How I Almost Became an Education Reformer

by Sarah Blaine

By 2011, I’d been practicing law for about six years. That spring, I hit a watershed moment in my practice. I was put on a crazy project that culminated in the one and only time I billed over 300 hours in a month. During that month, I never saw my children awake for more than a few stress filled moments in the morning, and I worried that my “Mommy always comes back” mantra was appearing less and less true in my three year old daughter’s eyes. I had no idea what was going on in my seven year old’s life.  At the culmination of the project that forced my 300+ hour month, one of the partners I worked for came into my office to praise my efforts. She told me that I should keep doing what I’d been doing. G-d forbid.

This partner happened to be a single mother who’d moved a kid sized desk and kid sized folded couch into her office so that her preschooler could sit, headphones engaged, for hours watching videos on a portable DVD player until she passed out asleep on the fold out couch, as mom juggled conference calls. Being a single mom cannot be easy, and in between the 300+ hour months, partner-mom took plenty of vacations with her daughter, and for some of her work binges, she shipped her daughter out to her parents for some actual attention (and presumably less screen time). Nevertheless, while her work-life balance choices seemed to satisfy her, the model she presented did not inspire me. I didn’t want to disappear from my kids’ lives for months at a time. Big law partnership looked more and more like a booby prize. One month at a pace of over 300 hours was problematic enough for my marriage and my children: as fun as the work challenges and accomplishments it had brought had been, it was not an experience I cared to repeat on a regular basis. I certainly didn’t aspire to it as a permanent state of being.

And while the work was intellectually challenging, it was not fulfilling. Helping hedge fund principals and private equity gurus achieve their litigation goals did not leave me feeling that I’d done the world a solid. The intellectual challenge was not enough, since I felt that I was using my brain to leave the world a little worse off. A little less fair. And I watched, from the inside, as the scales of justice continued, in my estimation, to tip a little further away from the have-nots.

As a result, I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that partnership at a large law firm was not a future I wanted for myself. I would happily spend the rest of my life driving Mazdas rather than Mercedes in return for a job that would allow me to make plans with my family and friends. My ideal job would let me, on balance, get paid a living wage to leave a positive mark on the world. I no longer dreamed of riches; I simply dreamed of enough.

So I wanted out. As I considered next steps, I began thinking about actually doing what my law school essay said I’d applied to law school to do: to marry my old career with my new one by putting my legal education to use helping students, especially disadvantaged students like the ones I’d taught a decade before in rural Maine.

But still. We had, like so many others, bought our house at the height of the housing boom, and our hefty mortgage payment loomed each month, without hope of a refi. A few more years of preschool tuition loomed, and there was only so much expense reduction we could manage. Leaving my community was not an option. So poverty wages were not an option.

As I considered my future, I started coming across programs. Interesting programs. Financially lucrative programs. Programs and jobs that paid wages I could live on. All I needed to do was to buy into the education reform agenda.

For instance, The Broad Residency helped mid-career professionals transition to jobs in education. And education jobs must mean doing good for the world. Along with annual salaries of $90,000 – $100,000. For jobs in education. Doing good. That sounded like something I could live with. Education Pioneers offered a similar career path. Less money. But still, it had possibilities. Maybe I could earn a comfortable wage and do some good.

So I started applying. I vaguely knew that the programs supported “education reform,” but I’d left teaching a decade earlier, so I had little idea of what that meant beyond support for charter schools. For the chance to do some good (and a comfortable wage), I could probably support the charter movement. Although I had some reservations, I wasn’t in the trenches or up to date on the latest education reform policy wars, and the reformers’ slogans sounded appealing. After all, they wanted to put students first, close the achievement gap, and accept no excuses. That all sounded good to me. As the misery of my big law career dragged on, I desperately wanted to find some work that would allow me to see my family and feed my soul. The education reform organizations sounded more and more tempting. As I revamped my resume for these fellowship opportunities, I conveniently forgot to mention my experience as a volunteer member of the contract negotiations team for my local teacher’s union up in Maine. I hadn’t done a lot of research, but I’d figured out that much.

So I applied. For the fellowships, and other jobs at charter schools and reform-oriented organizations. Luckily, I was not their ideal candidate. Looking back, I suspect that I was too much of an unknown quantity: yes, I had only a few years of teaching experience, but that experience was in an unknown rural public school, and I’d gotten into teaching by a traditional method (i.e., obtaining a traditional teaching certification by earning a Master of Arts in teaching degree at an actual university). My experience mirrored that of TFA students, but my preparation for teaching far exceeded TFA’s summer training. And my teaching experience predated No Child Left Behind. I might actually believe in portfolio assessments. Or project-based learning. Or that class size matters.

Similarly, I’d attended an elite undergraduate university, but I’d earned my advanced degrees from (much cheaper) public universities. I’d graduated from law school with high honors, but it was Rutgers, not Harvard. And pedigree seems to matter to the education reformers.

I was parent of a public school student in a town with a reputation for socio-economic diversity that resulted in our public schools never making the top rankings in NJ Monthly magazine.

My pro bono legal experience including partnering with the Education Law Center on impact litigation intended to increase the access students with disabilities had to inclusive classrooms.

I simply did not appear malleable enough.

I got to the final round of interviews with one of the education reform fellowships, but looking back, I am sure that I tanked myself in the group activity when I suggested taking parents’ and teachers’ concerns seriously and advocating obtaining buy-in from all stakeholders rather than ramrodding my hypothetical superintendent’s agenda down resistant parents’ and teachers’ throats.

I did get out of big law. Here I am: a parent who eats dinner with my husband and kids almost every night, a practicing attorney at a small firm that does not do education law, but also does not expect me to aspire to bill 300 — or even 200 — hours in a month. I am an occasional education blogger, and a volunteer in my children’s schools when the stars align between job responsibilities and school volunteer opportunities.  My paid work is not particularly fulfilling, but my colleagues are lovely and it could be worse.  It’s not a bad life.  And I put my kids to bed every night.

My ambition is still to find an opportunity that would allow me to actually manage to do what I went to law school to do: that is, to combine my legal and teaching backgrounds to improve our education system. Or maybe, just maybe, if the opportunity was right, to go back to teaching. Because after all these years, I still miss students. I miss the classroom. And I miss the knowledge that I’ve made a difference in children’s lives. This time, however, it would be Social Studies. If anyone is even teaching that anymore.

But in the meantime, I try.

And I intend to try more.

And, when I can, I intend to write more, so that I can reach an audience beyond my indulgent neighbors.

I try to educate those around me concerning why due process rights matter for public school teachers.

I try to suggest that while teachers’ unions certainly could benefit from reform (and a revamp of their communications operations), they are not inherently evil.

I try to explain the pernicious insidiousness of attaching high-stakes decisions to standardized test results.

I try to be an ambassador for the teachers who were once my colleagues, as they are maligned in the media and beyond.

I try to explain what I learned about the unique problems of rural schools, and why one-size-fits-all education solutions don’t work for a country as diverse as ours.

I try to explain why I am a true believer in the Supreme Court’s mandate requiring schools to provide students with special needs access to a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.

I try to be an effective advocate for my own kids within our local school system.

I try to explain that while technology can be a valuable tool, it is not a panacea that will cure all that ails education. That data, while valuable, is just another tool.

I try to explain why poverty matters.

I try to explain the distinction between educating future citizens versus training future cogs for our economic engine.

And I try to keep educating myself, and to keep measuring my own knowledge and assumptions against research, experience, and common sense.

And in all of that trying, I try most of all to remember that I flirted with the land of education reform. If I’d appeared a little more malleable, perhaps I would have ended up a bona fide reformer. I am sure that many of the so-called reformers were once in my shoes. Many of them, I am sure, also wanted out from careers they found unfulfilling. Many of them wanted jobs where they felt that they could make a difference. And The Broad Residency, and Education Pioneers, and the charter schools, and the other reform organizations: they promised those opportunities. The chance to make a difference. To put students first. And to make good salaries. Really good salaries. The job boards tell the stories.

The education reform world is tempting, particularly to those who feel trapped by golden handcuffs. So I try not to demonize the Education Reformers, because I know how easily I might have ended up one of them.

But instead, I am just me. So I will continue to try to add my spin to the policy discussions. And maybe, there will come an opportunity that will allow me to marry my teaching background, legal expertise and writing skills. Someday.

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