#Reverb14: Prompt 6: Biting Back

Prompt 6 is a thought-provoking one and comes from Geek In Hard.

Prompt 6

Despite our usually sunny dispositions and dedication to the practice of “assuming positive intent,” we all occasionally find ourselves having to deal with an incredibly unpleasant individual.

While I’m sure you always handle it with the tact and finesse for which you’ve become so well-known, I’m going to ask you to step outside yourself for just a moment.

Think back to such a situation: if the gloves were off, how you really would have liked to have dealt with them?

For whatever reason, 2014 was the year I avoided conflict and cowered. Frequently. I just didn’t have the same strength I had a few years ago when I was just starting out as a self-employed person and naïve writer to take on battles with the same fervor.

When I read this prompt, I thought of a bunch of situations where I could have stood up for myself this past year, but I didn’t. There were the people who didn’t pay me for work this past January. Or how I avoided one of my best friends for 6 months because I just couldn’t face the discussion I wanted to have with her.

I’ve decided to focus on one moment from this past March where I wish I had made a different decision as a writer. In late February, I wrote a blog post for the website Medium about the teaching profession and a movement against Teach for America (TFA) of which I am an alumna. I am generally a supporter of Teach for America and its goals, though I often find myself thinking I would handle their messaging very differently. However, my issue with the anti-TFA movement was not its problems with Teach for America, but that it had unrealistic standards for the teaching profession, standards that I think ultimately diminishes it, whether TFA is a player or not.

I wrote and published my blog post #ResistTFA and The Teaching Profession in a flurry of inspiration one evening, wondering if anyone would read it. Well, it would be an understatement to say that I was pleasantly surprised with the response. According to my Medium stats, over 20,000 people read my post in 48 hours and it went viral on Facebook. It was the second most read item on Medium that week (and Medium did absolutely zero to plug it); as a reference point, the most popular blog post that day on Gawker was only read by 7K readers.

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(FYI: On a disappointing note, I received zero book sales or other “business-boosting” benefits from this post… but as writers, we know that is not the only goal when we take words to paper or screen.)

As excited I was by the stats, I also felt very uncomfortable and uneasy with the attention. I had expected some trolls with those kind of numbers, but received very few negative responses to my post. I constantly felt like the other shoe full of trolls was going to drop directly on my head. I published the post two days before my then-boyfriend and I went on our annual seven-day vacation to Flagler Beach and the day I got engaged (!). I made a promise to my then-fiance to stay off my computer and phone during our time away, which was the right thing to do. When I returned to real life, I belatedly found out that my post had been linked to and responded to in an article that had been published… in The Freaking Washington Post (yet another (!) moment) by Bruce Baker, a professor at Rutgers University.

The thing is there was a time in my life when I was a PhD student circa 2011 where I worshipped Bruce Baker, cited him constantly, and even stalked him at a conference so I could meet him at a Tweetup. As a little unknown grad student, I would not expect Dr. Baker to remember me at all and would never thought that anything I ever wrote would get a response from him… never mind one in The Freaking Washington Post.

My excitement over being linked to in a major media player quickly diminished as I read the response, and realized how much time had passed since it was published. I decided to let it go and not reach out to Dr. Baker or The Washington Post… or write a response on Medium or one of my own blogs. In retrospect, I completely wish that I had bit back. In truth, I didn’t respond because I was “afraid” … I felt like I had somehow overstepped my welcome in the spotlight and was eager to let it go.

But I actually still had a lot to say. If I had bit back, I would have told Dr. Baker that I felt that he was a bit disingenuous in how he used my original post as a stepping ground for his piece and that I felt like I was “subtweeted.” While he linked to what I wrote, he didn’t mention me by name and skirted around who I was and what I brought to the debate about the teaching profession. I was referred to as a “blogger,” not someone who had worked in teacher recruitment for 20+ years in multiple states and at the top of my field. I was not referred to as someone seen markets in play, not just in theory and that it was completely possible that a practitioner and economist could have very different evidence that was equally legitimate.

I also felt what he summarized as my argument was incorrect. His words:

“The implication is that TFA has, by virtue of producing high-quality candidates, outpaced the competition (traditional teacher preparation programs) on the free market – the open labor market for teachers. This would be all well and good if the speedy placement of TFA candidates had anything to do with an open competitive labor market, but it doesn’t.”

In my post, I never said that I thought that the market for teachers was an “open competitive market” and I was uncomfortable having this attributed to me. In fact, I don’t believe the labor market for ANY profession is an open competitive market and it is unrealistic to think you will see anything different in our lifetimes. Is it unfair?  Sure, but it has been unfair for hundreds of years. Education policy can’t change that. And it is why I ultimately decided to abandon academia for practice. I am concerned at how things really play out how I can affect that with my own power and talents.

The reality is that markets use information and social capital to help in the decision-making process. There are always candidates who have advantages that make hiring unfair.  If you are a candidate, you need to know that so you can use your own signals and capital properly. All of my books and the whole purpose of my company is to provide tools and information to those who can use it to help reduce inequity in the labor market. And I’ve been successful at it, too, especially in the teacher market.

TFA has outpaced the competition because it has used information and social capital in the market and I don’t think that is abusing the labor market. Traditional teaching schools could also use information and capital to make their candidates more successful, too, but they mostly don’t think this is an issue. In many ways, I think that is exactly where the unfairness lies.

I wish I would have emailed Dr. Baker at the time to tell him my concerns. At the time, I only saw a “go big or go home” response (another 20K reader post!) and I didn’t want that. It did not have to be that way and this was an important topic that deserves a lot of discussion, publicly and privately. I hope to write more about it in 2014 on Medium and other channels.

What did you wish you had bitten back at?

  • I think I may have linked that original post on my Facebook page. ;)

    There were lots of times I wish I had bitten back – most recently with my transition to a new position. It was handled badly by the school district in which I work. I wish I had requested a conversation with the head of HR & the senior director of school operations to *professionally* let them know that leaving me in limbo for 2 weeks & letting everyone but me know what was happening is not the way to keep quality employees & that the level of disorganization in my transfer speaks to a deeper level of dysfunction within the organization that is consistently producing failing schools.

    Then I wish I had told them that I wasn’t accepting the position (which was never even officially offered to me) & would be resigning.

    But I didn’t tell the people who actually needed too know because I know it wouldn’t matter anyway.

    • Oh wow- I didn’t realize you worked in education!

      I understand your frustrations. Hiring pretty much sucks everywhere, even the best places, but the bureaucracy of school districts makes it even more special.

      If you are still PO’d by how bad you were treated, it is never too late to write an email to the HR Director and give your feedback on the process in the interest of letting them know the repercussion of mistakes like this and any suggestions you had for making it better. They probably know, but it’s way too easy to justify bad behavior.