignment, everything. I don’t know if there’s any greater compliment for a teacher to receive than to have a student with whom you felt so close in some way say, you know what, I don’t want to pay back, but I want to pay forward.
Tell me about her. Tell me about her characteristics. What her personality is like, what makes her unique?
With Farrell, I met her when she was 14. I think what impressed me was that level of maturity and of depth and of critical awareness or consciousness that seems other worldly, but at the same time there was a social comfort that I don’t think I ever had when I was her age and still probably don’t have. She’s one of those kids who seems, in an unworldly way, outside of any traditional measure of evaluation we have to understand a 14 year old who is anything but 14. Like one of those kids who is just, in some ways, more comfortable even at 14 having conversations with adults about identity, and feelings, and who we are, which are things that the average adult struggles with, let alone a 14 year old. She had the ability to be all of those things, and at the same time not to feel ashamed about it or something that had to be hidden or apologized for or in any way something that she needed to change about herself, and instead just be confident in who she was and what she was.
Certainly, she had her own set of struggles and still has her own set of struggles because awareness is as much of a blessing as it can also be a curse. It can be that albatross. To see the world not as we want it to be or hope it is, but as it is in its ugliest and most painful forms, to see injustice, to see the aching of the world, the brokenness of the world, and still that on some level not you numb yourself, not to become apathetic or bitter or to tune out or disconnect, but to stay awake to the pain of it all takes a certain kind of courage. It also creates life that is anything but easy as you go through it.
I think at the time what drew me to her was that she was more than just a good student and that she always turned in her homework, but the depth of her work, the depth of the questions she asked in class, the depth of her focus and investment as a person and an intellectual in not just completing work, but really investing herself in the dialogue and in the learning process. At that time I also felt that it was a really reciprocal didactic process where she was one of the students where every single day it wasn’t like, I hope I can help them to get this idea, or I hope I can create an environment where they are able to grow into the understanding of this idea, but that she was the one kind of in her responses and in her own critical awareness that was pushing me to think of, not just ideas and thoughts I had never considered, but also how I can better pose questions myself.
When you think about her growing up and being in her 30s, what would make a good life for her? What do you want for her in her life?
That’s the hardest question I think you could ask me because I struggle with answering that in my own life. I think as human beings we are artful in our ability to compartmentalize and in our ability to avoid cognitive dissonance in every single way. The ability to believe ourselves to be responsible, accountable, decent hearted people, but at the same time make consumer choices, political choices, ideological choices that run in direct contrast to everything we think we stand for. We’re able to do this all the time.
For her, I struggle to know what that looks like because I struggle with knowing myself. I’m so incredibly proud of how aware she is. I’m so incredible proud that, like me, she has a really hard time leaving school at 2:30 after the bell rings and not staying until 7pm everyday surrounded by students and talking with them and helping them and developing them and just listening to them. These are all things in some ways that I would wish for her life that in a lot of ways she represents the best of what is possible in education and in our world.
At the same time, from this other perspective, knowing how much I’ve struggled throughout my life to accept the world as the world exists and not somehow feel overwhelmed and inundated or paralyzed by that reality, I also worry for her, because I know how unsustainable that is. I know ultimately the same thing that I wish for her and with for the world, that there would be more Farrells, also terrifies me because in some ways it’s a passion and it’s a pain that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. It’s a hard life to live. So what does a good life look like? I don’t know. Because I know what it takes to create a good world, but I don’t know so many models of people who are really working actively, consciously, and meaningfully to impact that world who are also themselves living good and balanced healthy lives.
I don’t think I’m supposed to do this, but I want to put in a little amen right about there.
Can you transcribe that? A halleluiah? Put that in there. Halleluiah.
I am going to push you a little bit on this: you keep saying, “represent the best of what’s possible in education in the world” and “I know what it takes to create a good world”. Say more about both of those. What is the best of what’s possible? What does it take to create a good world?
Well, can I actually come back to that? I want to get it right. When I start to talk about that, sometimes we associate talking with teaching, but for me talking is the most important learning process because, as we start talking I’ll think, I don’t believe that at all. In my head, as I’m putting the words together none of them quite feel like what I want to say at this point, so do you mind if I come back to that?
No problem, and I want to point out that a big part of this process is not to get the final answer or the true answer; it’s to start catalyzing this conversation. I find in a lot of interviews and these conversations that by the end, people are like, “oh wait, let me revise the thing I said up here, because now that I’ve thought through it in this way I’m not sure.” I’m hoping what happens is that it doesn’t stop here, and it continues to percolate and your ideas evolve, and that we have these conversations leading into multiple conversations on these, and you think, “that wasn’t quite what I meant!” and “what is that really?”
In that case, let me take the pressure off of myself to get the answer I think is going to be perfect and just see what comes out. So, what do I think is necessary in order to create a better world is a kind of education, a kind of apprenticeship, so to speak, that develops, not just leaders, but social impact change agents. I guess in a bit I’ll distinguish what I mean. To create a world in which people who are making decisions every single day, in big ways and in little ways, in profound ways and in broad global ways, in inter-personal decisions every single way, are acting in the most aware, accountable, and ethical ways.
The reason I breach that is because I think we need a world that’s more earnest, so that the best of our leaders and the best of us are aware, accountable, and activists. What I mean is that I think awareness without agency can be really sentimental and anemic and paralyzing. It’s akin to being a burn victim, there’s a reason why in the burn victims, there’s basically an induced coma because to be awake to that is too hard. I think sometimes the way that people feel on fire once they start to understand the world and how it works.
To create awareness without making people feel like they can do something about it to me is hurtful. It’s abusive in some ways. I think ultimately, in some ways to create agents and leaders without creating a sense of awareness about the world as it is can also be really reckless and create a lot of recklessness and abuse, and a lot of people who think they’re doing the right thing but have no foundation or no knowledge about the communities in which they’re working, no knowledge of systems of justice, injustice, oppression then in a lot of ways, they can create more harm than good. Ultimately I feel like awareness without accountability creates a sense of bitterness towards the world where you’re like, “all those bad people out there making decision, I hate them and I hate the world.”
Without accountability, we can’t reflect on “what is our role in it? What is our responsibility in the day to day, even if we’re not president, even if we’re not the CEO? What is our accountability in perpetuating this and ultimately in making a difference?” I think that accountability without agency gives a sense of hopelessness and despair, like “I am the worst person in the world and I’m the cause of all this pain and injustice, but there’s nothing I can do about it besides hate myself.”
That to me led to a decade in my twenties where I was just drinking myself to sleep and hoping not to wake up. Then again, I think there are also, in the same way, a number of young people, people throughout time, who have been developed in these kind of crucibles of leadership or as captains of industry who feel like they have all the knowledge, all the political savvy, they know exactly how to navigate themselves, how to brand themselves, how to get out there, how to get the money, the donations, what to do, how to get a claim and attention and make booms, yet they’ve never really been asked to think critically about the world and critically about their own roles in mediating these institutions, then I think ultimately there’s a lot of harm there to be done. So, I think a better world means a population of citizens who have all three of those things: awareness, accountability, and agency.
What should be the role of schools in getting Farrell to that good life? What role do you want schooling to play in her life?
That’s hard. This is where I realize how full of shit I am, because I can say all those things, but am I really prepared to say that I think any of what I’m talking about is really able to be implemented in a scale of a way and in an impactful way across the board in public education?
That’s a different question. What should the role of schools be? Then we’ll get into whether it’s scalable and realizable, but what do you wish? What would you like schools to do?
What would I like? I would like schools to be crucibles for the practice of freedom and the espousal of liberation. I would like for them to be the crucibles that cultivate not just a sense of personal responsibility in this very insular, narrow view of personal morals, but also as far as the cultivator of active and engaged and transformational citizenship. I want them to be the crucibles of opportunities to examine themselves and reflect upon themselves, upon one’s own identity, upon one’s own values, upon one’s own lines that they will inevitably need to draw between what they find to be right and what they find to be wrong, and how willing they will be in different times in their lives to adjust those lines as needed. I want schools to be crucibles of dialogue, of exchange of ideas, of practices, because ultimately I think that a healthy democracy is contingent upon healthy dialogue. You can’t have a thriving democracy sans robust civic discourse.
In schools where students aren’t just not taught, but empowered and developed in the ways that they speak with one another and listen to one another and engage in discourse, our democracy deteriorates and decays in a process of that. I want schools to be crucibles of student empowerment, of lifelong learning, of a certain kind of autodidactic and autonomous, transformational spirit, the sense of one’s own power, the sense of what’s possible, but also the crucible for how much more we can accomplish when we build alliances and partnerships and not just become leaders to lead a flock, but become social impact change agents, which means that they’re not necessarily always the people at the head and not necessarily always the people creating organizations and creating a movement, but doing their part every single day in their words, in their silence, in their political choices, in how the write, in how they talk, in how they listen, to build community and build alliances and start to create networks across the world where those people who are fighting for justice and fighting to make a difference don’t feel so isolated and alone as they do.
Also, I guess maybe teach algebra? I guess I kind of want bridges to be made too, so I guess also geometry? Chemistry I guess too? It’s kind of cool.
The thing is, what we know is that students forget the vast majority of everything we ever teach them within a year or a few years, let alone a few decades. Education in schools has to be more than a method of knowledge delivery. It has to be more than just about, how do we augment students’ declarative knowledge, but how do we also create and cultivate tools that they’re going to take with them their entire lives long after they’ve left their classroom. Because those tools of course will rust up over time and will need to be sharpened and updated, but it’s much different if you have a toolbox you get to take with you then if you have a few things rattling around in your brain that are likely to get forgotten.
Do you think schools will play the role that you would like them to for Farrel? Why or why not?
That’s a complicated question and I’ll try not to complicate my answer too much, but I think it did it for Farrel, I think yes. But that’s the other question- how does that get evaluated? I know how to evaluate the answer to 2+2. That’s clear and despite our political climate, I would think yeah, maybe in a couple of years it’ll be different, but it’s hard to create an argument there. I’m sure someone someday will write a post about how actually, 2+2 does not equal 4, and then someone will write an open letter describing how this generation has a problem understanding how 2+2 is not really 4, and then someone will write a response to that, an open letter about the open letter, saying well actually, 2+2 is 4 and this need to say that it’s 5 is only hurting people.
So, I don’t know. For now, I don’t know how we evaluate that. How we evaluate someone’s capacity for social change, someone’s capacity for critical thinking, someone’s capacity for passionate, ethical, accountable, and effective leadership…that I don’t know. I go back and forth a lot with this in my own teaching practice and the way that I look at things pedagogically in how to develop instruction practices, because I really don’t know. I don’t know how that works, and I think I’d be lying or naïve or delusional if I said that I did. Sometimes I think it is something that you can teach and cultivate and develop. Other times, I think I say that because Farrel is already someone who had that, whether innately or because of her earlier socialization or whatever. She was someone who was going to respond to that kind of teaching and that kind of development. I don’t know.
I also worry that, if I’m being honest, all teachers say I don’t want to teach you what to think, I want to teach you how to think, but I think that people are maybe being disingenuous when they say that, because when we say I want to teach you how to think, the idea is that ultimately, by me teaching you that, you will come to the same conclusions I came to.
As much as I say that I want to empower kids to think critically and become accountable, can I be honest and say yes, I feel like with a student who then goes on to work at Halliburton and reinforce some really messed up shit in the world, and just generally be an asshole, thinking, I’m being super aware about things, about the liberal media, and being super accountable about calling feminism out for being a cancer, super active in electing really nasty politicians, would I really be happy? Then would I be saying that awareness and accountability and activism are really what’s most important for a good world?
I think I go back and forth a lot. Maybe they end up looking at a political issue and end up seeing something very different. In my point of view, in some ways I’ve been successful, as long as they’re really seeking out information and thinking critically. From a really, really raw, honest, no-bullshit point of view, if they see something and say, “yeah, feminism is a crock of shit, and women fighting for equality is really just making things worse,” would I think, “wow I think you really get it, I’ve done my job here”? Probably not.
Will schools play the role you think it should for all children? If not, why not?
I go back and forth. The easy way to say it is that schools aren’t failing, right?
As much as we keep picking at schools and keep saying they’re not doing what they need to do, they’re not failing and in some ways, they’re doing exactly what they’re supposed to do, which is kind of serve in some ways as the pipeline to, not active citizenship, but passive consumerism and placement in the long line of grey, corporate people.
At other times I think, well that’s just a bit too cynical. There’s no one behind the curtain pulling these levers and making these decisions. It’s much more complicated than that. I don’t think that the reason I would question whether the form of schools could do that or not is based on my belief in their capacity to do so as much as I said that, more so just like at this point of time, the business and political of everything. I work with 140, 150 schools and I see what the world looks like for an administrator about budgets and making decisions about how to maintain their jobs based on the proliferation of standardized test scores. And ultimately, that’s the hardest part of it all. It’s not mean people making these decisions to hurt kids, it’s good people, decent people, people who I genuinely believe themselves to be doing the right thing who are all kind of caught in the system where they’re having to mediate and turn the same crank because of the consequences.
So you have, superintendents at the public school level who have seen the proliferation of charters and the Ed-reform movement, whose schools are being called disasters and failures and they have to say, well, right now the way to show that they’re not is through test scores, so we need to go. And then you have people in the Ed-reform movement who are being called out as just kind of profiteers who are taking advantage and making money. They’re like, look, we have to show results to show that charter schools really are getting results and are good. But what does that mean? That means that there are those expectations for the principals, and the principals are brought back for two reasons: one, because their budget is in the block and two, because their school is an “A”, which means that test scores are high. So, no matter how much, as a principal, I may disagree with all of it, I may want to say, I don’t care about all of that, we’re not doing that. But at the end of the day, when I look at my mortgage, and I look at my kid who needs braces, and I look at my other kid who wants to go to prom, as much as I might want to say that I’m willing to sacrifice all of them and compromise all of that on behalf of my ideals, it’s much harder.
Principals kind of have to take it down the line and say, look, this is important. So then teachers are making the same decision, because they don’t make a lot of money either. If they want their contracts to be renewed and to be brought back, then they have to then also give in. Kids and parents and families are then like, OK, this is how you get out, this is how you make a living. When you ask students, when you ask parents, when you ask teachers, when you ask principals, almost everyone along the line will say, something isn’t working here, something is broken here, we don’t like the direction of education, we don’t like where things are going.
And yet in the day to day, as far as decisions that could be made, understanding the very real day to day practical constraints, very few of us have the audacity and the courage and the bravery to make choices that fly in the face of that direction that we all say we don’t want to see things go. I certainly put myself right there. I have John Brown tattooed on my arm. I have John Brown tattooed on my arm because when I was young and really politically conscientious and radical, I thought, when it comes time to do the right thing I’m wiling to die for my beliefs.
When it comes time to do the right thing I’m willing to die because I feel so strongly and yet, now that I’m in the education space, I wouldn’t die for my beliefs, I sometimes can’t even speak up at a meeting because I’m afraid that that’s going to lead me to be less liked by my employer. If I’m less liked by my employer, then I’m not going to have the same opportunities to get a promotion or make more money in the future or pay my mortgage. In just the last 15 years, I’ve gone from, “I’m going to die for my beliefs just like John Brown did”, to, “yeah, but I really like that sometimes I get upgrades because my legs are really long and airplane seats are really uncomfortable, and so I don’t really want to risk that because I hate flying in coach without extra leg room, so I’d better not say anything now”. That’s the reality of how most of us make decisions. How about that for a long, rambling, meandering answer to say nothing? :)
Do you think people agree with you on these different levels?
I think a lot about a Bobby Kennedy quote. I don’t know it verbatim, but it’s something along the lines of, “progress is always desired but progress requires change and change has its enemies”, something like that. From this kind of utopian, broad, cryptic, generally worded term of, “yes, we all want a better world,” nobody’s going to say, “no, I don’t want a better world.” It’s like the commencement speech where you say, “cancer is bad.” Of course it is, who can disagree with that?
Do you think people agree on what a better world is?
That’s what I mean. If I say it in these general ways where people are aware and accountable to do the right thing then yeah, I think people agree. But if I start to use different words, like for example, if instead of using “social impact, changing by civic leaders” I start using “social justice activists,” people start to feel differently. And if you start to kind of put skin on that skeleton and say, to me what the world looks like is a country where we take care of our needs and a place where we don’t have such disparities in a way that we target, arrest, sentence, and execute people of color, and that yes, ultimately wealthy people should pay much higher taxes. We should have better maternity benefits for women and better paternity benefits. With so many of these different things, when you start to fill in that skeleton, obviously my view of a better world looks very different.
That’s the crisis. That’s what I’ve learned, because I grew up in a very pro-union public school household. My father was a Chicago public school teacher. Now I work for the biggest charter school network in the world, where there are no unions and an extremely conservative ideology. When I first took the job, it was because I was in love with a woman and wanted to live closer to her, and it was two weeks before the school year started and I got a job. When I started to transition more into the corporate side, the corporate leadership side, I think I genuinely believed that someone was going to pull me into this darkly lit room where they were going to say, “oh hahaha, here is the real truth, we’re here to exploit kids, and we don’t care about them!”
But that’s not it. What has stood true is, from the public side and the charter side, everyone genuinely believes, or has had to convince themselves, or not, that it’s worthy of being believed, that they’re doing the right thing; they’re doing the right thing for the world and for kids and communities. I work for people who, politically, are on the complete opposite side of the spectrum, but they genuinely believe that what they’re doing is what’s best for the country and for communities and the world. I also stay very connected with people who are pro-education and extremely anti-charter. I listen to them and they believe very strongly that what is happening is for the detriment of kids and communities.
Ultimately, everyone talks about kids and what’s best for kids and for schools, and they mean it. The problem is that, too often, kids are like the armor that we wrap our kinks with as we go into battle as we go to war with each other. Kids are the rhetoric, kids are the armor, but at the end of the day, just like religion, like if you believe that whichever religion is inerrant in what they say happened, then someone has got to be wrong. If you believe that someone is right, then not everyone can be. That’s what the hardest thing about this is. Everyone believes that their view of a better life, a better world is the right one. We can’t all be right, and that’s the crisis, because when intentions aren’t enough, when the desire to do the right thing isn’t enough, then how do we start to differentiate not between good and evil, not between wrong and right, but between people just trying to do their best and create something better for their children and their children’s children. That’s where the struggle is. It’s not between good people and bad people, it’s between all of us as just people trying to do the best we can and having very, very different opinions about what that looks like.