Teaching Opens Doors: A Teacher’s Reflection on Duncan’s Princeton University Speech

When I go to events, I like checking out the crowd, to take their temperature and learn their priorities.

At Princeton, students don t-shirts that read, “Help us close the achievement gap.” They are part of an organization called “Students for Educational Reform.” Congressional members, professors, dignitaries, local teachers, and educational leaders sit in this wood-paneled hall of deep thought.

Maryann Woods-Murphy is the 2010 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year

The president of Princeton University, Shirley Tilghman, introduces Secretary Duncan as “the most assertive secretary of education we’ve ever had.”

Arne takes the podium and informs the Princeton crowd that he had really wanted to attend this university but that the Princeton coach didn’t feel that he had what it took to play basketball on the team. He went to Harvard instead.

The anecdote is telling. If one door closes, the secretary will open another. This is not a man who is easily convinced that he doesn’t have what it takes or that his goals are impossible.

And now, as the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan is on the stage urging us to “work together in ways that we haven’t before.” He calls us to get over “adult dysfunction” and “use collective bargaining to drive student achievement, to raise the bar to close the achievement gap.”

America used to be number one in the world for college graduation rates in the world and now we’ve slipped to number 9. It’s a matter of national security, he warns. Right now, less than 25% of students can qualify to enter our own military services. “We have to get better faster” because “businesses are going to go where the knowledge workers are.”

Secretary Duncan at Princeton University

He cites Illinois as a place we should look at as a model of collaborative educational decision-making. We need to get past the “heated rhetoric” that is not helpful to our goals.

As a life-long teacher, this is music to my ears. My teaching colleagues need to be energized and assured that teachers are important, that we are the “nation builders” that President Obama called us in his State of the Union.

It’s inspiring to hear the Secretary remind us that poverty is not destiny in America. He urges us to “look over the horizon,” and past our fiscal woes, to recruit the best teachers possible, teachers who believe in the innate potential in every child.

That’s our common ground. My take away from the Secretary’s talk? We must have “honest conversations along the continuum.” We need to open doors.

Maryann Woods-Murphy

Maryann Woods-Murphy is the 2010 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year.  She teaches Spanish at Northern Highlands Regional High School in Allendale, NJ.

Read Woods-Murphy’s reflection of a recent TEACH event in Newark, NJ.

Read Arne’s op-ed in the Daily Princetonian.