03/08/2013 11:01 am ET Updated May 08, 2013

Finding Common Ground

This is the winning entry for the Alumni category of The Fetzer Institute - Sustained Dialogue Empathy Essay Contest.

The meeting was tense. The state board of education was deciding whether or not to renew a contract with Teach for America (TFA) -- a nonprofit organization that focuses on placing quality teachers in low-income schools, where it can often be difficult to attract and retain educators. Some board members expressed their distaste for TFA, and representatives from the teacher unions angrily refuted the value of such programs.

Then it was my turn to speak. My plan was to be professional and tick off my counterpoints to their arguments. Instead, I found myself with tears down my face, explaining the story of why I joined TFA and why I stayed in education -- how as a black woman growing up in a poor, rural town, I watched as low expectations and a system full of cracks led to many of my classmates and friends dropping out of school. How when I got to college, I found myself struggling to stay afloat academically because I hadn't experienced the same level of academic rigor that many of my fellow classmates had in their K-12 schooling. How my students would say things like, "Ms. Brooks, why are you pushing us so hard? You know we're not smart." How after telling them that they absolutely were smart and working them harder than they probably ever had, they excelled and achieved the highest test scores in the district. How every single day, I go to work, passionate about ending the injustice of the achievement gap.

I didn't notice at first when a teacher who had been at the meeting against Teach for America came to sit next to me. She told me that her problem wasn't actually with TFA, but with the way in which people talked about it as if traditional teachers weren't as good or as valued. She spoke of how she and other teachers just wanted to feel like their voices were being heard. How she had been teaching for a long time and was scared that the state wanted to replace her.

Then, we began discussing how we both believed deeply that all children can learn. How we both believed there were ineffective teachers that needed to be removed from classrooms, but how the majority of teachers are good and just need more support and feedback to be even better. How in addition to a quality education, students need access to health and mental health services, and how important the arts are to engaging students. How having this very conversation needed to happen far more often in general, but especially between all kinds of teachers and policy-makers. How the movement to end educational inequity would be so much stronger if there was more cooperation and less in-fighting. How reform means something different to everyone, but the word has been hijacked, and we've been told to choose a side. How even though we went through very different routes to become educators, we had far more in common than many would have us believe.