By the Company it Keeps: Emily Barton

Emily Barton is Assistant Commissioner for Curriculum and Instruction at the Tennessee Department of Education, and she may be leading, alongside State Chief Keivn Huffman, the most intensive and impressive state-level Common Core implementation plan in the nation. As you’ll read below, the thoughtfulness and scope of this undertaking are remarkable.

As is Emily.

A former classroom teacher and executive with Teach for America, she has accomplished one big professional thing after another with humility and grace. And she’s done it all so early in her career that she’d provoke crazy envy were she not so darned nice.

Her colleagues speak glowingly of her, not just because she’s talented and friendly. Emily is so genuinely committed to the cause of improving educational outcomes for disadvantaged kids that she’s passionate, energetic, creative, and doggedly determined. Even if you fall on the opposite side of an issue, you can’t help but disagree agreeably with Emily—you know she’s honestly fighting firmly for her vision of the best interests of boys and girls.

If I were starting an organization, struggling with a knotty challenge, or besieged in a trench, I’d want Emily Barton around. Education reform is stronger because it keeps her company.

Ladies and gentlemen, Emily Barton.

Can you describe what Common Core implementation in Tennessee looks like?

Sure – and I promise this will be the longest of my answers.

I have three images. Image one: teachers sitting together in their school, scoring student work on rigorous, no-stakes assessments. We have introduced two years of constructed response math and writing assessments to prepare students and teachers for PARCC. We want students to have a chance to get used to the rigor and format (the writing assessment is online.) We have also found teachers learn more about the expectations of the standards from the assessments than the standards alone. This has helped us all understand what we must prepare students to do.

Image two: Principals, assistant principals and instructional supervisors, in a hotel conference room in their region, taking Common Core 101 from exemplary principals who we call “leadership coaches”. We have focused significant energy and attention on preparing school and district leaders – with the belief that instructional shifts must be a school-wide undertaking. Leaders have been just as hungry as teachers to understand how to set up students for success and loved working together to support the change.

Image three: 30,000 teachers walking into schools with coffee in hand during their summer vacations to make sure they are ready to set up students for success. We trained between 1/3 and 1/2 of the teachers in Tennessee this summer. Great teachers led the training. These “Core coaches” were competitively selected and deeply trained across the spring. The training took place across 41 sites and 5 weeks. It ranged from 2 to 4 days and participants attended courses designed specifically for their grades and content areas. The proof of impact will be in classrooms this year but our participants reported feeling much more prepared to support students through the transition.

My understanding is that you had no Tennessee ties when you took the job with the state’s department of education. Why’d you go work for an SEA, and what have you liked most about the Volunteer State?

I have loved living in Tennessee, and the reason is simple: great people. I chose to work for an SEA because I wanted to be part of work that makes a difference for students. I think SEAs have real potential to help large numbers of students find success and options in life. Tennessee has a proud legacy of signing up for hard work – it is the Volunteer State. There is an unrivaled, bipartisan coalition dedicated to improving public education. In every corner of the state I have met educators who knock my socks off with their belief in students’ potential and commitment to community and family. It has been a personal and professional privilege to work and live here.

What were the most important lessons you learned by working as a classroom teacher?

It is hard to capture such a transformational experience in sound bites. I learned how to love students by challenging them. I learned how to do 15 things at the same time. I learned what it is to feel pain when I saw students struggle. I learned how unfair our country can be through the eyes of students growing up in poverty. I learned that we have so much reason for hope. I learned that many students act out when they are bored or scared of being embarrassed. I learned that we are all capable of more than we imagine.

Most reformers love Teach for America, your former employer. But if you had to be a critical friend, what tough feedback would you give that organization?

I am proud to have entered this profession through Teach for America and I learned a great deal from my time on staff. Above all, I learned about continuous improvement from Teach For America – it is an organization that looks at problems head on and is serious about getting better. I have long hoped TFA would do more to teach corps members how to teach their specific content areas, as opposed to general teaching practices. I understand they are doing a great deal to experiment with ways to do this and applaud that move.

You’ve held a number of quite important positions at early ages, as have many TFA alumni. If I can ask you to temporarily suspend your natural modesty, could you please reflect on this—it would benefit some of our younger readers. For example, what traits or skills give organizations confidence a young person can do a stretch job? What are the downsides to taking a job before you’re totally ready?

I’ve been lucky to work for some amazing bosses and board chairs. They have given me a chance to do big work and, at any age, that kind of support is a real gift. They have displayed their confidence in me by asking the tough questions and challenging me to think about how we can do work better – not by getting out of the way. That is what I look for in a manager and in advisors. I know there are no easy answers and very high stakes in education reform. To make sure we are making good decisions, I have created a Common Core Leadership Council of 25 thoughtful school and district leaders that have been invaluable as we navigate difficult choices. In any job at any age, I would hope to be able to lean on the wisdom of other perspectives and experience.

Outside of education, what books or big ideas have most influenced you?

The Civil Rights Movement has done a great deal to shape my thinking. I found Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point changed my perspective pretty radically. I read Good to Great as a new manager, and I think about his examples and phrases weekly.

My book begins, “the traditional urban district is broken, can’t be fixed, and must be replaced.” You’ve spent your career working on human-capital issues. Do you think the right people can make an urban district successful, or is there something fundamentally wrong with that organizational structure?

I think there is little that can’t be done by a group of committed, thoughtful leaders. Big districts face intense challenges but, yes, I think it is possible to make significant change over time at any scale. I am all about whatever gets students ready for the challenges they will face in life. It will be very interesting to see how different governance structures play out in long-term results, and I hope we will all learn lessons from the examples of success.

You’re a marathoner. When it comes to those long training runs, are you in the “this is my quiet, solitary thinking time” camp, or the “I need to listen to music” camp? If the former, where does your mind typically wander and then linger? If the latter, what are you listening to?

I used to be a marathoner but I found I didn’t have time for all the long runs! These days I’ve shifted to the much more efficient Crossfit. The workouts are so hard, I can’t think of anything but surviving! My trainers design workouts I would NEVER choose to do on my own and somehow I get through them. So even at the gym, I can’t escape thinking about how we are capable or more than we ever imagine for ourselves.

I’m told you once took surfing lessons? Did you get to the Zen point surfers talk about (the solitude, the water, the floating-on-air feeling…) or did you just never make it out of the continuous face-plant stage?

The Balinese believe the ocean represents our emotions and they teach their youth to learn to ride the waves. I don’t know if I achieved that in my ten days there but I had a blast! My center of gravity is a little high for surfing but I like to think that I made up for that with determination. I got up but it wasn’t pretty.

Lastly—and you might not know this—there’s another prominent Emily Barton—a novelist and critic who teaches at Yale, is married to a short-story writer, and lives in a small historic city in New York. Could you imagine a parallel universe in which that would’ve been your life, or were you unalterably destined to work in education?

I have corresponded with this other Emily Barton! In fact, she now has my former email alias from Yale and gets occasional emails intended for me. I like to think they make her wonder about working in K–12 education. As much as I enjoyed her books, I know my calling is this work.

—Andy Smarick

This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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