Heard on the Tour: Vermont Coffee House

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Secretary Duncan stops at Muddy Waters cafe in Burlington, Vt., to talk with teachers on his listening tour about education reform.

Two weeks ago In West Virginia, our first listening tour stop , teachers told me they would have liked to have met Secretary Duncan after school for coffee.  They said the conversation he’d started at their school could have gone on for hours.  They’d have time for that after school, when they could relax and just let the conversation roll.

We took that advice to heart.  Before arriving in Vermont last week, we contacted a teacher at Colchester High School and asked where her teacher friends hang out.  She mentioned a café in nearby Burlington, a few blocks from the university.

That’s where 10 elementary and high school teachers stopped in right after school got out, grabbed a coffee, and sat down for an hour with Secretary Duncan for an open-ended conversation.  Teachers talked about everything from their personal reasons for becoming teachers, to experiences with their students, dealing with discipline, pressure to “teach to the test,” national standards, media perceptions of teachers, parents who are intimidated by teachers and schools, cooking for their families after working all day, class sizes, what to wear to school, music, support for teachers who want to be principals, “loan forgiveness” and more.  The conversation kept running for a couple hours, even after the Secretary had to leave for his next appointment.

Something that kept coming up again and again throughout the conversation was the realization that  teachers laugh and cry a lot.  We cry mostly in the first few years, then we learn to laugh more, and as we get older we cry with joy when our students succeed and graduate.  Maybe the teachers in Vermont are just highly emotional, but I don’t think so.  The teachers in West Virginia told us similar stories, with similar emotional reactions.  It seems that if you’re going to have a free-wheeling conversation with teachers, you better bring some Kleenex, or if you’re in a café, stock up on the napkins.  You’re going to laugh until you cry, and you’re not leaving until everybody hugs each other.  This “meeting” really set the tone for the next day’s school visits.

Tim Tuten
Director of Events, Office of Communications and Outreach