On Sunday, NBC gathered a group of more than 300 teachers from around the country in a tent built on the skating rink at New York City's Rockefeller Center -- along with thousands who logged on online -- and asked them provocative questions about charter schools, merit pay, teacher tenure and, of course, Waiting for "Superman."
The Teacher Town Hall, as it was called, was part of the network's "Education Nation" program, a weeklong event of blanket education coverage on NBC news shows that coincides with a moment when suddenly everyone seems to be talking about education reform.
Teachers and how to make them better are huge topics in ed-reform discussions, but it's pretty rare for the back-and-forth to involve teachers themselves, much less to give them time to make their case on national television.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, attended the town hall and was impressed. "This is the first time I can remember that any conversation on school reform actually asked teachers what they think," she said, adding that this forum was different than the usual scenario of having a union representative on a panel to defend teacher tenure.
That said, this was still TV, and the town hall was as concerned with entertaining the audience at home as it was with nurturing a substantive discussion. The show was competing in the same time slot as Sunday afternoon pro football, after all, and Brian Williams, the host, seemed intent on provoking a battle between the different "sides" of the ed-reform debates.
"Are teachers under attack?" was one of his first questions, followed by questions about what to do with teachers who don't belong in the field. Williams also made quite a few plugs for the controversial film Waiting for "Superman," which casts teachers' unions in a fairly ugly light. (Education Nation screened the film twice over the weekend, which is interesting considering that NBC has no financial stake in the documentary -- it's a product of Viacom; an organizer said the timing of the film's release and Education Nation was sheer coincidence.)
The resulting "feud" wasn't as violent as a football game, but it did get angry at times. One teacher who spoke in favor of charter schools, where tenure isn't usually an option, was hissed at by the audience. Afterward, another teacher said the forum had a "Jerry Springer-esque" feel.
Nevertheless, even with Williams pleading that teachers waiting in line to speak "be brief," some teachers succeeded in touching on more complex themes. Many stood up to say they didn't mind accountability, but teachers from across the political spectrum asked for measures that made sense - that were "humane," and "authentic," and not just based on test scores.
A constant refrain was that policymakers are making decisions about how to reform the public school system with very little understanding of what it's like to be in a classroom or what successful teaching actually entails. "You need a lot of passion, but passion is not going to cut it," one teacher said, adding that teachers need expertise in pedagogy and their content areas, as well as in how to manage a classroom. And to develop all of these components, teachers repeated over and over, they need more support.
A teacher from the Bronx said that since entering the classroom, his own perspective on teaching has changed dramatically. He entered the profession because he thought he could do better than the teachers he'd had in high school, he said. But once in the classroom, he said he never encountered the drones he expected. Part of the problem with improving the profession, he concluded, was that we don't agree "about what being a good teacher is."
The NBC gathering seems to have at least sparked a conversation that includes teachers in figuring out this question. On Tuesday, "good" teachers will be giving model lessons before the public in Rockefeller Center. We'll be going to check that out and will also be discussing how NBC picked the 300 teacher-participants, so stay tuned.