05/27/2010 05:12 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Maybe We Can All Get Along

Is the bitterness over Colorado's new teacher effectiveness law subsiding? Hard to say. But over the past week I've noticed reasonable people on both sides of the debate yearning to put it behind them and mend fences. And that may be the most encouraging sign to emerge in a while.

Last Thursday I followed State Sen. Mike Johnston, the driving force behind the law, to O'Connell Middle School in a low-income pocket of Lakewood. Teachers, some unhappy with the law and others seeking more information, had gathered in the library to meet with Johnston.

Would the session be a shout-fest? A smack-down? A spirited debate? As it turned out, it was none of the above. It was a reasoned, low-key conversation that ended after 45 minutes with both sides better informed, and with even the most skeptical teachers apparently feeling at least a bit better.

Johnston is 35, and a novice politician, with just one legislative session and no political campaigns behind him. But anyone who doubts his skills, even after he shepherded a highly controversial piece of legislation through to passage, need only watch him interact with a group of potential adversaries.

When it comes to educators, of course, it helps that Johnston was a teacher and principal for many years before becoming a politician. Still, the way he walked into O'Connell and won over those teachers was impressive. He empathized with them but didn't pander. He talked directly to them instead of assuming the politician's phony veneer of jocularity or know-it-all-ness.

And it worked. Not because he employed some tactic or trick to win over the teachers, but because he convinced them, or seemed to, that when you get down to the essence of this debate, people on all sides ultimately are after the same thing: Schools that work for the vast majority of kids.

There is wide disagreement about how we get there, or even whether we can get there. All too often it's the disagreements that take center stage, as firebrands on all sides paint their adversaries as having ill intent. But with rare exceptions, that's not the case.

It wasn't just Johnston's bravura performance that I found encouraging. It was also the response to last week's "From the editor." I wrote, after attending an education writers conference, that many of the journalists there were as skeptical of self-described reformers and their perceived arrogance as they were of entrenched interests in school systems and teachers' unions.

I received about a dozen calls and emails in response to that column. Most were from people with whom I usually differ on education policy issues, and they got in touch because they appreciated what I wrote.

This threw me, because even though I usually come down on the side of those pushing for rapid systemic change, I like to think I'm open-minded. But the people who contacted me did so because they were pleasantly surprised that I had deviated at least this once from what they perceive as the party line.

"You see, we're not idiots and Neanderthals after all," one public official said, paraphrasing a line from last week's column.

I didn't write the column as an olive branch, but that is how some people took it, and that's fine. It shows that the disagreements are not necessarily intractable; that people want to find ways to bridge the divide and work together.

Is this possible? Yes, of course. But it won't be easy. Fundamental change is a threatening phenomenon. People on both sides will make mistakes as we stumble forward. But I'm encouraged that if we make even modest efforts to reach out, as Johnston did, and I suppose as I did, there will be people willing to meet us half-way.

Something probably will happen in the next week or so to wash away this trickle of optimism. But I'm going to enjoy it while it lasts.